The South American country of Paraguay has two official languages, Spanish and Guaraní. The country is home to about 6.7 million as of 2016. While it seems that Spanish is the dominant language in Paraguay, it is only spoken by 87% of the population, while more than 90% of Paraguayans speak Guaraní.
Around 52% of people living in the rural areas exclusively speak Guaraní. Surprisingly, many non-indigenous speakers of Guaraní language live in Paraguay. It is an uncommon occurrence in the Americas where oftentimes European languages dominate.
Former status of the language
Although the Guaraní language and culture are influential in Paraguayan society, the speakers of the language are always looked down upon. Some say that they are considered low-class and dumb. Many people recall their punishments from teachers when they spoke their own language in class. They said they were humiliated when they were told to kneel on maize and salt during their morning sessions.
Former students recalled being beaten in class, subjected to wearing diapers or not allowed to have water and food for the day. Treatments such as this regularly happened in school for several years. It only stopped when military dictator Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, who served as Paraguay’s president from 1954-1989, was ousted.
Not only the students who are native Guaraní speakers were punished. Families also underwent many hardships for speaking the Guaraní language. Many were evicted from their own properties.
According to David Galeano Olivera, speakers of the indigenous language were openly persecuted. Olivera heads the teacher training at the Lyceum of Guaraní Language and Culture.
Paraguay is distinct among the countries in South America because it is the only one where the indigenous language – Guaraní – is spoken by the majority of the country’s population. Even if the language enjoys widespread use, it is still considered as a second class language, one that is suited only for home and everyday use but not for institutions of power, such as the courts, government offices, schools, the media, professions and literature. In these spheres, Spanish is the preferred language.
Ministry of Language Policy
In Paraguay’s 1992 Constitution, it is stated that Guaraní and Spanish should be on equal footing. The Ministry of Language Policy was established in 2011. It is appointed to normalize and promote the use of the indigenous language across the courts, legislative offices and the government. Guaraní should be learned by judicial officials. Paraguayans are given the right to a trial in any of the two official languages of the country.
The Ministry is promoting a positive image of Guaraní, although in these early stages, the effort is being met with negativity. Due to the years of subjugation, speakers of the language believe that their mother tongue is second-class. Many still carry the stigma that speaking Guaraní means they are illiterate, ignorant, poor and from the rural areas.
Even parents who speak Guaraní do not want their children to learn it in school. They said that they already speak the language at home. They want their children to learn Spanish in school or any other foreign language, which they believe would be more beneficial to their children’s future.
Positive effects of the long struggle
It is going to be a steep uphill climb for the ministry. It would be difficult to change the perspective of the people on the indigenous language. However, they are doing things systematically in encouraging the use of Guaraní in government offices.
In 2017 units in every government department were set up so that written communication intended for the public would be in Guaraní. A Guaraní language training program is also provided for civil servants. The head of the language ministry said that if the people speak Guaraní, they should be served in their language.
But three years earlier, Guaraní’s status was lifted. The regional trading group, the Parliament of Mercosur officially used Guaraní as their working language.
The government is serious in its campaign to make the country bilingual by giving equal parity to its two official languages. The government intends to make the previously marginalized population the right to freely access medical care, the justice system and various government services.
Although the stigma is still there, speaking Guaraní now due to the coordinated efforts of the Ministry of Language Policy and the government has a positive effect on the language.
Businesses and newborn babies are given names in Guaraní. In the capital city of Asunción, the use of signs and billboards written in Guaraní texts is very noticeable. Even local artists are switching from folk genre and creating rap, metal and rock songs using Guaraní.
Visitors to the local version of Wikipedia, called Vikipetâ are increasing steadily. Many people are positive that the goal would be reached, even if they were taking baby steps right now.
Negative aspects of the program
Although there are encouraging signs that the status of Guaraní will be changed, certain aspects can also be seen that point out to some negatives.
The increase in urbanization in Paraguay due to large-scale farming causes the Guaraní living in the countryside to lose their home ground, which is the base of the monolingual people.
Many rural areas were not reached due to the underfunding of the bilingual education program. Schools in the rural areas attended by Guaraní speakers still use Spanish as their medium of instruction that lead to a number of students dropping out.
Another negative aspect is the version of Guaraní that is taught in schools. It is structured and formal and not the one that is colloquial, which is heard on the street or the one that is used every day.
Moreover, the written form of Guaraní lacks a standard, and the official version to be used is still debated.
The Guaraní Language Academy is also divided. One group favors maintaining Guaraní in its pure form. Proponents want to replace the Spanish loanwords with the older form of Guaraní.
The other group wants to retain the Guaraní version that is heavily influenced by the Spanish language. Locally it is called Yopará (Jopará).
Today, politicians are using the language to stay in power. Speaking in Guaraní is now a requirement for politicians because they have began to understand that by not speaking the local language, they distance themselves from the people.
The Guaraní language
The language belongs to the Tupi–Guaraní family. It is also spoken in the Mercosur as an official language, and in several countries such as Corrientes Province in Argentina (as an official language), southwestern Brazil, southeastern Bolivia and northeastern Argentina.
In 1639, the first written Guaraní grammar book, the Tesoro de la lengua guaraní or Treasure of the Guarani Language, was published by Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, a Jesuit priest, who said that the elegance and richness of the language would enable it to compete with many languages that are more famous.
However, it was not the presence of the Jesuit priests in Paraguay that led to the widespread use of the language. It was spoken exclusively by the people who live in the large missionary territories of the Jesuits. But according to history, Guaraní was actually used as the primary language when Paraguay was under colonial rule.
Guaraní speakers were driven further west and north due to the reductions after the Jesuit expulsion. The monolingual Guaraní resisted using Spanish loanwords. Those speakers of the language who lived outside the missions freely adopted Spanish terms.
Guaraní grammar typically uses the subject–verb–object word order but without specific subject, it can stand alone in an object–verb order. The definite article is lacking and there is no gender distinction in Guaraní although it uses ”la” and ”lo” as definite article for singular and plural reference, respectively.
Listen to a Guaraní speaker here:
Spanish loan words
Due to the Spanish and Guaraní being official languages, it is not impossible for them to have contact with each other. Thus many Guarani words originated from Spanish.
A few Guaraní words found their way into the English language through Portuguese. The list includes jaguar (jaguarete), piranha (pira aña), agouti (akuti), açaí (ïwasa’i), ipecacuanha (ipe-kaa-guene) and warrah (aguará).
Several minority indigenous languages are likewise spoken by about 50,000 people in Paraguay. Some of them are Aché, Ayoreo, Chamacoco, Iyo’wujwa (Chorote), Kaskihá, Lengua, Maká, Nivaclé, Pai Tavytera, Sanapaná, Toba Qom and Maskoy. A few foreign languages like Plautdietsch, German, Italian and Portuguese are also spoken.
Guaraní is a difficult language and it will take special skills to learn it. For accurate document translations, get in touch with Day Translations, Inc. You can count on our native speaking translators to provide professional and high quality translation. For a quick translation quote, call us at 1-800-969-6853 or send us an email at Contact us. We are open 24/7, all days of the year for your convenience.
By FrankOWeaver (Derivative work of File:Pai Tavytera Indians.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr (Agência Brasil ) [CC BY 3.0 br], via Wikimedia Commons