Majority of us, when we hear the phrase “Native American language”, will think right away about languages like Cherokee, Navajo or other languages spoken by the Native American tribes found in the United States. However, the United States isn’t the only part of the Americas where indigenous languages are spoken. Indigenous peoples lived all throughout North, Central, and South America before European countries started to conquer and colonize. Some tribes survived, but many didn’t. Those that did manage to survive and keep their traditions alive are constantly struggling with issues like governments that don’t respect their lands and widespread discrimination against indigenous peoples.
In Argentina and Chile, one of the common, and endangered, indigenous languages are called Mapuche. It is spoken by the Mapuche indigenous group, and is also known as Mapuzugun and Mapudungun. “Mapu” means “earth” and “che” means “people” in the Mapuche language. Here are four other things that will open your eyes about the indigenous languages of South America.
- There are three dialect groups for the Mapuche language
Despite not being as popular as Spanish in the areas that it is spoken, the Mapuche language actually consists of a few dialect groups. The groups are: north, central, and south. In each group, there are subgroups that add up to eight different Mapuche dialects. All dialects share a high level of mutual intelligibility, though dialects that are found in regions close to each other tend to be more mutually intelligible. However, due to immigration and geographic boundaries, this isn’t always the case.
- There are multiple ways to spell the same word
Like many indigenous languages, the Mapuche language had no writing system before Spain began to explore, conquer, and colonize areas where the Mapuche lived. As with many colonizing powers, the Spanish influence ended with the adoption of the Latin script as a writing system. However, the orthography of the language is something no one can agree upon it seems. The “Alfabeto Mapuche Unificado”, or Unified Mapuche Alphabet, could be considered the most official spelling system, since it is used in studies and literature about the Mapuche language itself. There are at least three other proposed spelling systems, though, each with rather different ways of spelling the same word. To this day, the issue of standardized Mapuche spelling is unresolved.
- The Mapuche language wouldn’t be what it is today without the Jesuits
Following the formula of many other stories of colonization and indigenous peoples, religion ended up playing a huge role in the language of the Mapuche people. The Jesuits sent many missionary priests to areas populated by the Mapuche, and a few of them used their time with them to write about the language spoken by the Mapuche. This resulted in works like “Arte de la Lengua General del Reyno de Chile”, or, roughly translated, “The Art of the General Language of the Kingdom of Chile”, among others, by Jesuit priests. These writings outlined the grammar and vocabulary of the Mapuche language to help future missionary priests better communicate with the indigenous population.