When people are asked “which mother-tongue languages are spoken in South America?” the answer almost invariably is “Spanish, Portuguese and perhaps some other minorities including English, French, German, Japanese, Chinese etc.”
In terms of absolute numbers, that answer may be technically correct but it’s certainly also incomplete because it ignores the vast number of indigenous languages that exist in the region.
Columbus and European Colonisation
It is an unfortunate fact of life that, until perhaps the mid-20th century, much global linguistic history tended to be Euro-Centric in its orientation.
As a result, South America was too often seen as an essentially Spanish and Portuguese construction (the English, French and Dutch were relatively minor historical players in the area). However, when the Conquistadores arrived from Southern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, they did not find an empty land.
South America was, of course, already populated. Some of its civilizations had reached a degree of sophistication that was largely lost on early European colonisers is their rush for land, resources and above all, gold.
Language is essential for the function of any society and the Europeans encountered a huge range of local tongues in this massive land. Unfortunately, for a mixture of religious, racial and xenophobic reasons, these were frequently dismissed as ‘tribal’ and largely ignored. Worse, many were intentionally supressed in the drive to make Spanish or Portuguese the main language of the country or area concerned.
What the early European conquerors, with a few notable and laudable exceptions, failed to appreciate was that they had encountered the most linguistically diverse landscape on Earth.
Today, fortunately, that fact is recognised by linguists. In fact, there are a quite staggering 37 language families and 448 languages in South America and that excludes Central America. There are also many linguists who believe that figure may be significantly under-estimated due to the large areas of the interior of the continent that remain unexplored and/or unanalysed in linguistic terms.
There remains considerable and sometimes heated debate amongst linguistic archaeologists as to where these language families came from. At least to some extent, that mirrors the debate amongst anthropologists as to the origin of the peoples of South America.
For a very long time, it was argued that these peoples migrated south from the north.
While that may have been true, there are certain factors that have led to some dispute. Firstly, many of the language families of South America seem to have little in common with each other and nothing in common with those further north in Central and North America.
Secondly, in DNA terms, the populations appear different to those further north. As such, the traditional model of a single phase of human migration taking place in pre-history from Asia across the land bridge between today’s Alaska and Russia and then systematically colonising south may be subject to dispute.
At the time of writing, there is a growing model suggesting major phases of colonisation from Asia over time and from peoples who were not a homogenous population.
Another factor complicating historical analyses is that few of the peoples of the region left any form of written record. Clues as to language histories are scarce and oral historical tradition, while valuable, is known to have its limitations due to the possible confounding variable of myth.
The bottom line is that at the present time, the origin of many South American languages and even entire language families must remain speculative. Although some respected linguists have argued for a common ancestor language, the case at this time remains unproven.
The question as to why so many different indigenous languages exist in this area is an obvious one but also impossible to answer.
Just why populations living in sometimes such very close proximities should be speaking not only different languages but also ones from several different language families is simply unclear. The ‘best guess’ at the current time relates to geography with rivers, mountains and hills encouraging isolation and with the exception of the Inca, very few kingdoms and empires to spread a single tongue.
However, some linguists regard these explanations as, at best, ‘light’. More work is required.
Main Languages and Political Dimensions
It is very difficult to quote precise figures for the numbers of people speaking indigenous languages in South America. That’s at least partly because of the fact some are spoken by small population tribal groups but also partly due to official indifference.
The best estimates relate to the Quechua speakers of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador (roughly nine million), the Guarani tongue of Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina (roughly five million) and Aymara, spoken by around 3 million people in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. It should be noted that different sources quote very widely differing figures for the above.
Regrettably, official indifference to this rich linguistic heritage remains widespread in many of the countries of the region. Only in Bolivia (Quechua) and Paraguay (Guarani) is any official recognition given to indigenous languages.
In many other countries, indigenous language speakers continue to be under huge official and unofficial ‘soft’ pressures to make Spanish or Portuguese their main languages. Some linguists have stated that many of these languages will be lost to humanity by the end of the 21st century unless actionis taken.
This has been compared to the linguistic equivalent of the loss of the rainforests and again, urgent action is required.