Hierarchy of language

Posted on November 8, 2010

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Paraguay has two official languages, Spanish and Guaraní.  Guaraní is an indigenous language (most mestizo Paraguayans are the result of intermixing between indigenous Guaraní and Spanish colonizers), so you would think that there is more respect for indigenous languages and cultures in Paraguay than elsewhere.  In my experience that only seems to be partially true.

There’s a hierarchy of language in Paraguay.  Spanish is the language of public discourse, and Guaraní is the language of common discourse.  Many of my friends in Asunción are upper or upper middle class and they speak mostly Spanish.  Some of them don’t understand any Guaraní, although they may use Guaraní swear words.  People of the lower classes and in rural areas mostly speak Guaraní.

Guaraní is a language of national pride (‘real Paraguayans speak Guarani’) but also of the lower classes, so the way people identify with it depends on the context.

Example #1: A Paraguayan woman I know told me that she wasn’t sure if one of my acquaintances in town, who was from another Latin American country, was a ‘good person’ or not because they only spoke Spanish and no Guaraní.

Example #2: On another occasion, this same woman complained that her sister-in-law had forgotten to buy something for her at the store and said “That one is stupid, she only speaks Guaraní.”

I think that if you plan to be in Paraguay for a long time, learning Spanish isn’t enough, you need to also make an effort to learn some Guaraní.  And the locals will tell you that!  There’s a lot of pressure on you to learn Guaraní if you spend a lot of time in rural areas.  One man told me that he speaks Spanish, but it’s not ‘his’ language, it’s easier for him to express ideas in Guaraní.

I have made an effort to pick up some basic Guaraní words, but my priority is learning Nivacle, and I don’t want to confuse the two!

Posted in: Language