Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again in Amazon

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Aug 28 14:51:20 UTC 2005

August 28, 2005
Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again in Amazon

SAO GABRIEL DA CACHOEIRA, Brazil, Aug. 23 - When the Portuguese arrived in
Brazil five centuries ago, they encountered a fundamental problem: the
indigenous peoples they conquered spoke more than 700 languages. Rising to
the challenge, the Jesuit priests accompanying them concocted a mixture of
Indian, Portuguese and African words they called "lingua geral," or the
"general language," and imposed it on their colonial subjects.

Elsewhere in Brazil, lingua geral as a living, spoken tongue died off long
ago. But in this remote and neglected corner of the Amazon where Brazil,
Colombia and Venezuela meet, the language has not only managed to survive,
it has made a remarkable comeback in recent years.

"Linguists talk of moribund languages that are going to die, but this is
one that is being revitalized by new blood," said Jose Ribamar Bessa
Freire, author of "River of Babel: A Linguistic History of the Amazon" and
a native of the region. "Though it was originally brought to the Amazon to
make the colonial process viable, tribes that have lost their own mother
tongue are now taking refuge in lingua geral and making it an element of
their identity," he said.

Two years ago, in fact, Nheengatu, as the 30,000 or so speakers of lingua
geral call their language, reached a milestone. By vote of the local
council, Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira became the only municipality in Brazil
to recognize a language other than Portuguese as official, conferring that
status on lingua geral and two local Indian tongues.

As a result, Nheengatu, which is pronounced neen-gah-TOO and means "good
talk," is now a language that is permitted to be taught in local schools,
spoken in courts and used in government documents. People who can speak
lingua geral have seen their value on the job market rise and are now
being hired as interpreters, teachers and public health aides.

In its colonial heyday, lingua geral was spoken not just throughout the
Amazon but as far south as the Paran River basin, more than 2,000 miles
from here. The priests played by Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro in the
movie "The Mission," for example, would have communicated with their
Indian parishioners in a version of the language.

But in the mid-18th century, the Portuguese government ordered the Jesuits
out of Brazil, and the language began its long decline. It lingered in the
Amazon after Brazil achieved independence in 1822, but was weakened by
decades of migration of peasants from northeast Brazil to work on rubber
and jute plantations and other commercial enterprises.

The survival of Nheengatu here has been aided by the profusion of tongues
in the region, which complicates communication among tribes; it is a
long-held custom of some tribes to require members to marry outside their
own language group. By the count of linguists, 23 languages, belonging to
six families, are spoken here in the Upper Rio Negro.

"This is the most plurilingual region in all of the Americas," said Gilvan
Muller de Oliveira, director of the Institute for the Investigation and
Development of Linguistic Policy, a private, nonprofit group that has an
office here. "Not even Oaxaca in Mexico can offer such diversity."

But the persistence and evolution of Nheengatu is marked by contradictions.
For one thing, none of the indigenous groups that account for more than 90
percent of the local population belong to the Tupi group that supplied
lingua geral with most of its original vocabulary and grammar.

"Nheengatu came to us as the language of the conqueror," explained Renato
da Silva Matos, a leader of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of
the Rio Negro. "It made the original languages die out" because priests
and government officials punished those who spoke any language other than
Portuguese or Nheengatu.

But in modern times, the language acquired a very different significance.
As the dominion of Portuguese advanced and those who originally imposed
the language instead sought its extinction, Nheengatu became "a mechanism
of ethnic, cultural and linguistic resistance," said Persida Miki, a
professor of education at the Federal University of Amazonas.

Even young speakers of lingua geral can recall efforts in their childhood
to wipe out the language. Until the late 1980's, Indian parents who wanted
an education for their children often sent them away to boarding schools
run by the Salesian order of priests and nuns, who were particularly harsh
with pupils who showed signs of clinging to their native tongue.

"Our parents were allowed to visit us once a month, and if we didn't speak
to them in Portuguese, we'd be punished by being denied lunch or sent to
sit in a corner," said Edilson Kadawawari Martins, 36, a Baniwa Indian
leader who spent eight years as a boarder. "In the classroom it was the
same thing: if you spoke Nheengatu, they would hit your palms with a
brazilwood paddle or order you to get on your knees and face the class for
15 minutes."

Celina Menezes da Cruz, a 48-year-old Bar Indian, has similar memories.
But for the past two years, she has been teaching Nheengatu to pupils from
half a dozen tribes at the Dom Miguel Alagna elementary school here. "I
feel good doing this, especially when I think of what I had to go through
when I was the age of my students," she said. "It is important not to let
the language of our fathers die." To help relieve a shortage of qualified
lingua geral teachers, a training course for 54 instructors began last
month. Unicef is providing money to discuss other ways to carry out the
law making the language official, and advocates hope to open an Indigenous
University here soon, with courses in Nheengatu.

And though lingua geral was created by Roman Catholic priests, modern
evangelical Protestant denominations have been quick to embrace it as a
means to propagate their faith. At a service at an Assembly of God church
here on a steamy Sunday night this month, indigenous people from half a
dozen tribes sang and prayed and preached in lingua geral as their pastor,
who spoke only Portuguese, looked on approvingly and called out
"Hallelujah!" But a few here have not been pleased to see the resurgence
of lingua geral.  After a local radio station began broadcasting programs
in the language, some officers in the local military garrison, responsible
for policing hundreds of miles of permeable frontier, objected on the
ground that Brazilian law forbade transmissions in "foreign" languages.

"The military, with their outdated notion of national security, have
tended to see lingua geral as a threat to national security," Mr. Muller
de Oliveira said. "Lingua geral may be a language in retreat, but the idea
that it somehow menaces the dominance of Portuguese and thus the unity of
the nation still persists and has respectability among some segments of
the armed forces."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list