• December 9, 2023

Threatened Native Languages in Latin America

Native Languages in Latin America

The indigenous languages of the New World are under serious threat. They are losing ground rapidly to the European languages brought in by Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish everywhere else.

The main surviving languages are those of the Central Andes, with the exception of Paraguay where Guaran is a genuine native language with real official status. The other surviving ones are Mesoamerican, such as Mayan and Nhuatl.


With about 25 million speakers, Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in Latin America. The language is used in ten countries and is an official language in three of them. It is the language of the Inca Empire and the ancestor of the modern languages of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It is the language of words such as quinoa, poncho, and condor.

Quechua is a polyglot that has many regional varieties. Each of them is like a different family member in the same large family. They are all related through their common ancestor, but each of them has its own personality and culture. This variety can make it difficult to understand one another. However, it is important to remember that all of these variations are based on the same Original Quechua. Just as there is no real difference between Spanish and Italian, it makes no sense to claim that one region’s Quechua is better than another.


The Aymara people inhabit the region around Lake Titicaca, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. They have a rich oral tradition, including legends about wildlife and landscapes. Many of these traditions have Christian-based elements but also very purely Aymara ones. These include patron saint festivities and the celebration of the Day of the Dead.

The origin of the Aymara language is unknown, though it probably began to expand long ago from its first homeland, at around the same time as Quechua. It spread northwards into central Peru and south-eastwards into Bolivia.

Unlike most of the other Andean languages, Aymara has not been significantly influenced by Spanish. It is one of the most robust native Latin American languages. Unfortunately, it is still facing challenges, including poverty and illiteracy. Among women, illiteracy is particularly high. Maternal mortality is also a significant issue. Aymaras are known for their activism, especially in the field of social justice. Several Aymaras are well-known politicians, including socialist Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia.


Like so many of the indigenous languages of Latin America, Guaran is sadly close to extinction. In Paraguay, however, it still thrives as a de facto official language alongside Spanish. There is even a small number of publications in it (and a few newspapers).

It was spread across South America by the Inca empire, as were Quechua and Aymara. Its survival is perhaps due to the fact that these large empires created a kind of social and linguistic unity, stopping the process of the dialects spreading apart that usually leads to their decline.

As with so many of the other indigenous languages, a big problem is that those living in cities tend to speak Spanish and not pass on their native languages to their children. This is also a problem for those who live in rural areas. It is possible that Guaran, which has a written grammar dating back to 1639, may be able to slow this trend and revive its numbers.


The Uru-Chipaya languages of the highland region of western Peru and Bolivia are hardly known by any outsiders. Published materials, mainly ethnographic and historical, are scant (Bacarreza 1910: a short word list; Delgadillo 1998: a brief sketch of Chipaya phonology and morphology; LaBarre 1941: Uru kinship terminology; Metraux 1935b: Andean-Christian prayers, a French-Uru vocabulary and texts; Olson 1967: a few lexical notes; Polo 1902: a few linguistic observations); unpublished material forms part of the legacy of Lehmann (1929a-d), Uhle and Porterie-Gutierrez; and speakers themselves have been using various alphabets (see Montano Aragon 1992).

Speakers of these languages live in communities called Los Uros scattered along the aquatic axis of Lake Titicaca (Peru/Bolivia), Lake Poopo and the Desaguadero River which connects them. It has been suggested that since the 16th century these communities have suffered a gradual ‘transculturation’ under Inca, Aymara and Spanish dominance, and that as a result their original language is being absorbed by Puquina, Aymara and Quechua [8,9]. Consequently their numbers have steadily declined.

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