An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. About 300 indigenous languages are spoken today in South America, making it one of the most complex linguistic areas of the planet. Even more were spoken before the European conquest but due to diseases introduced by the Spanish and Portuguese, forced labor, massacres, marginalization and oppression, many indigenous communities were wiped out and others weakened with the consequent extinction of their tongues.

South American languages are very diverse at the phonological, grammatical and lexical levels. Their study is still incomplete and a proper classification of them is not possible. About 50 languages have not been related genetically to others and are considered isolates. The remaining ones form part of about 50 families, 43 of which are small (having 6 members or less). Some of these families may form part of larger groupings but as adequate information is often lacking, they remain controversial.

  The most important families are Chibchan, Arawakan, Cariban, Tupian, Macro- and Tucanoan of which the first four are very widespread, having members in several countries; in fact Chibchan and Arawakan extend into Central America. Three of the largest languages, Quechua, Aymara and Mapudungun (Mapuche), are essentially isolates. Geographically, the South American indigenous  languages can be divided into Highland or Andean, and Lowland distributed in the Amazon, the Chaco, and the Pampas-Patagonia.

Map of South American indigenous languages distribution


a) Amazon Region

*Arawakan: distributed in Colombia, Venezuela, the Guianas, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia (also formerly in Argentina and Paraguay). It is composed of about 40 languages, the majority of them endangered. Guajiro (or Guayuu) is one of few healthy Arawak languages. It is spoken by a population of about 300,000 in the Guajira peninsula shared by Colombia and Venezuela. Other major language is the Central American Guarifuna, spoken in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala by 200,000 people. The Campa languages are spoken by one of the largest indigenous groups in Peru.

*Cariban: is a large family of the north Amazon, ranging from Colombia to the Guianas and from northern Venezuela to Central Brazil. It comprises 25 languages which are still insufficiently described. The largest one is Macushi (or Macuxi) in northern Brazil and Guyana with 18,000 speakers. Others are Yukpa located west of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela and eastern Colombia (6,000), Carib in north Venezuela and the Guianas (7,300), Pemon and Maquiritari in Venezuela (6,000 each), Akawaio and Patamona in Guyana (5,400 and 4,700).

*Tupian: is found in scattered areas south of the Amazon, mainly in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. Tupian is divided into seven to ten subgroups, the largest and the best studied of which is Tupí-Guaraní. It is named for the two most prominent languages at the time of the European colonization: Tupinambá and Guaraní. The first one was widely spoken in the coast of Brazil but became extinct in the 18th century not before leaving hundreds of geographical, animal and plant names. In contrast, Guaraní experienced the unique fate of transcending its Amerindian origins to become the mother tongue of the majority of the population of Paraguay, regardless of their Indian or mixed background. This strong position of Guaraní in Paraguay is related to the policies of the Jesuit missionaries during the 17th and 18th centuries.

*Panoan: in the western Amazonian basin, particularly in eastern Peru, western Brazil and northern Bolivia. It comprises 20 languages, most of them endangered. Shipibo-Conibo in the middle Ucayali River area of eastern Peru is, with 26,000 speakers, the major language. Others are Cashibo-Cacataibo (1,150) in central Peru, Matsés and Kashinawa in Peru, both near the border with Brazil (2,200 and 1,150, respectively).

*Tucanoan: in the border regions between Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, is divided into eastern and western groups. West Tucanoan languages are spoken by 4,500 people along the Caquetá, Putumayo and Napo rivers in south-western Colombia, north Ecuador and north Peru. They include Koreguaje, Secoya, Siona, and Orejón (or Maihuna). East Tucanoan includes 15 languages spoken in north-western Brazil and the adjacent areas of Colombia; Cubeo with 6,300 speakers and Tucano with 6,600 are the largest.

*Macro-Jê: the group comprises the Jê family and fourteen other (possibly) related families, all spoken in Brazil. Some languages are found in eastern Brazil, others in the central savanna areas, others spread southwards from São Paulo to Rio Grande do Sul. The original homeland of the Macro-Jé was, probably, outside Amazonia proper, in the savannas of central Brazil.

    Southern Jê languages include Kaingang spoken by 20,000 people in the states of São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande, and Xokleng with just a few hundred speakers in Santa Catarina. Central Jê includes Xavante (9,600) and Xerente (1,800). Northern Jê consists of five languages of which Kayapó stands out with 7,100 speakers. The other Macro-Jé families have few members each and many have become extinct. All languages have complex vowel systems, including oral and nasal ones, and most a simple morphology.

