[lg policy] Newfound Pride in Guaraní, a Language Long Disdained in Paraguay

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Jan 6 10:27:50 EST 2018

Newfound Pride in Guaraní, a Language Long Disdained in Paraguay

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Dancers waiting backstage to take part in a televised Christmas special
broadcast in the Guaraní language last month in Asunción, Paraguay. Credit
Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — When she was a student in Paraguay, teachers forced
her to kneel on jagged granules of salt and maize for entire mornings as
punishment for speaking her mother tongue, Guaraní, in the classroom.

“I had to do it in front of my friends so that they saw in black and white
what happens to people who speak the language,” said Porfiria Orrego
Invernizzi, now 67, and a language activist.

Other students were deprived of food and water for the day, forced to wear
diapers to class as a form of humiliation or simply beaten for speaking the
indigenous language. Treatment of this sort existed in Paraguayan schools
throughout much of the country’s history, up until the fall of the dictator
Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35-year rule ended in 1989.
Families from a Guaraní-speaking ethnic group camping outside the National
Congress in Asunción, the capital, to demand reparation after being evicted
from their land. Credit Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

“It was a question of open persecution,” said David Galeano Olivera, the
head of the Lyceum of Guaraní Language and Culture, which trains teachers
in the language.

Despite its widespread use — Paraguay is the only country in the Americas
where the majority of the population speaks a single indigenous language
— Guaraní has long been considered palatable for use on the streets and at
home, but unsuitable in the spheres of power.
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Yet today, officials and intellectuals in Paraguay are working to promote a
positive image of the language, in an effort to make good on the 1992
Constitution’s aim to put it on equal footing with Spanish.

It has been a slog. Centuries of subjugation made Guaraní a second-class
language in the minds of many Paraguayans.
Rolando Ruiz Diaz, a dental patient who prefers to communicate in Guaraní,
is being examined by Anthia Balbuena, seated, who speaks the language
fluently. Credit Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

Spanish is the dominant language in government ministries, the courts, the
news media, literature, schools and professions.

“There is a stigma, a prejudice, associated with Guaraní,” said Ladislaa
Alcaraz, the government’s Minister for Language Policy. “It is associated
with poverty, rurality, ignorance, with people who are illiterate.”

An effort to make public education bilingual, however, has met resistance
from a surprising group: Parents who were raised speaking Guaraní.

Many still hold negative stereotypes of their language, and have pushed
back against their children being taught in Guaraní, with its high-pitched,
nasal and guttural sounds. They say that an emphasis on Spanish, or a
foreign language, would make their children more competitive in the job
A graduation party in Asunción for future teachers of the Guaraní language.
Credit Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

“Parents say: ‘At home we speak Guaraní, so in the school they attend, I
want them to learn Spanish,’ ” said Nancy Benítez, a curriculum official at
the Ministry of Education. “They say: ‘Let other people’s kids learn it.
But not mine.’ ”

The government is hoping to change people’s perspective on the language by
encouraging its use in official circles.

The Ministry of Language Policy, established in 2011, has been tasked with
normalizing and promoting the use of Guaraní across the government,
including in the Legislature and the courts. Judicial officials are being
taught Guaraní, and Paraguayans now have the right to a trial in either
Spanish or Guaraní.

The ministry in 2017 set up units in every government department — where
less than 1 percent of written communication with the public is carried out
in the language — to train civil servants in Guaraní.
Members of the Sport Socho amateur soccer club drinking beer after a match
in Asunción. (“Socho” means “drunk” in Guaraní slang.) Credit Dado Galdieri
for The New York Times

“It’s a human rights issue,” Ms. Alcaraz said. “People who use Guaraní
deserve to be tended to in Guaraní.”

The effort to elevate the standing of Guaraní got a lift in 2014, when the
Parliament of Mercosur, the regional trading bloc, adopted it as an
official working language.

All this is the slowly unfurling result of a decision to make Paraguay
officially bilingual in its post-dictatorship Constitution, which gave
Guaraní and Spanish legal parity. The intent was to give a historically
marginalized segment of the population access to basic government services,
the justice system and medical care.

