When people think about the languages spoken in South America, it’s likely the first languages that come into mind are Spanish and Portuguese, but South America is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world with 37 language families and 448 languages! Indigenous languages are common throughout the entire continent and are spoken by over 11 million people alongside Spanish and Portuguese. Spanish is the official language in Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, and Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. For this reason, it is so important to consider the other languages spoken in countries where there is more than one official language when thinking about the translation of any material targeting that country.

Apart from Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian, South America has a huge indigenous population, and indigenous languages are still widely spoken across the continent, the main three of which I will speak about in today’s blog.

Definition: An indigenous language is a language that has naturally settled in a place and was not brought to that place from elsewhere

Quechua – Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador

Quechua is a language from the Quechuan language family, spoken primarily in the Andes region of South America. There are many varieties of Quechua and it has official status in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, but is also spoken in Columbia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. There are approximately 8-10 million speakers of the Quechuan language family and it is the most widely spoken indigenous language family across South America. Originally it was the language of the Inca people, which makes it the longest surviving language of the Andes, and probably the most well known among non natives.

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Guaraní – Paraguay, Corrientes province of Argentina

Guaraní is spoken by approximately 4.5 million people in Paraguay, as well as a small population in Argentina. Of all the indigenous languages spoken in South America, Guaraní is said to be spoken with the most pride and unlike Quechua, the majority of the Paraguayan population speaks only the one language, making it the most unique among the South American indigenous languages. In order to try and prevent language decline from happening, bilingual education is popular in Paraguay, as well as Guaraní being used for communication across media, films and TV.
Guaraní has co-existed alongside Spanish for many centuries and so it has adopted a lot of Spanish vocabulary. It is often that Spanish has some sort of Guaraní influence in the pronunciation. For example, in Guaraní, terminal consonants do not exist, and so the final ‘s’ on words is hardly pronounced in Spanish, e.g. ‘dos’ y ‘tres’ becomes ‘do’ y ‘tre’. You will also find some loanwords from Guaraní in the English language, such as, Cougar, Jaguar and toucan. Bet you didn’t know that! Some useful expressions in Guaraní are below.

Hello – Mba’eichapa
Goodbye – Jajoechajevypeve, jajoechapeve
Please – Mbojerovia
Thank you – Aguyjevete ndéve
Yes – Heẽ
No – Ahaniri

Aymara – Bolivia, Peru, a little in Chile

Aymara derives the Aymaran language family and there are approximately 2.2 million speakers of the Aymara language, which is mainly spoken in the Southern part of the Andes. Unlike Quechua and Guaraní, Aymara has no official status in any South American countries.

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Originally, the Aymara language was used as a collection of symbols, mainly consisting of pictures of people or objects. The symbols represented the things they portrayed, but never evolved into a writing system. A writing system was then formed based on the Latin alphabet, under the influence of the Spanish language. Aymara and Quechua languages have had a great deal of contact with each other for centuries and have influenced each other very strongly. The table below displays some obvious comparisons on this:

AYMARA – Quta / Tunka / Pataka

QUECHUA – Qucha / Chunka / Pachak

ENGLISH – Lake / 10 / 100