*Small families and Isolates: Guahibo languages are spoken in the Colombian llanos and neighboring areas of Venezuela. Yanomani in Venezuela and adjacent areas of Brazil, Maco or Maku family in north-west Amazonia, Jivaroan or Jivaro in the Peruvian and Ecuadorean Amazonia, Arawá south of the Amazon, Nambiquara in the state of Mato Grosso do Norte in Brazil.

b) Chaco Region

*Guaicuruan: in northern Argentina, western Paraguay and the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. The main languages are: Qom or Toba spoken by 31,500 in Chaco and Formosa provinces of Argentina, in southern Paraguay, and in eastern Bolivia; Mocoví spoken by 3,000 in the northern part of Santa Fe and southern Chaco provinces of Argentina, Pilagá spoken by 4,000 in the northeastern part of Chaco and in eastern Formosa in Argentina, and Kadiwéu with 1,600 speakers in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Note: Toba is a pejorative name, nowadays Qom should be used instead.

*Matacoan: is spoken in northern Argentina, western Paraguay, and southeastern Bolivia. It comprises four languages: Wichí or Mataco (45,000), Nivaclé (14,000), Chorote (3,000), and Maká (1,500). Mataco and Guaicuruan families are probably related.

*Zamucoan: is a small language family of Paraguay (northeast Chaco) and Bolivia (Santa Cruz Department). It consists of just two languages: Ayoreo with 4,300 speakers and Chamacoco with 1,800.

*Mascoian: a small family of the Paraguayan Chaco including Guaná, Lengua, Sanapaná, Maskoy. According to most recent data they are all extinct or in the verge of extinction.

c) Pampas and Patagonia

Almost all of the indigenous peoples of southern Argentina were exterminated by the military campaigns of successive Argentinian governments, including the euphemistically called "Conquest of the Desert"  (Conquista del Desierto) of 1879-81, as well as  by the actions of big landowners.

*Het (extinct): the Het were the people of the Argentinian pampas. There is very little data about their languages and, thus, Het is not necessarily a linguistic family. From north to south, they were: the Taluhet in the provinces of San Luis, Córdoba, and Santa Fe, the Diuihet or Didiuhet who inhabited the pampas as far as Mendoza (the easternmost were called Querandí), and the Chechehet who lived as far south as the mouths of the Colorado and Río Negro rivers in southern Buenos Aires Province.

*Puelche (extinct): was another language of the pampas, possibly related to Het.

*Chonan (extinct): a small family whose main members were Ona or Selk'nam in Tierra del Fuego and Tehuelche in southern Patagonia.

*Yagán, Yaghan or Yámana (extinct): an isolate language of Tierra del Fuego.

*Kawesqar, Qawasqar or Alacaluf (almost extinct): an isolate in the southern tip of Chile, in the archipelago west of the mainland and particularly in Wellington Island.

d) The Andean, or Highland Area

*Chibchan: forms a linguistic bridge between South and Central America, being spoken from Nicaragua to Ecuador. It includes 17 languages spoken by more than 300,000 people of which only 40,000 in South America.

      In Central America the main members are: Ngäbere in Panamá and Costa Rica (174,000), Kuna San Blas in Panamá (57,000), Bribri in Costa Rica (11,000), Cabécar in Costa Rica (8,900), Teribe in Panama (3,300).

   In South America, Chibchan is found in western Venezuela, northern Colombia and north Ecuador. The main languages are: Arhuaco (8,000) and Kogi (10,000) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, Chimila (480) in the Central Magdalena Department of Colombia, Barí (5,400) straddling the Colombia and Venezuela border, Tunebo (3,500) in northern Colombia close to Venezuela.

*Chocoan: is spoken along the Pacific coast of Colombia and in the Province of Darién in Panamá. It has just two languages, Waunana (or Won Meu) and Emberá. Waunana is spoken by 4,000 in Colombia, along the lower San Juan River (in the south of Chocó Department), and by further 7,500 in Panamá (Province of Darién). Emberá consists of a series of dialects spoken throughout western Colombia by 70,000 and in Panamá by a further 22,000. It is one of the rare language groups in the Americas featuring ergative case.