Speaking only Guaraní “is a significant factor driving inequality,” said R.
Andrew Nickson, an expert in Paraguayan development policy at the
University of Birmingham in Britain. When it comes to having a voice on
various issues, monolingual Guaraní speakers, or those who speak only a
little Spanish, “fear they will be made fun of, so prefer to keep their
heads down and mouths shut,” he added.
Maria Antonia Andrada, a Guaraní lanugage teacher, browsing in an archive
for documents written and classified in Guaraní in Asunción. Credit Dado
Galdieri for The New York Times

The majority of those who speak little or no Spanish live in the
countryside. One-third of Paraguayans tend to use only Guaraní at home. But
this figure doubles to nearly two-thirds if urban areas are excluded.

The push to improve the language’s image and expand its presence is having
a noticeable effect.

Today, a growing number of babies and businesses are being given Guaraní
names. Guaraní text can be seen on billboards and signs in Asunción, the
capital. Its music is no longer just confined to the folk genre; artists
are increasingly recording metal, rock and rap songs in Guaraní.

Online content in Guaraní is also steadily expanding. Vikipetâ, the Guaraní
version of Wikipedia, gets 220,000 monthly visitors.

“We are breaking out of the enclosure,” said Susy Delgado, who won the 2017
national literature prize for her work in the language. “Not as rapidly as
we would like, but we are breaking out.”
Friends at breakfast speaking in Yopará, a version of Guaraní heavily
influenced by Spanish and widely spoken by young people. Credit Dado
Galdieri for The New York Times

But efforts to bring Guaraní on an equal footing with Spanish are “swimming
against the tide,” said Shaw N. Gynan, a linguist at Western Washington
University, who has done extensive research on Guaraní.

“It is in danger,” he said. “And it’s nothing to do with state policy.”

Increasing urbanization, caused by large-scale farming that has pushed
people from the countryside, is shrinking the monolingual Guaraní base.

On top of this, the bilingual education program is underfunded and has
failed to reach many areas of rural Paraguay, where Guaraní speakers are
still schooled in Spanish, leading many to drop out.

Part of the problem is that the Guaraní taught in schools is a formal, and
somewhat anachronistic, version compared to the colloquial version spoken
on the street.
Graffiti of an indigenous man reading a book in downtown Asunción. Credit
Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

“There is something artificial in the Guaraní kids learn in school; it
isn’t the Guaraní used on the street,” Ms. Benitez said. “It isn’t the
language a referee uses in a football match. It isn’t the Guaraní that
you’re going to speak with a salesman.”

There is no standardized written form of Guaraní, and there is a fierce
debate about what the official version should look like.

The Guaraní Language Academy, established in 2012, is split between those
who favor a purer version of the language, replacing words adopted from
Spanish with old Guaraní words, and those who believe it should be the
heavily Spanish-influenced version, known as Yopará, that is spoken on the

For at least one group of Paraguayans, knowledge of the language has become
a key factor in their performance: politicians.
Girls dressed in folkloric costumes writing the name of their dance school,
Yasi (or moon), in Guaraní. Credit Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

In the recent past, not speaking Paraguay’s native language was no barrier
to those seeking to gain or stay in power. When he was dictator, Stroessner
never made a single address in Guaraní (although his wife spoke the
language and he rewarded rural Guaraní-speakers with land for their loyalty
to his regime).

But now, voters are encouraged to check if candidates speak the language,
and those who do not face mockery on social media. The most recent
politician to feel the repercussions was Santiago Peña, a close ally of
President Horacio Cartes.

In a result that surprised many, Mr. Peña failed to secure his party’s
nomination to contest the presidential elections in 2018, losing last month
in the primary of the ruling Colorado party
<http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/world/americas/14paraguay.html> to Mario
Abdo. One of the reasons for Mr. Peña’s downfall was an elitist image
painted by his opponents, aided in no small part by his inability to speak
Guaraní — something Mr. Abdo did not hesitate to point out during the

Under pressure from the electorate, Mr. Peña took a crash course in the
language, but it appeared to have done little to sway voters.

“It wasn’t like this before,” said Maria Gloria Pereira, a policy maker and
former head of curriculum at the Ministry of Education. “Politicians feel
this pressure, because they know now that those that don’t speak the
language of the people are far from the people.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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