Brief history of the Guarani language

By Manuel F. Fernández, 2002
Translated by Renaud and Margaret Olgiati

    The pre-Columbian era
    The Europeans arrive
    The begining of writing
    The Guarani and the Independence

The pre-Columbian era

According to recognized research, around the year 3000 B.C. three main ethnic groups populated South America: the Andeans to the west, the Arawaks to the north, and a third group, possibly more numerous than the others, known as Tupi-Guarani, which covered a huge territory. Apparently by this time the Tupi-Guaranis had come migrating slowly South from Central America, towards the centre of South America, where they had become established for a long time, developing a set of very well structured tongues, known today as the Tupi-Guarani linguistic trunk.

    It seems that a new expansionist migratory movement began before the beginning of the Christian Era, and caused a split in this group we are interested in. On the one hand, the Tupis went eastward, as far as the Atlantic coast, and to the north, following the Amazon river and its tributaries, and developed the Tupi tongue. On the other hand, the group of the Guaranis moved to the West and South west, occupying the basin of the River Plate (generic term for the Parana, Paraguay and Uruguay Rivers), speaking Avañe'ê.

    Today nobody doubts that the languages of the Tupi-Guaranis share the the same linguistic base, but the geographical distance between the various ethnic groups caused this primeval language to adopt diverse zonal and dialectic peculiarities. As a result, a hundred tongues of remarkable similarity between them sprung up, which together form the great Tupi-Guarani linguistic family.

    The semi-nomadic character of the Tupi-Guaranis' culture kept them from leaving us any imposing material remains like those of other Amerindian cultures (like the palaces, temples, statues, etc., of the Incas or the Aztecs, for example). But the most valuable cultural legacy that we still have from them is a true treasure: the language, although with no writing.

    For several reasons, among which the atrocious persecution by the Portuguese governors stand out, the Tupi tongues entered into a gradual decadence in the lands which today form the South and East of Brazil, until they disappeared (except for a branch, ñe'êngatu in the Amazonia). On the contrary, the Guarani tongue acquired a remarkable strength in a zone that covers today's Paraguay and adjacent zones of the neighbouring countries: the north-east of Argentina, the south of Bolivia and the south-east of Brazil.

    The Guarani economy was based on hunting, fishing, and agriculture. The social administration and distribution of the goods produced in each village was in the charge of a patriarchal authority, the Cacique, under the overseeing of an Elders' Council. It is known that they practiced Democracy, since the Caciques were chosen, and in necessary cases, could also be dismissed. In order to promote their candidacy, the aspirants to Cacique competed in oratory jousts, each trying to outdo the others to ingratiate himself with the voters.

    In religious matters, it is known that the Guaranis assumed the existence of yvy marâne'ÿ (land without evil), that apparently meant the way to immortality. The peculiar thing is that we do not speak here of an immortal soul, or of life after death, but of an immortal life on Earth. Some mention this as one of the reasons for their migrations: the search for the Land without Evil.

    Travelling through so wide a territory allowed the Guaranis to learn in depth the flora of the region, studying it on their way and taking advantage of the medicinal properties of the plants. But, why so much insistence in the knowledge of the flora?... Perhaps it was the reason of the migrations?... Did they seek some plants that could give them immortality, or aguyje, the state of eternal perfection?.

    Whatever the motives that led them to study every plant they saw, this knowledge was later passed on to European botanists, and as a result the Guarani language occupies today the third place for the etymological origin of scientific names for plants, behind Greek and Latin.

    Given the lack of written or artistic works, the study of the the pre-Columbian Guarani culture is a difficult pursuit. And in order to hear their original oral traditions it was necessary to become one of them. Which is what Kurt Unkel (1883-1945) did, who was re-baptised with the name of Nimuendaju (Lodged by Himself) by the Guarani community called Apapokúva, in Brazil. Unkel brought to light the fruit of his research to his native Germany, and it later became available in South America. Its subject is a legend about the Creation and the Final Judgement.

    The best sample of pre-Columbian Guarani poetry we have today has been compiled by León Cadogan (1899-1973) who heard it after he was adopted with the name of Tupâ Kuchuvi Veve (God's Tornado) by the Mbya Guarani ethnic group. This poem is the Ayvu Rapyta (Essentials of the Word), a collection of religious and ethical texts which had been transmitted in oral form since remote times, in group sessions dedicated to reflection and the diffusion of knowledge.

