06.04.2015 - UNESCO Office in Brasilia

Partnership with Museu do Indio produces grammars and documents 13 indigenous languages

Thirteen indigenous languages that are still spoken in Brazil but are threatened of extinction have been documented in audio and video for a project of the Museu do Índio (Indigenous Peoples Museum), which belongs to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). The project, which is in partnership with UNESCO, produced ten basic descriptive grammars of the 13 documented languages. It has built a database that may result into dictionaries. In addition, it has also begun the production of five grammar textbooks to be used in indigenous schools.

This action has been part of the Indigenous Languages and Culture Documentation Programme (Progdoc), which has involved 40 indigenous groups with a total population of about 35,000. The program began in 2008 and will be concluded this year. Its legacy is immense: more than 2000 hours of recording audio and video of native speakers, more than 70,000 digital photos and 32 books, with or without translation into Portuguese, in addition to grammar books.

The work was coordinated by linguists with the collaboration of indigenous people who have received training and the financial support to operate within their own communities. During the project, the researchers bumped exactly into the problem they were trying to avoid, which was the disappearance of native languages. In Mato Grosso, the only living speaker of the Apiaká language – one of the 13 languages that have been documented – died during the study, but it was after a video recording of him had been made.

Although the official and predominant language in Brazil is Portuguese, the country has between 150 and 170 native languages, most of them in the Amazon region. Some of the languages have around 20,000 speakers, such as Guarani, Tikuna, Terena, Macuxi and Kaingang. Others, however, are spoken by only five people or less, as was the case with Apiaká.

Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Bruna Franchetto, says that the average in Brazil is less than 200 speakers per language. Hence the need to document these languages, as their preservation expectations are not optimistic. After all, not even those native languages with a higher number of speakers are safe from extinction.

Bruna is the Coordinator of the Indigenous Language Documentation Project (Prodoclin) at Museu do Índio, the branch of Progdoc that is responsible for the linguistic side of the programme. She fears that by the end of the 21st century, no Brazilian native languages will continue to be used daily nor transmitted to the next generation.

"Every language is a heritage. When a language disappears, it takes with it a wealth of knowledge that can no longer be accessed", she says.

One of the published books by the project is called "Contos desano" (Desano Tales), which combines the stories and illustrations of the Desano people, inhabitants of the northwestern Amazon, in Brazil and Colombia.

In the introductory text in Portuguese, Bruna and the former scientific manager of Prodoclin, Mara Santos, quote the estimate made in 1992 by the linguist Michael Krauss that "90% of the world's languages would be on the brink of extinction in the 21st century unless preventive measures were taken". Bruna and Mara also quote Aryon Rodrigues, professor and specialist in indigenous languages, who has estimated that before the arrival of Europeans, more than 1,200 native languages had been spoken in daily life of the territory that is now Brazil.

"Living languages and recognized in full are not only repositories of complex ancient tradition and knowledge, they are also the means of transmission from one generation to the next and the basis of individual and collective self-esteem and affirmation of otherness", according to the text .

According to Bruna, indigenous languages were oral until the 20th century. Although there were pictographic recordings, none were grounded in alphabetical symbols, i.e. letters. It was only in the 1950s that native languages began to incorporate writing.

The director of Museu do Índio, José Carlos Levinho, highlights the quality of the material produced in partnership with UNESCO. According to him, the printing of the texts in indigenous languages has required intense collaboration between linguists, designers and editors in order to ensure faithful orthographic reproduction of the words.

Levinho also considers crucial the involvement of indigenous researchers in this production. For him, their participation has boosted the appreciation of native culture among the younger generations. Indigenous communities, like any other society, live with generational conflicts. And according to the director, this can result in a lack of interest in the language and culture of their ancestors amongst younger generations.

"Older generations used to pierce their earlobes or lips. The younger generations no longer do this because they know that their ancestors were stigmatized. Instead of denying the authority of their elders, the indigenous scholars had to elicit information for the project from them, which signalled that the valorisation of culture is something appreciated," says Levinho, who plans to extend the documentation of indigenous languages to more recently contacted indigenous groups.

Prodoclin has recorded the following languages (with their respective linguistic families in brackets): Apiaká (Tupi-Guarani); Desano (Tukano); Ikpeng (Karib); Kanoé (isolated); Karaja (Macro-Jê); Kawaiwete (Tupi-Guarani); Kisêdjê (Macro-Jê); Maxakali (Macro-Jê); Ninam (Yanomami); Paresi-Haliti (Arawak); Rikbaktsa (Macro-Jê); Shawãdawa (Pano); and Yawanawa (Pano).

Basic descriptive grammars, as well as lexicons (repertoires of the words in a language), were produced for ten of the languages. The three that still have no descriptive grammars and lexicons are Apiaká, Rikbaktsa and Shawãdawa.

Prodoclin is also preparing five grammar textbooks for the following languages: Ikpeng, Karaja, Kawaiwete, Paresi-Haliti and Wapichana. The Wapichana language, of the Arawak family, spoken by indigenous people of the same name living in Roraima, was not originally included in the project, but it was added later. The forecast is that these books will be ready by December, 2015.

  • Learn more about the catalogued indigenous languages in Brazil (in Portuguese)



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