Nheengatu: A Not-So Dead Language Thesis

Pages: 7 (2055 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Communication - Language

Nheengatu: A Not-So dead language

There has been a recent drive to preserve so-called dead languages. A dead language "is a language which is no longer learned as a native language," which means that it is a language that has usually become static and fixed, and incorporates no new vocabulary from the modern world (What is, 2009, Wise Geek). There is no word for 'computer' or 'digital' in Latin or Ancient Greek, for example, despite the fact tht these words have their roots in these respective dead languages. Other examples of dead languages include Coptic and Sanskrit, and though many words from these languages might live on in English and many other native tongues, as linguistic systems and sets of vocabulary they are entirely fixed and often largely forgotten. Some dead languages, such as Ancient Greek, survive in better-preserved forms in their modern incarnations than do other dead languages, such as many of the Native American languages that become almost completely extinct following the devastation of European colonialism and American expansion.

Some dead languages, however, "are topics of study because of their cultural, linguistic, or social importance, and some dead languages actually have numbers of speakers which exceed those of modern or living languages, languages which are learned as native tongues," (What is, 2009, Wise Geek). These non-native dead languages have often achieved a unique status as "preserved" minority languages, as though they were somehow living museums of another age. There are still those that see the death of language as the death of a culture; others, however, see it as a natural part of the creative evolution of human language -- and so the debate and the drive to preserve dead languages lives on.

The Portuguese language of Nheengatu, which is used by approximately 30,000 speakers today, is neaith an indigenous language nor an Indo-European language. It is, much like Hindu and Esperanto, a kind of created language, a 'lingua geral' or general language spoken as a way of uniting speakers who speak many different languages. This means that the argument for preserving it is not supported by the traditional reasons for retaining a dying language; it is a language born of colonialism: "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 'lingua geral,' or the 'general language,' and imposed it on their colonial subjects" (Rohter 2005). The death of colonialism was accompanied by the death of Nheengatu in most areas of Brazil, however the municipality of Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira recently recognized the polyglot language as one of its official languages, along with two local Indian tongues. Throughout most of Brazil, Portuguese is the only official language.

In the mid-18th century, the Portuguese government expelled the Jesuits from Brazil, and the language's use was further diluted "by decades of migration of peasants from northeast Brazil to work on rubber and jute plantations and other commercial enterprises" (Rohter 2005). But during "its colonial heyday, lingua geral was spoken not just throughout the Amazon but as far south as the Parana River basin, more than 2,000 miles from here" (Rohter 2005). Although it no longer enjoys such prominence, Nheengatu is now taught in local schools in Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira as well as spoken in court and in government. Interpreters of Nheengatu have been doing brisk business ever since it became an official language.

But why use Nheengatu now that Brazil has long since been free from colonial rule, given that the language arose not from the needs of the native populace, but because of the needs of the colonists to communicate with the many native tribes? The usual argument that reviving or preserving a dead language helps to revive or preserve a dying or lost culture does not at first seem to apply to the Nheengatu situation, as the culture that spawned it was the culture of religious colonial forces. Furthermore, "none of the indigenous groups that account for more than 90% of the local population belong to the Tupi group that supplied lingua geral with most of its original vocabulary and grammar" (Rohter 2005). This means that even the descendents of the true native speakers no longer truly exist as a people; for better or for worse the language should by all rights be dead. It has survived, however, as a kind of linguistic shorthand and a means of facilitating communication amongst the still highly diverse peoples of the region, despite its fixed and archaic vocabulary as well as its idioms that have very little modern application.

Nheengatu began as a language of oppression -- it made it easier for the colonizing forces at work in Brazil to deal with the native populations. Its continued use and current preservation seem to suggest that the symbolic meaning of Nheengatu has shifted 180 degrees over the course of the language's history, and yet many still simply condemn it as the language of the conqueror and a symbol of the annihilation of native culture. "Nheengatu came to us as the language of the conqueror" and '"made the original languages die out because priests and government officials punished those who spoke any language other than Portuguese or Nheengatu," said a leader for the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro. But when the Portuguese eventually sought to quash the language and tried to replace it with their own tongue, many of the native Nheengatu speakers of the time revolted. The language had shifted in the minds of many from a tool of oppression to a language that promoted solidarity between the divisive tribes of Brazil, thus becoming "a mechanism of ethnic, cultural and linguistic resistance," which was quite threatening to the ruling powers (Rohter 2005). The fact that pupils who spoke Nheengatu in school were punished for the act until the late 1980s has added to its national cache.

Yet the protection of Nheengatu calls into question the value of a nationalist preservation of all linguistic tokens of resistance to Portuguese authorities. One might ask if current native Brazilian students' educations might not be better served learning a more widely-spoken international language, or devoting the time focused on their linguistic efforts in Nheengatu to improving their prospects for success in the global marketplace. The speakers of Nheengatu tend to be the poorest members of society, and their determination to preserve their native tongue seems both Quixotic as well as poignant. They are intent upon preserving what became a weapon of unity and resistance in the 19th century but also preserving what began as a symbol of oppression and actually killed many native languages. Studying this language as an artifact and as a truly dead language might be more valuable than promoting its revival and preservation, in terms of the cultural preservation of Brazil's native people, and to provide a national remembrance of the country's turbulent history.

The real question that must be asked in regards to the official status of Nheengatu in Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira is, what will be the cost conducting instruction and government business in the language? This question does not refer to financial cost, but rather to the expense of cultural capital. The language began as a means of oppression and colonization and is still seen as such by many; its rise meant the destruction of many native languages. It's study and preservation in the present day ought not to come at the further cost of truly indigenous and native languages, according to some, and it is often perceived that any adoption of the language and culture of colonial forces -- even when contrived and derived form native elements as Nheengatu was -- necessarily destroys indigenous cultural elements. This assertion is not necessarily borne out by the full facts of Brazi's history, however.

In this way, the development of Nheengatu over the centuries of the language's existence provides an excellent platform for examining the effects of colonization and the installation of an official language on minority and/or indigenous languages. The fact that almost no one still speaks the indigenous languages upon which Nheengatu is based seems at first to clearly suggest that this effect is hugely destructive. The systematic replacement of native languages by the Jesuits -- and subsequently by the rest of the Portuguese colonial forces, for a time -- led to the near complete eradication of these native languages and, in some degree, to the tribal distinctions and cultures that existed at the time. In this instance, the implementation of an official language definitely had a negative effect one existing indigenous languages.

Nheengatu's continued survival despite an almost total drop in its widespread use and even its explicit and direct persecution by the government and educational institutions tells a very different story, however. It is estimated that there are over 200 languages spoken in Brazil today, and that approximately 170… [END OF PREVIEW]

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