    This poem, nowadays considered as an Encyclopaedia of the Guarani life, is made up of 19 chapters, acording to the division made by Cadogan. The first four are about the Genesis, the origin of the Supreme Divinity, the First Earth, the Men, and the Human Language. The four following chapters are about the Paternity, the Second Earth, and the origin of the Sun and the Moon. The ninth talks of Good Science against the curses, the tenth about Medicine and Passions (yes, sexual attraction was a branch of science for them), and the others treat of discerning between good and evil, with advices and norms of conduct.

    Apparently, the Guarani people (or at least, the mbya) gave to this poetic narration the same importance as the Christians give to the Bible. As curiosities, let's mention the importance which is given to the spoken language (as if it was somewhat divine), the existence of seven paradises, and the fact that animals and plants also have souls.

    Such was the importance the Guaranis assigned to the oral tradition that there is no vestige left showing us any attempt at transmitting the knowledge by any other mean. The Guarani was always an exclusively oral tongue, of great geographical expansion. The historians agree in saying that since the beginning of the Christian Era, the languages of the Tupi-Guarani group fulfilled the same role in South America as the Latin did in Europe: even the Incas, and other peoples who proceeded from other linguistic trunks, understood it.

    Even today, in the 21th century, it would not be crazy to think an actual Paraguayan who speaks avañe'ê (Guarani) can communicate orally in a practical way, helped perhaps with few facial or manual gestures, with a native of the Amazonia who speaks ñe'êngatu (a Tupi dialect), although the writing modes of those two languages are at present very different. This is so, of course, because both languages stem from the same root.

The Europeans arrive

The invasion of South America by the Europeans had a cataclysmic effect on the indigenous culture. Suddenly, the millenarian Tupi-Guarani civilization had to face the "discovery" and the later "conquest" to which it was subjected, not to mention the greed of those who believed they owned the world. Given their geographic location, the Tupis found themselves under the authority of the Portuguese, and the Guaranis submitted to the Spaniards.

    The first Spanish conquerors entered by way of the River Plate, looking for a way to reach the wealth of Potosi, that belonged to the Inca empire, now in Peru. Along the way, Pedro de Mendoza founded the "Port of Our Lady of the Good Air" (Buenos Aires) in 1536, and the following year, Juan de Salazar founded the fort of "Our Lady Saint Mary of the Assumption" (Asunción).

    The aborigines of Asunción, called Carios, proved to be much less hostile than those of Buenos Aires which is why the men initially concentrated in Asunción. The Spaniards heard the Carios often mentioning the word "guarani" (really was guarini, which means war), and this is why they used the term to denote the race.

    In addition to being hospitable, the Guaranis also knew the region well, and spoke the universal local language, the lingua franca of the zone. The Spanish conquerors wanted to get the locals' help to make their way to the treasures of Peru. So the very first thing they needed was to communicate with them. To this end they would have to teach Spanish to these "Barbarians"... or would they be ready to learn this strange language?.

    As proof of their friendship, the Guaranis offered their daughters in marriage to the Spaniards and each of them, who had initially come from Spain without women, took several wives. Thus the mestizos were born, products of a mixed lineage. Every one of these mestizos learned Guarani from his mother and Spanish from his father. In this way, the Guarani tongue began gaining importance, to the despair of the conquerors, and the Guarani people became more and more sedentary as the visitors stimulated agriculture, their main economic activity.

    The Guarani tongue won another battle when the Spaniards tried to install their religion, as it went on being the majority tongue although many Guarani natives already spoke Spanish. The Roman Catholic Church was brought from Europe as another tool to conquer, or to "civilize" the natives of these lands, first by the Franciscans, and then by the Jesuits later.

    The "Giant Province of the Indies", centred on Asunción, depended of the Virreinato (Vice kingdom) of Peru, but being self-sufficient, it began to isolate itself from the Spanish authorities, and therefore to have problems with them. In reply, the province was split in two and another administrative centre was established in Buenos Aires in 1617, which took away from Asunción its influence over a great part of the land, once the two provinces had been established: the province of Guairá (or Paraguay), with centred on Asunción, and the Province of the Río de la Plata (later Argentina), centred on Buenos Aires.

    The Vice kingdom of the Rio de la Plata was created later (1776). The Province of Rio de la Plata became the leading one, after the Virrey (Viceroy) was established in Buenos Aires. This Vice Kingdom governed the provinces of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata. Paraguay then stopped being dependent on the Vice kingdom of Peru, and was now depending on the new Vice kingdom instead.

    Fortunately, some Spaniards did not take part in the destruction of the autochtonous culture of the Guaranis. Others tried to learn it, and at the same time, to teach it. And part of the knowledge they passed on would cause their work to stand forever: writing.