*Quechuan: from southern Colombia to northwestern Argentina, with several territorial discontinuities. It is divided into numerous dialects with a limited degree of mutual intelligibility grouped into Quechua I or Central Peruvian Quechua, spoken in the Andes of Central and Northern Peru, and Quechua II located to the north and south of Quechua I, being spoken in northern and southern Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Argentina. Quechua and Aymara (see below) have very similar phonology and morphology and they share more than 20% of their lexicon, but these similarities can be explained by intensive contact. Quechua with more than seven million speakers is the largest South American indigenous language.

*Aymaran: comprises Aymara, a major language of Bolivia and Peru with two million speakers, and two minor Peruvian languages (Jaqaru and Cauqui).

*Uru-Chipaya: a two language family in Bolivia. Uru has become extinct while Chipaya is spoken by 1,200 people in the department of Oruro.

*Mapudungun, Mapuche, or Araucanian: originally dominant in Chile, now is confined to a southern area of the country and to several locations in Argentinian pampas and Patagonia. It is still, with a quarter-million speakers, one of the major South American languages. Mapudungun is agglutinating and suffixing like Quechua and Aymara, but it has practically no nominal morphology. In contrast its verbal morphology is rich.

*Chiquitano is an isolate rooted in the Department of Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia, spoken by about 6,000 to 8,000 people.

Speakers. There are about 17 million speakers of indigenous South American languages of which 93 % speak just one of three languages (Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní). The number of speakers of each family and those of the main languages are presented in descending order:

a) By family




























*excluding Central American speakers.

b) By language

















Given the sheer diversity of languages there are few common features among them, and in many respects Andean and Amazonian languages contrast at the phonological and morphological levels.

  1. Phonology

  2. -Voiced stops and fricatives are rare. Most languages do not have aspirated stops and affricates (Aymara is an exception). Affricates are less frequent than fricatives in Andean languages while in Amazonian languages the opposite is true. Cariban, Tupian and Panoan have small consonantal inventories. Complex consonant clusters are generally avoided.

  1. -Quechua and Aymara have three-vowel systems (i, a, u) while Amazonian languages have, typically,  five-vowel systems (i, e, a, ɨ, u/o) and, frequently, contrast oral and nasal vowels.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. -Many languages are of the agglutinative type using affixes to convey grammatical information and create new words. Andean languages are predominantly suffixing (Quechua and Aymara have no prefixes) while most Amazonian languages have prefixes, though fewer than suffixes. The individual elements remain distinctive and there is little change or fusion with other elements in the word though in Andean languages subject, object and tense suffixes on the verb may be fused.

  1. -Amazonian languages have few cases, usually limited to locative and instrumental/comitative. In contrast, Andean ones, like Quechua and Aymara, mark nominative, accusative and other cases such as genitive, ablative, locative, instrumental.

  1. -Gender is not marked in Andean languages as well as in many lowland ones. However, Arawakan and Tucanoan distinguish gender in the verb, and Guaicuruan marks gender in the noun. Many Amazonian languages have extensive classifier systems.

  1. -The syntactical function of nouns is generally indicated by suffixes or postpositions but rarely by prepositions.

  1. -Possession is expressed usually by prefixes or suffixes. In lowland languages there are possession constructions where the possessor is followed by the possessed noun modified by a possession marker (e.g., the man his-hut).

  1. -Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, meaning respectively "you and I”, and “I and someone other than you”.

  1. Verbal

  2. -In Andean languages there is no incorporation of nouns, adverbs and prepositions into the verb. In contrast, in many Amazonian languages adverbs and adpositions may be incorporated after the verb root; nouns may be incorporated, as well, before the root, though only those that are obligatorily possessed.

  1. -The verb 'to be' is absent in many languages and, thus, nominal sentences (without a verb) are common for expressing identification or location.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Every possible word order type is found in South American languages: Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), SVO, VSO, VOS, OVS, OSV.

  1. -Andean languages are typically nominative-accusative while some Amazonian languages display split ergativity.

  1. Lexicon

  2. -Amazonian languages usually have a very small set of lexical numbers. In contrast, Andean languages have complex numeral systems.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Language in the Americas. J. H. Greenberg. Stanford University Press (1987).

  2. -South American Indian Languages: Retrospect and Prospect. H. E. Klein, E. Manelis & L. R. Stark (eds). University of Texas Press (1985).

  3. -The Amazonian Languages. R. M. W. Dixon & A. Y. Aikhenvald (eds). Cambridge University Press (1999).

  4. -The Languages of the Amazon. A. Y. Aikhenvald. Oxford University Press (2012).

  5. -The Languages of the Andes. F. H. Adelaar & P. C. Muysken (eds). Cambridge University Press (2004).

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Native South American Languages

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