Thursday, 11 February 2010

Paraguay - Jesuits and Guarani

I'm doing my first South American country and I'm really excited about Paraguay because, being a big fan of travel magazines like Wanderlust and Lonely Planet MagazineI've read a lot about Paraguay's neighbours: Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina.  Paraguay, on the other hand, is a country I know absolutely nothing about!

Looking at Paraguay on a map, it looks relatively small compared to either Brazil or Argentina. Finding out that it is only a little bit smaller than both California and Sweden, helps put things in perspective. It's quite a sparsely populated country and most people seem to live in the East, between the Paraguay and Parana rivers. The western Chaco is already intriguing me, with its remoteness and its history, bringing Paraguay into conflict with Bolivia in the 1930's and leading, ultimately, to 35 years of dictatorship under Stroessner, and Paraguay's self-imposed isolation from world affairs.

Apart from Stroessner's years in power, the two things that immediately jump out at me, in relation to Paraguay, are the influence of the Jesuits and the status of one of Paraguay's two official languages, Guarani (the other being Spanish).

I'm just beginning to realise how different Guarani is from other native languages of the Americas. I spent a lot of time last month researching the Native American cultures and languages in the US and I think any of these would love to have the status that Guarani has, with its estimated 5 million speakers and the support and resources of the Paraguayan government. Guarani is classified as a member of the Tupi-Guarani language family and is the only native American language that has also been adopted by non-native American speakers, namely the European ancestors of Paraguay's majority mestizo population.

It's also unusual in that it has a strict system of nasal harmony, not just in affixes, like many African languages but, in fact, the whole word will be nasalised, including all vowels and consonants. When Europeans came to South America, they decided that all native American languages were more or less the same and belonged to one big language family. This seems like academic apathy to me and I'm much more excited about hints that Guarani might be traced back to places in Central Asia. To Guarani we owe words like Jaguar, Tapir and Piranha

So why did Guarani thrive when other native languages were eclipsed by Spanish, Portuguese and English? The easiest answer is - the Jesuits! Founded by the Spanish-Basque, Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, became a sort of 'defenders of the faith' sect, within the Catholic church, stopping Protestantism from spreading to places like Poland and Lithuania, later spreading the Catholic faith as religious missionaries to Asia and the New World.

The Jesuits strongly believed in and promoted use of the vernacular (as opposed to Latin) and their universities became famous as centres of study for lawyers and civil servants. Also, when the Jesuits came to South America as missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, they used Guarani to spread the word of God and established 'reductions', which were Christianised native communities, that gave the native people some protection from the excesses of colonisation that were so common elsewhere.

So great was the Jesuit influence, in Europe and the rest of the world, that they were eventually banned by most European countries, seeking refuge, ironically enough, in the only country that would tolerate them, Catherine the Great's Russia!

I've only hit the tip of the iceberg with these two themes and it's fascinating, but too much to blog about in one go. Reading about the Jesuits, in particular, has filled in another jigsaw piece for me, in the puzzle of world history.

I'm going to leave you with a short clip from Al-Jazeera, available through YouTube, so we can learn a little bit more about Guarani and (most exciting of all), hear the spoken language. Enjoy!

Image credits

The image of the man on the road is by flickruser Olmovich (Olmo Calvo Rodriguez) from Madrid, who is a part of a journalist co-operative that highlights the work of social movements and publishes an interesting (Spanish language) periodico called Diagonal.  To find out more, check out their website

The image of Ignatius of Loyola is a reproduction of a painting by Rubens, from Wikimedia Commons, and is copyright free. 
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