The beginning of writing

The mestizo grew up using mainly Guarani, since it was his mother's and of most of his family's spoken language, and would only use Spanish only in official contacts with his Spanish superiors.

    In 1583 the Council of Lima had already sanctioned the translation into Guarani of the Breve Catecismo para rudos y ocupados (Short Catechism for Coarse and Busy People), which task fell to the Franciscan Fray Luis de Bolaños (1539-1629) in the following years, but is was not put in use until 1603, when it was officially used for teaching. The ordinances of Asunción in 1598, by Hernando Arias de Saavedra, were already translated into the Guarani (in that same year, or perhaps the following), in order to reach a wider popular audience. This is the first known use of Guarani in the written form. Although these facts alone may not be enough to establish that Guarani already had a written form by then, at least the road was now marked. And Bolaños continued travelling along it, which is how it became recognized that he gave Guarani its first written form. His grammatical annotations were short, but important for future use.

    The Guarani language, once exclusively oral, was now being transcribed with help from the Spaniards, though of course in a very inefficient way since they tried to represent sounds of the Guarani which did not exists in the Spanish alphabet; this led to many variations in transcription. Philologists came among the Franciscans, and later, especially among the Jesuits, who started shaping the writing of the Guarani language, studying its morphology and syntax, which elements of a language are so much more interesting than the manner in which it is transcribed.

    In 1605, with the arrival of the Compañía de Jesús the "Jesuitical Province of Paraguay" was created. The Jesuits, whose mission was to spread the Faith, were mainly members of the aristocracy, with high levels of instruction, who had achieved notable success in Europe teaching, mainly the sciences. The Jesuits succeeded in various domains with the Guaranis, and their work in linguistics is probably the best help they could have given to this people.

    Fortunately, the Jesuits, unlike the Franciscans, would not tolerate the bad treatment meted out the aborigines. They objected to the condition of semi-slavery to which they were submitted by the laws of the Encomienda, and they had the ordinances changed to order a more human treatment: it was the institution of the Reductions, where the natives worked in a communitarian way, instructed by the Jesuits.

    The Jesuit Antonio Ruiz de Montoya (1584-1651) fell in love with the Guarani tongue, and dedicated the rest of his life to its in-depth study, following the road that Bolaños had marked. Montoya's interest in studying Guarani, rather than teaching other knowledge, is of enormous value since he worked with some Guarani ethnic groups at a time when their tongue had not yet become adulterated with the impurities they would later acquire from the Spanish language.

    Three books compose the printed works of Montoya regarding the Guarani language: Tesoro de la lengua guaraní (a Guarani - Spanish dictionary), Arte y vocabulario de la lengua guaraní (a grammatical compendium and Spanish - Guarani dictionary), and Catecismo de la lengua guaraní (a Catechism). The first two have been essential works of reference to those who wanted to start studying this language, and remain so even now, 360 years later.

    It is very likely that Montoya had known the works of another Jesuit, José de Anchieta (1534-1597), a book of grammar and a dictionary of the Tupi tongue, published many years earlier, but this does not reduce his merit. Even until today one can consult Anchieta to resolve doubts about etymology, or perhaps to dust up some archaic word instead of creating some hateful neologism.

    The Jesuitical missions, with their 30 villages, covered what is today the south of Paraguay and Brazil, the north-east of Argentine, and the north of Uruguay. They constructed the first printing presses of the River Plate, which were working at Santa María la Mayor, San Javier, and Loreto, where they printed religious books in Guarani with illustrations by indigenous artists, and where even some aborigines were editing their own books... in Guarani, of course.

    In 1750, after the signing of the Tratado de Permuta (Agreement of Exchange, pertaining to the frontier between the Spanish and Portuguese territories), seven villages on the left bank of the Uruguay River (San Nicolás, San Luis, San Lorenzo, San Juan, San Ángel, San Miguel and San Borja) became a part of the Portuguese domain. The Guarani people of these towns, who refused to belong to the Portuguese, fought the so-called Guerra Guaranítica (Guarani War, 1756), in which they were defeated. Later, Spain recovered these villages with the Treaty of San Ildefonso.

    The Jesuits did great work for 160 years, unifying various dialects into a single general language. The education in arts and sciences for the Guaranis was done in Guarani, using Latin and Spanish only for other subjects.

    But the Spanish Crown, its economic interests threatened by the levels of education attained by the natives, did not take well to the diffusion of knowledge by the Jesuits, nor to their promotion of resistance by the Guarani peoples. These were the grounds on which the expulsion of the Jesuits was based. Today we would claim that this expulsion was very unjust, we still have the Ruins of their magnificent buildings to remind us of their work.

