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Amazonian people
Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again
Indigenous Peoples Once Spoke Over 700 Languages
By Larry Rohter
Indigenous Amazonians at a Sunday service at the Presbyterian church in São Gabriel da Cachoeira where the hymns are sung in Nheengatú. Joao Silva for NYT

SÃO GABRIEL DA CACHOEIRA, Brazil, Aug. 23, 2005 — When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil five centuries ago, they encountered a fundamental problem: the indigenous peoples they conquered spoke more than 700 languages.

Rising to the challenge, the Jesuit priests accompanying them concocted a mixture of Indian, Portuguese and African words they called "língua geral," or the "general language," and imposed it on their colonial subjects.

Elsewhere in Brazil, língua geral as a living, spoken tongue died off long ago. But in this remote and neglected corner of the Amazon where Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela meet, the language has not only managed to survive, it has made a remarkable comeback in recent years.

"Linguists talk of moribund languages that are going to die, but this is one that is being revitalized by new blood," said José Ribamar Bessa Freire, author of "River of Babel: A Linguistic History of the Amazon" and a native of the region. "Though it was originally brought to the Amazon to make the colonial process viable, tribes that have lost their own mother tongue are now taking refuge in língua geral and making it an element of their identity," he said.

Two years ago, in fact, Nheengatú, as the 30,000 or so speakers of língua geral call their language, reached a milestone. By vote of the local council, São Gabriel da Cachoeira became the only municipality in Brazil to recognize a language other than Portuguese as official, conferring that status on língua geral and two local Indian tongues.

As a result, Nheengatú, which is pronounced neen-gah-TOO and means "good talk," is now a language that is permitted to be taught in local schools, spoken in courts and used in government documents. People who can speak língua geral have seen their value on the job market rise and are now being hired as interpreters, teachers and public health aides.

In its colonial heyday, língua geral was spoken not just throughout the Amazon but as far south as the Paraná River basin, more than 2,000 miles from here. The priests played by Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro in the movie "The Mission," for example, would have communicated with their Indian parishioners in a version of the language.

But in the mid-18th century, the Portuguese government ordered the Jesuits out of Brazil, and the language began its long decline. It lingered in the Amazon after Brazil achieved independence in 1822, but was weakened by decades of migration of peasants from northeast Brazil to work on rubber and jute plantations and other commercial enterprises.

The survival of Nheengatú here has been aided by the profusion of tongues in the region, which complicates communication among tribes; it is a long-held custom of some tribes to require members to marry outside their own language group. By the count of linguists, 23 languages, belonging to six families, are spoken here in the Upper Rio Negro.

"This is the most plurilingual region in all of the Americas," said Gilvan Muller de Oliveira, director of the Institute for the Investigation and Development of Linguistic Policy, a private, nonprofit group that has an office here. "Not even Oaxaca in Mexico can offer such diversity."

But the persistence and evolution of Nheengatú is marked by contradictions. For one thing, none of the indigenous groups that account for more than 90 percent of the local population belong to the Tupi group that supplied língua geral with most of its original vocabulary and grammar.

"Nheengatú came to us as the language of the conqueror," explained Renato da Silva Matos, a leader of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro. "It made the original languages die out" because priests and government officials punished those who spoke any language other than Portuguese or Nheengatú.

But in modern times, the language acquired a very different significance. As the dominion of Portuguese advanced and those who originally imposed the language instead sought its extinction, Nheengatú became "a mechanism of ethnic, cultural and linguistic resistance," said Persida Miki, a professor of education at the Federal University of Amazonas.

Even young speakers of língua geral can recall efforts in their childhood to wipe out the language. Until the late 1980's, Indian parents who wanted an education for their children often sent them away to boarding schools run by the Salesian order of priests and nuns, who were particularly harsh with pupils who showed signs of clinging to their native tongue.

"Our parents were allowed to visit us once a month, and if we didn't speak to them in Portuguese, we'd be punished by being denied lunch or sent to sit in a corner," said Edilson Kadawawari Martins, 36, a Baniwa Indian leader who spent eight years as a boarder. "In the classroom it was the same thing: if you spoke Nheengatú, they would hit your palms with a brazilwood paddle or order you to get on your knees and face the class for 15 minutes."

Celina Menezes da Cruz, a 48-year-old Baré Indian, has similar memories. But for the past two years, she has been teaching Nheengatú to pupils from half a dozen tribes at the Dom Miguel Alagna elementary school here.

"I feel good doing this, especially when I think of what I had to go through when I was the age of my students," she said. "It is important not to let the language of our fathers die."

To help relieve a shortage of qualified língua geral teachers, a training course for 54 instructors began last month. Unicef is providing money to discuss other ways to carry out the law making the language official, and advocates hope to open an Indigenous University here soon, with courses in Nheengatú.

And though língua geral was created by Roman Catholic priests, modern evangelical Protestant denominations have been quick to embrace it as a means to propagate their faith. At a service at an Assembly of God church here on a steamy Sunday night this month, indigenous people from half a dozen tribes sang and prayed and preached in língua geral as their pastor, who spoke only Portuguese, looked on approvingly and called out "Hallelujah!"

But a few here have not been pleased to see the resurgence of língua geral. After a local radio station began broadcasting programs in the language, some officers in the local military garrison, responsible for policing hundreds of miles of permeable frontier, objected on the ground that Brazilian law forbade transmissions in "foreign" languages.

"The military, with their outdated notion of national security, have tended to see língua geral as a threat to national security," Mr. Muller de Oliveira said. "Língua geral may be a language in retreat, but the idea that it somehow menaces the dominance of Portuguese and thus the unity of the nation still persists and has respectability among some segments of the armed forces."

The above article is from The New York Times.






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