Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Invisible Minority Languages

Bill Poser has an interesting entry at Language Log under the title "Is South America Spanish Speaking?"

Poser is writing in response to a television review at the New York Times. The review claims, "The great majority of people in South America speak Spanish today." A correction added June 30th states,
A television review on Tuesday about "The Great Inca Rebellion," on PBS, misidentified the language spoken by a majority of South Americans. While Spanish is more widespread geographically, a small majority of the continent speaks Portuguese — not Spanish — because of Brazil’s large population.

By my estimation, Portuguese and Spanish are each spoken by approximately 40-50% of people on the continent. Portuguese has the greatest number of speakers, while Spanish is both spoken and named as an official language in more countries. Although between the two of them these languages are spoken by most South Americans, neither constitutes a "great majority" on its own.

Lost in this figuring, though, is the significant numbers of speakers of indigenous languages.

As Bill Poser points out, "it need not be the case that everyone in a country speaks its official language." He notes the case of Paraguay. While both Spanish and Paraguayan Guarani are official languages of the nation, only a small minority actually speak Spanish. The majority speak Guarani, and there are also numerous indigenous languages with smaller numbers of speakers.

This set me to wondering about Quechua. Although Quechua is not the majority language of any nation-state, there are numerous varieties of Quechua (or Quicha) spoken across the Americas. I consulted Ethnologue, a reference that claims to catalog "all of the world’s 6,912 known living languages," in order to estimate how many Quechua speakers there may be in South America.

I estimate that there are more than 10 million Quechua speakers throughout the continent. While much smaller than the number of Spanish or Portuguese speakers, this figure is far greater than the number of English (about 950,000), Dutch (200,000) or French (190,000) speakers, even despite the fact that each of these is the official language of some nation-state (English in Guyana and the Falkland Islands; Dutch in Suriname; French in French Guiana).

Guarani (4.7 million speakers) and Aymara (1.8 million) are spoken by similarly large minorities. There are also more than 500 languages spoken by smaller populations, compared to about 100 extinct languages.

The conquest of the Americas by Europeans has certainly had devastating effects on indigenous peoples, and minorities all over the hemisphere continue to struggle in the face of economic, political, and other social pressures.

However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of Native people's extinction have been exaggerated.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kerim Friedman said...

My experience with Ethnologue is that it is a very unreliable source for population estimates. The question is how you calculate whether someone is a "speaker" of an indigenous language. What level of proficiency is necessary? Also Ethnologue often relies on surveys which ask people to self-report their language use, also a very unreliable method. In Taiwan I came to the conclusion that the actual numbers were about half of what Ethnologue estimated. (Note, I came to this conclusion with the help of a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics which runs the EThnologue database.)

8:13 PM  
Blogger Chad Nilep said...

Kerim's point is well taken: Ethnologue is far from unimpeachable. Its information is cobbled together from various sources, gathered at various times, and its population estimates can be quite far off. Besides, the definitions of "speaker" as well as "language" etc. are far from uncontroversial.

Nevertheless, my point was that in arguments about whether Portuguese or Spanish is "the language of South America," many indigenous minority languages (or in the case of Bolivia, the majority language) are "erased".

12:44 PM  
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