    Although the departure of the Jesuits cast the Guarani into the shadow, after they had almost been dazzled by their own brilliance, there was no way to go back. The Guaranis "knew the fish", and also they "learnt how to fish". Guarani was no longer a merely oral language.

The Guarani and the Independence

After the departure of the Jesuits, most of the aborigines who had been integrated into the missions continued with the communitarian and autonomous work methods that they had developed, and became progressively integrated into the society of the Province of Paraguay. Other aborigines returned to the forests when their tutors left them. A few decades later and the smell of Liberty was in the air.

    One of the great leaders of independent Paraguay was Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, known as "The Supreme One". Theologian and lawyer, this man commended respect for his capacities, justice and uprightness. Dr. Francia led to Paraguay to a self-sufficient economy, supporting the peasants and the poor. He abolished the Encomienda and other regulations that oppressed the aborigines, established free school education, equality between men and women, though this educational homogeneity was not fully practised.

    Nevertheless, in the matter that concerns us here, it seems that Francia did not fully apply his talent, since he compelled a population for the most part Guarani-speaking, to enter into an education system developed exclusively in Spanish. This drove the Guarani back to its former condition of an oral language.

    The strange thing here is that Francia loved Guarani: when he was presented with the text of what would be the first Paraguayan National Anthem, he rejected it "because it was written in Spanish, the language of chapetones"[1], and later he approved Tetã Purahéi (The Song of the Country), written by Anastacio Rolón, native of Caraguatay, not permitting any official translation. This one was known as "Dr. Francia's Anthem", and the version we know today in Spanish was only created after his death.

    Rodríguez of Francia's death left Paraguay a sovereign and immensely rich country, but completely isolated. His successor, Carlos Antonio López, changed these politics for the sake of modernization. He hired hundreds of engineers and technical personnel from Europe, and sent Paraguayans (only tyhe males) to be instructed there; the result was large-scale industrialization, financed with internal resources. This went together with a cultural revolution without precedent, though for the most part masculine.

    But López definitively was not a lover of Guarani. Teaching, and education in general, was given only in Spanish. All the books, newspapers and magazines, likewise, had to be printed only in Spanish. He even went as far as passing a law ordering all the Guarani names and surnames of the population should be replaced by others of Spanish origin. It was the death of the identity of the Guarani clans.

    Even though subdued, the internal forces of the autochtonous tongue did not subside. Paraguayan women, who were those least affected by the compulsory educational system, continued teaching their children in Guarani. Luckily, the law could not reach inside homes and paradoxically patriotism was forged there, to the tune of the sweet maternal lullaby in Guarani.

    Francisco Solano López, son of the previous President and raised to the rank of Field Marshall, was the next President of Paraguay. This gentleman, who studied in Europe, recognized the Guarani language as a national treasure, and he used it in all his speeches. During his presidency, Paraguay had to live through a bloody war, called "War of the Triple Alliance" (1865-1870), against a coalition formed by Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

    During this war the Guarani language acquired preponderant relevancy. It was used profusely by the press and in military communications. The government of Mcal. López, unlike its predecessor, encouraged bilingual publications, and thus new newspapers appeared that took pleasure in exalting the Guarani soul, publishing poetry which tried to encourage the Paraguayan people while it was bleeding in torrents. Guarani was implanted as a factor of union and consolation.

    The lack of uniformity in the spelling, especially when using the telegraph where speed was important, caused Mcal. López to convene a meeting of the elite in 1867 at Paso Pucu. A Congress of Linguistics was hastily convened to establish the rules for transcription using a unified alphabet which was immediately put into use in that Guarini Guasu (Great War). Most notable among this group were Juan Crisóstomo Centurión and Luis Camino.

    From a population of about 1,300,000 at the beginning of that war, Paraguay was reduced at its end to about 200,000, and of those only 10 % were males, almost all of them old men and children who could not go to the battle front. Paraguay also it lost a great part of its territory which was annexed to Argentina and Brazil, and where Guarani is still spoken today. This is how Paraguay went from great wealth to extreme poverty.

    Once the war was over, and under the economic control of the foreigners (Argentinians, Brazilians and English) who introduced their financial power into Paraguayan territory to destroy its natural resources and to use its cheap female manpower, the Guarani found itself persecuted again, for not being the language of the new owners. The Argentinian Domingo F. Sarmiento was given the job of checking school programs, so that "the wild tongue" would remain out of it, and Paraguay could join "civilization" again.

