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  • An indigenous man from the Pataxo tribe waits for a trial on the demarcation of Indigenous lands.

    An indigenous man from the Pataxo tribe waits for a trial on the demarcation of Indigenous lands. | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 March 2018

Brazil is the second country, only behind the United States, with the largest number of languages at risk of extinction.

According to the Atlas of Languages at Risk, there are 190 languages at risk of extinction in Brazil. The data, organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, also indicates that Brazil is the second country, only behind the United States, with the largest number of languages at risk of extinction.

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“If a language is lost, so is the (people's) medicine, culinary, histories, traditional knowledge,” said Angel Corbera Mori, a linguist at the Institute of Language Studies at the University of Campinas. “The question of identity, knowledge of the forests, the jungle, the animals are all contained within language,” it's not, according to the researcher, a simple matter of day-to-day communication.

Adauto Soares, coordinator of Unesco's Communication and Information department, explained the criteria used to determine if a language is at risk of extinction or not.

It included: the absolute number of speakers; the number of speakers in relation to the total population; how, if at all, the language is transmitted from one generation to the next; how native speakers feel about speaking their language; how the language has changed over time; the type and quality of documentation used to record the language and if any type of media incorporate the language; and if there are educational and literacy materials to teach the language.

The number of languages at risk of extinction may even be higher than the official number reported by Unesco. It's possible that some, like Warazu, have been left off the linguistic map. Also, dozens of other languages spoken in Indigenous communities outside the reach of “modernity” have not been recorded, according to Envolverde.

Corbera estimates that prior to Portuguese colonization, over a thousand languages existed in what would become known as Brazil.

He explained that Jesuit priests began using Tupi, one of the primary languages of the time, as a common means of communication. However, the Portuguese Crown viewed such deviation as a threat. Tupi and other Indigenous languages were soon prohibited and those who disobeyed the law were punished.

Cobrera emphasized that nowadays the main culprit of language extinction is the invasion of Indigenous territories. “Preservation politics and language registration are important, but none of this helps if (Indigenous communities) have no land (rights), if they are expelled from their land.”


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