Guaraní (Language)

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Guaraní (Language)

Guaraní is a member of the Tupi-Guaraní language family, which was once widespread over most of lowland South America. Today Guaraní is spoken in parts of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, with Paraguay being the geographic center of Guaraní speakers. The largest community of Guaraní speakers is the nonindigenous Paraguayans, some 90 percent of whom speak "Paraguayan" Guaraní.

Guarani was recognized as the national language of Paraguay in 1967. It was made an official second language, along with Spanish, in the 1992 constitution. Paraguay is one of the few bilingual nation-states in the world, and Guaraní has become the primary marker of Paraguayan ethnicity. Census figures over the last fifty years report approximately half the population as bilingual, between 30 and 40 percent of the population as monolingual in Guaraní, and the remaining population as either monolingual in Spanish or bilingual with another language.


Spaniards originally pushed inland by way of the Rio de la Plata seeking gold. In the area of present-day Asunción, the Spaniards found the Cario-Guaraní people, with whom they made alliances. To gain allies to fight their enemies in the Chaco on the right bank of the Paraguay River, the Cario-Guaran followed custom of forming reciprocal family bonds through intermarriage with the Spanish. In this manner, the Guaranies gained allies to fight their enemies in the Chaco on the right bank of the Paraguay river while the Spaniards gained allies to help them cross the Chaco safely. Although the Spaniards failed to cross the harsh Chaco territory, a colony was established at Asunción. The result was several generations of mixed Guaraní-Spanish offspring (mestizos) learning Guaraní from their mothers and Spanish from their fathers. The lack of gold, silver, or other forms of portable wealth guaranteed that there was little immigration to the Paraguayan colony, and mestizos were eventually permitted to inherit usufruct rights and encomiendas (rights to indigenous labor), given the dearth of pure Spanish offspring of the original settlers.

In 1575 Luis de Bolaños, a Franciscan missionary, became the first non-native speaker to study Guaraní and provide a written version. Antonio Ruíz de Montoya produced a standardized form of Guaraní from a multiplicity of dialects and published Arte bocabulario de la lengua Guaraní in 1640.

Guaraní served as an important means of resistance and conspiracy by Paraguayan mestizos against the Crown-appointed, Spanish-speaking governor. During the struggle for independence, it was instrumental in binding the Paraguayans together as a nation, both against Spain and Buenos Aires. By the time of independence from Spain in 1811, Guaraní was used extensively throughout Paraguay, not only in the home, but also during religious services, in business exchanges, and by government functionaries.

Throughout Paraguay's history, the popularity of Guaraní has waxed and waned depending on nationalistic exigencies. During the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, nationalistic fervor caused a revival of the Guaraní language. Cacique Lambaré, a biweekly newspaper started during the war, was written in Guaraní and was meant to rally the troops and distinguish Paraguayans from their enemies.

During the Liberal Period following the war, the political elite discouraged the use of Guaraní because of the association of indigenousness with backwardness. The new government banned the speaking of Guaraní in all state schools. This situation continued until the 1920s, when there was a renewed sense of nationalism fostered by the Partido Colorado, one of the three major political parties at the time. The dramatic works of Julio Correa, the poetry of Narciso Ramón Colmán, and the establishment of an Academia de la Lengua Guaraní were all signs of this change in attitude toward the language. When hostilities with Bolivia erupted into the Chaco War (1932–1935), Guaraní reemerged as a symbol of national unity and as a means of confusing the non-Guaraní speaking enemy in the field. When Paraguay's contact with the international community increased during the 1950s, the government encouraged Guaraní as a symbol of ethnic and national identity that very clearly demarcated Paraguayans from other nations and knit the population together with a distinct ethnicity.


The nationalist use of Guaraní has created a situation of bilingualism and diglossia within Guaraní. (Diglossia is a sociolinguistic situation where there are two forms of a language or two languages, usually designated as a high and low form by the language community; the high form is used for literature, business, and educated settings whereas the low form is used in the home and by the uneducated underclass.) This diglossia is formed by vernacular Guaraní and academic, or "technical," Guaraní. The academic form is respected but not actually spoken, limited instead to literary expression, primarily poetry and theater, and classrooms where it is taught as a second language along with English. The vernacular form is disparaged and referred to as jopará, or a mix of Spanish and Guaraní.

Since the mid-twentieth century academics in Paraguay have attempted to improve the original Guaraní grammars and to standardize its orthography. These efforts at improvement have resulted in the written grammars becoming more confusing and less like vernacular Guaraní. Modes and tenses have been added, attempts have been made to eliminate linguistic exceptions, and new words have been created to expand what some view as the deficient vocabulary.


Although there is no agreement on orthography, vocabulary, or the diglossic nature of the language, some cultural elites are aiming to have Guaraní named an official language of Mercosur, which would require all official documents to be written in Guaraní. This movement promotes the use of academic Guaraní, even coining a name for the language, Ñemby Ñemuha, that is undecipherable in vernacular Guaraní.

Most Paraguayans find the television shows, radio programs, books of poetry, plays, and newspaper supplements written in the literary form of Guaraní difficult to understand. In 2003 Carlos Martínez Gamba was awarded Paraguay's top literary prize, the Premio Nacional de Literatura, for his poetic novel Ñorairõ ñemombe'u Guérra Guasúro guare—the first time this award has gone to a work written entirely in Guaraní. However, as the text is largely inaccessible to the reading public, it quickly went out of print. Rural radio stations do broadcast in the vernacular, giving local news and weather. In the 1990s a bilingual education program was implemented in the first three grades of school to improve overall education by gradually teaching Spanish until all students are bilingual. The program has had mixed success, as teachers are still likely to use Spanish in instruction to teach the academic form of Guaraní, further confusing the young students.

In the 1990s the Catholic Church began offering services in vernacular Guaraní and in other indigenous languages of Paraguay. A widely disseminated Bible written in vernacular Guaraní, published in 1996, is helping the populace to read spoken Guaraní and possibly fueling a resurgence of interest in maintaining the language. Education reform and Church support of Guaraní may counteract, or at least lessen, the impact of forces that favor Spanish usage, such as an increasing urban population and the diffusion of television.

See alsoChaco War; Colmán, Narciso; Correa, Julio Myzkowsky; Indigenous Languages; Mercosur; Mestizo; War of the Triple Alliance.


Cadogan, León. "En torno al 'guaraní paraguayo' o 'coloquial.'" Cahiers du Monde Hispanique et Luso-Brésilien/Caravelle 14 (1970): 31-41.

Corvalán, Grazziella, and Germán de Granda, eds. Sociedad y lengua: Bilingüismo en el Paraguay. 2 vols. Asunción: Centro Paraguayo de Estudios Sociológicos, 1982.

Melià, Bartomeu. La lengua Guaraní del Paraguay: Historia, sociedad y literature. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

Rubin, Joan. National Bilingualism in Paraguay. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1968.

Ruíz de Montoya, Antonio. Arte de la lengua Guaraní. Asunción: Centro de Estudios Paraguayos "Antonio Guasch" (CEPAG), 1993.

Villagra-Batoux, Sara Delicia. El Guaraní Paraguayo: De la oralidad a la lengua literaria. Asunción: Expolibro, 2002.

                                        Christina Turner