Old Tupi

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Introduction to Old Tupi, an Amerindian language of the coastal regions of colonial Brazil (1500–1700), and to the Tupi-Guarani language subfamily – Denis Bertet (DDL)

The first Portuguese settlers often married Native American women, and their own children naturally learned Old Tupi from their mothers. This is how this Amerindian language (and not Portuguese) soon established itself as the major vehicular language (or “general language”) of the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, at the very time when the number of Amerindians speaking the language was rapidly declining as a result of new diseases brought from Europe and armed conflicts. In fact, almost all of the Old Tupi texts that have survived to this day are the work not of indigenous speakers, but of non-indigenous members of colonial society, and in particular of Jesuit missionaries of European origin such as José de Anchieta. It was only in the course of the nineteenth century that Portuguese ended up supplanting the vehicular descendants of Old Tupi to fully occupy its current function as the national language of Brazil!

However, Old Tupi and its now almost entirely disaffected descendants have nevertheless left a deep and omnipresent mark on Portuguese and the toponymy of present-day Brazil. English words such as “jaguar”, “piranha”, “mahogany”, and “maracas” come from Old Tupi, too. Old Tupi lent its name to the extensive language family it belongs to, which is called the Tupi family. Specifically, it belongs to the Tupi-Guarani subfamily of within the Tupi family. In addition to Old Tupi, the Tupi-Guarani subfamily includes Paraguayan Guarani, the official language of Paraguay (alongside Spanish) spoken by six to seven million people.

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