Guaraní: The Language and People
Nathan Page
Linguistics 450

Nestled among the jungle of South American Indian idioms lies a language that continues to survive and even thrive despite repeated failures of its relatives to do the same. The language of Guaraní, a language once spoken throughout most of the southern half of the new world by native Americans, now occupies a seat next to Spanish as one of the official languages of Paraguay. The name itself stems from a Guaranian word, guariní, meaning “war” or “warrior” and is indicative of this people’s bloody past as one of many contending tribes of South America (Facts). Presently, however, it represents a people and a culture that are trying to hold on to their ethnic heritage—and succeeding. 


The Guaraní language is part of the Tupí-Guaraní language family, a family that includes many of the indigenous languages south of the Amazon. The two prominent branches of this family, Tupí and Guaraní, probably stemmed from this common proto-language nearly 2000 years ago. Going back even further, linguists speculate the existence of a Tupian stock, a group of 37 language families that shared a mutual ancestor nearly 5000 years ago, approximately 3000 B.C. (Payne 49, Lengua 16). However, as with most classifications of South American Indian languages, such groupings are merely speculations based on the limited data currently compiled and could change with future research. 

As for the present, though, ten different dialects combine under the category of Guaraní to provide a method of communication for over four and a half million people in the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay (Grimes). Of these sub languages, Paraguayan Guaraní is spoken by more than 98% of all Guaraní speakers. Thus this dialect is the focus of research presented here and will be hereafter referred to simply as “Guaraní”.


The earliest ancestors of the Guaranian people probably journeyed from another continent to a common harbor in South or Central America and then migrated southward in smaller groups. No conclusive evidence has been found, however, that can accurately pinpoint this initial habitation site, or the original continent from which these people traveled. Modern linguistic techniques can only place the location of the Tupian branch somewhere between the Ji-Paraná and Aripuaná rivers, tributaries to the Madeira in northern Brazil, approximately 5000 years ago (Lengua 16). From this location, various migrations during the next 3000 years dispersed the people of this common tongue. Various sub-languages also developed, of which Tupí-Guaraní was a part. With the passage of additional time, this proto-language developed into the various languages that make up the Tupí-Guaraní family and Guaraní came into existence (17).  The language of this time period probably had between 1.5 and 2 million speakers and is often referred to as Indigenous Guaraní (20). 

During the next several hundred years not much is known about the linguistic changes that occurred in this primitive tongue. Contact with other language families—or even modified members of the same group—probably had an impact on the form of Guaraní that was first discovered by foreigners. The earliest records in western civilization indicating the existence of the Guaraní language are found beginning in the 16th century. In a letter written by Diego García in 1530, avati, the Guaranian word for “corn,” is mentioned (17). Other explorers and visitors from the Old World also made mention of this indigenous people and their language, but it was not until the next century and the arrival of missionaries that much care was taken in recording or understanding this strange tongue. In 1639, Antonio Ruiz de Montoya of Spain presented in Madrid the first of three publications documenting and explaining the “treasure of the Guaraní language”—as the book was titled (Tesoro de la Lengua Guaraní) (Rodrigues 13). Such efforts by Montoya and other missionary-linguists served to provide written records of the language for the first time but also proved to leave a lasting effect on the language itself. These effects, along with the effects of language contact with other Spanish colonists, led to the evolution of Colonial Guaraní. 

Colonial Guaraní was different from Indigenous Guaraní in three main aspects. First, Montoya and others integrated the Latin alphabet into the language, thus creating a written form. Such a process probably caused some phonemic change (at least among literate individuals) as phonemes foreign to Latin alphabetic transcriptions would have had to have been modified in order to fit the system. Second, Guaranian words were forced into one of the “eight parts of speech” present in Spanish at the time. Again, language aspects of Guaraní that were foreign to those of Romantic systems would have had to have been modified in order to fit into the paradigm. Finally, a lexicon of Guaraní vocabulary was created and the semantic quality of some terms was extended, especially in the area of religion. For example, Guaranian words Tupn (Great Spirit) and Karai (sacred) were extended to mean “God” and “Christian” (or “Lord”) respectively (Elogio 91). Borrowing was also common with the close proximity of the two languages being spoken and Guaranian speakers gleaned new words from the Spanish immigrants. 

