Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again in Amazon
stan-sandy_anonby at sil.org
Fri Sep 2 06:05:47 UTC 2005
I really wish I could agree that Lingua Geral is thriving. But when I
visited Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira a couple of
years ago, I found the same old story. The younger people are switching to
Portuguese. The fact that it is now recognized by the government, and taught
in schools is probably a sign that it is weakening. Usually, when people get
concerned enough to ask for official recognition and government funding, it
is because the language has declined enough to alarm them.
----- Original Message -----
From: "Harold F. Schiffman" <haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>
To: "Language Policy-List" <lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>
Sent: Sunday, August 28, 2005 12:51 PM
Subject: Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again in Amazon
> August 28, 2005
> Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again in Amazon
> By LARRY ROHTER
> 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
> 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
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