Beyond Tupi: Mapping Indigenous Contributions to Brazilian Culture

[Paper presented at the symposium "Linguistic and Other Cultural Exchanges across Brazilian History:
The Indigenous Role," University of Chicago, 28-29 October 2016]

The Tupi language (also known as Tupi Antigo or Tupinambá) occupies a prominent place in Brazil’s national imaginary, due to the role it played as a colonial language, and, consequently, the significant lexical legacy it left in Brazilian Portuguese. Its popularity is demonstrated by recurrent articles in the popular press, praising its importance as Brazil’s “original language,” by initiatives (academic and non-academic) to teach it, and by the active social-media presence of Tupi aficionados. To those with romantic inclinations, Tupi is not only seen as “the” original indigenous language, but also as Brazil’s truly national language. An irony that is lost in such “nativist” rhetoric is the fact that Tupi’s success is due mostly to its usefulness as a tool in the spread and consolidation of Portuguese colonial rule, to the detriment of the original linguistic and cultural diversity of indigenous Brazil. In fact, the use of Tupi words in Portuguese to refer to indigenous cultural contributions to Brazilian culture tends to obscure contributions from other ethnic groups, even though most of such cultural contributions are of a pan-indigenous nature, rather than being of a strictly-Tupi origin. Furthermore, very little attention has been given to the fact that Tupi influence was far from homogeneous throughout Brazil’s vast territory. This talk will discuss strategies to uncover non-Tupi indigenous contributions, beyond — and in spite of — their Tupi labels. A web-based, collaborative initiative to detect the different levels of Tupi influence throughout Brazilian Portuguese dialects will also be highlighted.
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