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Native American languages

Languages of South America and the West Indies

More than 100 distinct linguistic stocks have been proposed for South America, and more than 1,000 separate languages have been discovered on that continent and in the West Indies. The latter had two aboriginal stocks, Arawakan and Cariban, which are also found in South America. When more is known about the indigenous South American languages, some of the stocks may turn out to be sufficiently closely related so as to allow linguists to group them together and thus reduce the number of basic stocks. The principal linguistic groups of South America and the West Indies are usually said to be eight: Chibchan, Cariban, Gê, Quechua, Aymara, Araucanian, Arawakan, and Tupí-Guaraní.

Before the European conquest, Chibchan flourished in the areas now designated as Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. It belongs to the larger Macro-Chibchan stock. Some Chibchan languages still survive in Colombia and Central America. Cariban and Gê are families of the greater Gê-Pano-Carib linguistic stock. In the aboriginal period the Cariban languages were important in the West Indies, Brazil, Peru, the Guianas, Venezuela, and Colombia. Today a number of them are still found in N South America and in some of the West Indian islands. Gê languages were spoken in E Brazil in preconquest times. About 50 of them are still in use in that country. Quechua (also called Kechua or Quichua), Aymara, and Araucanian are linguistic families assigned to the Andean branch of the larger Andean-Equatorial stock. Aymara today consists of 14 languages native to about 2 million people in Peru and parts of Bolivia, where those languages were also spoken in preconquest times. A number of languages, the most important of which is Mapuche, make up the Araucanian family, which thrives in Chile and Argentina.

The Arawakan and Tupí-Guaraní families belong to the Equatorial branch of the Andean-Equatorial languages. Arawakan is considered the most extensive South American linguistic stock. In the aboriginal period (before 1500), Arawakan tongues were spoken in the West Indies and S Brazil and along the eastern side of the Andes. Some Arawakan languages have died out, particularly in the West Indies, but others still survive there and in South America, especially in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, the Guianas, Peru, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The Tupí-Guaraní family of languages is next to the Arawakan in geographical extent. The Tupian subdivision reaches from the coast of E Brazil along the Amazon River to the Andes. The Guaranian subdivision is found in Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. Some 120 Tupí-Guaraní languages have survived. The two dominant members of this large family are Tupí and Guaraní. Tupí serves as a lingua franca for the indigenous population in Brazil. Guaraní is co-official with Spanish in Paraguay, and it is spoken by close to 4 million people in Paraguay and Brazil. The linguistic diversity of South America is great. There are many other families and hundreds of additional languages that have yet to be researched and definitely classified.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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