    As could be expected, the population did not follow this small ruling elite, which was selling his country and trampling on his language. As Guarani was the only resource that had not been destroyed by the war, it continued zig-zaging between the continuous attacks aimed at it: the adjective "guarango" meant "savage who speaks Guarani". As result, Guarani speakers in general detested this foreign schooling and once again Guarani recaptured the tenacious orality of which it was always proud.

    At the beginning of the 20th century some publications appeared timidly carrying the Guarani thought, mainly in the form of poems and popular songs, and then theatrical works by Julio Correa, a great interpreter of rural thought. A large gang of popular authors came out to the light, many of them using a very pure Guarani, barely spiced with a few necessary hispanicisms, whereas others have used the expressiveness of the Guarani with whole phrases in Spanish, speech known as "yopará"[2] (from jopara, which means mixture).

    In this way the yopará began establishing itself very strongly in written matter, unfortunately with popular additions to the despair of the Guaranian linguists and of those who adored the genuine autochtonous tongue. This ugly way of speaking, spread by city dwellers who presumed to speak Guarani, has been transmitted since then by the mass media, to the detriment the native beauty of the language.

    In 1932 Paraguay was involved in another war, this time against Bolivia, before it had recovered from the previous one. Known as the "War of the Chaco", this war was caused by an American petroleum company based in Bolivia, who wanted to keep another German one from exploring Paraguayan territory in search of oil. With its support, the Bolivians invaded the Paraguayan Chaco.

    The Paraguayans, seeing themselves sacrificed to completely foreign interests, took shelter in the Guarani tongue again, and another poetical heyday came to light, where the principal topic was patriotism and the defence of the motherland: the songs are those regrouped in the Chakore purahéi (songs about the Chaco).

    It is said that on certain occasion the Bolivian army went to an aborigine, also Bolivian, asking him to interpret Paraguayan messages intercepted by radio. This man, having recognized the tongue as his own, suffered a nervous attack (real or simulated), of such a magnitude that he could not translate anything. Such was the union and loyalty that Guarani was producing among its speakers.

    The war again used Guarani to confuse the enemy, and when it ended, with 50,000 Paraguayan and 80,000 Bolivians dead, Paraguay did not recover all its original territory but remained with a poetical anthology full of historiy and hope. And, once again, the Paraguayan Government continued ignoring it in the schools and universities for several decades more.

    In the middle of the last century, a Spanish priest, Antonio Guasch, a great follower of Anchieta and Montoya, published his own investigations about Guarani. His work consists of a complete grammar, El Idioma Guarani, to which he soon added an anthology in prose and verse; and Diccionario castellano-guaraní y guaraní castellano. Guasch contributed several ideas to the grammatical nomenclature, which were officially adopted some time later.

    Also around that time, Anselmo Jover Peralta put in order the Guarani vocabulary and the notes on Guarani grammar left for Tomás Osuna at his death, enriched them, added some appendices, and published the Diccionario guaraní-español y español-guaraní. In the preface of this work, Peralta complained about the sad fate of Guarani at this time.

    At last, the National Constitution of Paraguay in 1967 recognizes the existence of Guarani, but the official language remained Spanish. Even so, an official diffusion of the language began slowly. Years later some institutes started teaching it with the support of the Ministry of Education, but it remained in secondary education as a complementary subject, and –just as today– the politicians of the day were using the jopara all over in their proselytizing campaigns.

    In 1989 Paraguay came emerged from a long dictatorship, and the new National Constitution (1992) recognized the Guarani language as an official language of the country, at the same level as Spanish. Immediately its compulsory use began in school basic education, and then at secondary level, with a bilingual education. Guarani has been vindicated.

    There has been a lot of criticism about the way in which the educational authorities of Paraguay are handling the teaching of this language today. This, principally in the matter of the extension of the vocabulary: there are those who detest the creation of neologisms "in laboratories", and others who do not see with good eyes the increasing influx of hispanicisms from the popular Guarani, the jopara, which uses non-existent letters in the Guarani alphabet, and mainly commit an outrage against the syllabic structure of the original Guarani language.

[1] Chapetón,a: Contemptuous term designing the newly arrived European. Plural form: "chapetones".

[2] Yopará: This is the Spanisized form of the word. Though in Guarani Jopara originally means "mixture, miscellany", today it is most used to name a "dialect", some people think in a "third language": Guarani and Spanish mixed, using the Guarani syntax.

Sources: [VBS1], [MeB2], [RAR1], [P-O1], [Red04], [Red05] - 2003

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