With the exit of the Jesuit Priests near the middle of the 18th century, efforts were begun to “castellanize” the native inhabitants. Schools were created for the teaching of Spanish and teachers were hired that only spoke Spanish (Lengua 104-7). Rather than converting the people to the conquering language, though, such efforts created a high degree of bilingualism: Spanish was spoken in official settings and schools, but Guaraní was still spoken in the homes. Guaraní wasn’t totally unaffected, however, and by the beginning of the 19th century, uninfluenced native Guaraní-speaking communities were basically extinct. The result was a language that was sort of indigenous, colonial, and Christian all at the same time (Elogio 25). It still had the same roots and speech patterns as original Guaraní, but many words had been borrowed from Spanish, or even created, to describe things that required no descriptions or distinctions before. Interestingly, some of these changes weren’t always positive and in some instances they served to accent the social division between the two races. Take, for instance, synonyms for the names of the languages themselves in Guaraní. For Spanish we find karai n½L, language of the Lord, and for Guaraní we find ava n½L, language of man (Facts). Sulanguage changes assisted the early Spanish settlers in their aspirations of conquest and conversion.

Sound changes also occurred in the language during this time, but such changes are hard to trace due to the scarcity of written records. Some attempts have been made, however, to reconstruct the original phonology of the language by examining works of Montoya and others and utilizing the sounds represented in 17th century written Spanish (Rodrigues 15). Using these reconstructed phonemic inventories, modern linguists have been able to determine that complex vowel shifting has occurred over the last 350 years, and that other phonemes have been added or dropped from this inventory (Key 36). Such changes probably occurred as both a result of constant Spanish contact as well as trends towards natural language shifting over time.


In 1992 another milestone was reached in the history of the Guaraní language when it was recognized by the Paraguayan government as one of two official languages of the nation. Currently it is the only indigenous language of South America to have achieved such a status. Both Guaraní and Spanish are taught in schools and there seems to be a degree of coequality of attitudes towards these two forms of expression (Solé 297). Spanish seems to be spoken more in matters of business or administration, but Guaraní finds an equal stature among art, expression, and everyday living. Whether or not this coexistence will last is unclear, but arrival at such a point, if even for a short time, is a unique ethnolinguistic accomplishment.

Much more remains to be discovered of this language, people, and culture. As with all South American languages, classification efforts have only just begun. The true origins of the Guaraní and their aboriginal relatives are still much of a mystery. In Guaraní, the word for language, n½L, is also the word for soul. By discovering and preserving the language of this people we can, in essence, see more clearly through the window of their soul.

Works Cited

“Facts about the Guaraní Language.” Guarani Home Page. (26 Jan. 2000).

Grimes, Barbara F., ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed. SIL International, 1999. Ethnologue Online (22 Jan 2000).

Key, Mary Ritchie, ed. Language Change in South American Indian Languages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Meliá, Bartomeu. Elogio de la Lengua Guaraní: Contextos para una educación bilingüe en el Paraguay. Asunción, Paraguay: CEPAG, 1995.

Meliá, Bartomeu. La Lengua Guaraní del Paraguay: Historia, sociedad, y literatura. Madrid, Spain: Mapfre, 1992.

Payne, Doris L, ed. Amazonian Linguistics: Studies in Lowland South American Languages. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Rodrigues, Daniele M. Grannier. Fonologia do Guarani Antigo. Campinas, Brazil: Editora da UNICAMP, 1990.

Solé, Yolanda Russinovich. “The Guaraní-Spanish situation.” Georgetown Journal of Languages and Linguistics 2 (1991): 297-348.


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Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999