Region 7: South & Central America

Welcome to South & Central America

Oy, tude bem! My name is Caylen Cole-Hazel, and I’ll be your tour guide for the next few days as we explore Central and South America. Let’s get started! We’ll begin our journey with a preliminary stop in the great country of Brazil. Brazil showcases a vast array of unique flora and fauna, and is home to some 210 languages. Over 180 of these languages are indigenous. With Brazil’s overwhelming Portuguese assimilation language policies and rapid urbanization, only about 350,000 people speak an indigenous language, but there is a good chance you might hear one or two of them as you are perusing the streets of two of Brazil’s famous neighborhoods…

Here's an introduction video to Rio:
Live the Language - Rio de Janeiro


We’ll begin our tour acquainting ourselves with the historic icon “Cristo Redentor”. This 98 ft tall statue looks out over the bustling city of Rio de Janeiro, and can be seen from nearly every location in the city. Cristo Redentor represents the influence of Christianity on Brazil, and has become a symbol largely associated with the city of Rio de Janeiro. This statue is located on Corcovado mountain and is part of the Tijuca Forest National Park.

For all the times you’ve ever heard Sergio Mendes “Girl from Ipanema” and wondered why her nose was always in the air, you are about to find out, as we tour this famous Brazilian neighborhood. Ipanema is a word from the Tupi language which translates in English to “Stinky Lake”. This neighborhood is where the Bossa Nova sound that stormed the 1960’s. picture of Ipanema:

While listening to the smooth sounds of Brazil’s jazz heritage on the beautiful shores of Ipanema, for a treat, you can enjoy the sweet chilled flavors of native brazilian fruit confections from Mil Frutas, a local ice cream parlor which features unique and exotic flavors of sorbets and ice creams. Picture of ice cream/fruit:

Just down the road, we’ll be visiting one of the most famous beaches in the world, Copacabana’s Balneario coastline. Balneario stretches nearly 2.5 miles (4 km). Famed for white sands and clear blue waters, this area is perfect for lounging in the sun on a breezy Brazilian afternoon.

Last but not least on our trip to Brazil, we’ll take a sneak peak at the reconstruction of Brazil’s Estádio do Maracanã, the site where the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic games are scheduled to take place. The Estadio do Maracanã was originally built to host the FIFA World Cup in 1950, where Brazil beat Uruguay for the championship title 2-1. Since the construction of Estádio do Maracanã, a neighborhood has cropped up around the sports arena. Both the stadium and neighborhood derive their name from the Tupi/Guarani word Maracanã (Green Bird) which originally applied to the river running through the area. Consequently, a population of indigenous people still live in this neighborhood in Rio. The river is now canaled, and sits with its people in the shadow the the stadium. As construction ensues to prepare for the upcoming influx of sports enthusiasts in the upcoming years, the people of Maracanã are concerned that they may be forced to relocate.

Thanks for sticking with our journey, we'll see you on the next day trip!

Day Trip 1: Costa Rica

Where to land:

Juan Santamaría International Airport, Costa Rica


Buenos dias mi amigos de l’aventurita en Costa Rica! First, we’ll travel to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, whereupon we will embark to Reserva Indígena Boruca. Here we will find the Boruca indigenous community, home to approximately 2250 people. Here people are the last remaining speakers of Boruca, which is an amalgamation of various interzonal languages between the Carribbean and Peru. Spanish is the primary language of these people, though Brucan sign language is an indigenous sign language that still remains alive. The Bruncan people maintain their own unique way of living and maintaining an economy. The primary subsistence is small scale agriculture. Brunca people are famed for their mask making for “La Fiesta de los Diablitos”, a three day new year’s celebration. Brunca people use a variety of locally obtained materials to create their masks, and much time and dedication goes into designing them.

Traditional foods of the Reserva Indigena Boruca are similar to the Costa Rican staple diet. Some recipe variations can be found in the preparation of Tomales, and other special dishes are presented at various occasions. Chocado is a special preparation of ground banana prepared with a wooden tool which is made from wood found only in the mountainous areas of the region. Chicha is a variation of an ancient Incan corn drink which is prepared by soaking and fermenting grains, water, and sugar.

Our next stop in Costa Rica is Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, where we will meet a diverse cultural representation of American peoples. Many people live in and around this coastal city. A great majority of voters in this region are part of the indigenous speakers of Bribri. The Bribri live on the outskirts of town and in the surrounding mountains, where they maintain the viability of their language. Bribri sign language is also prevalent and used by deaf speakers in the villages surrounding Puerto Viejo.

Documentary with BriBri language

The secondary language of these people is the national language, Spanish. If you are interested in immersing yourself in the culture and Spanish language of Costa Rica with “Spanish by the Sea” or any number of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca’s language schools. In your free time, enjoy the great surf-worthy waves and radical beaches, or trek through the Central American rainforests where you’ll see monkeys, toucans, and a multitude of other great species.

Stay tuned for our next exciting day trip!

Day Trip 2: Chile

Where to land:

Presidente Carlos Ibáñez del Campo International Airport, Chile


Here we are at our last stop in South/Central America - Chile

Here in Santiago we’ll have the opportunity to become acquainted with one of South America’s largest distinct indigenous language communities: The Mapuche. Despite assimilation efforts from Spanish influence since the early 20th century, the Mapuche have successfully resisted against such influences and have been able to maintain their own religion and language, Mapudungun. Now about 37 percent of Santiago’s population is Mapuche.

As we travel South through Chile, we will stop off in the town of Temuco. Temuco is unique for many reasons. One encouraging aspect of this town of 250,000 + individuals is the prevalence of Mapuche education. Though Mapudungun used to be banned in schools, now programs are opening up in Temuco elementary schools to encourage use and growth of the language. The poetry of Tamuco and Chile’s rich history can be found in the hip avenues and art galleries that have opened up since the days of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Special sites such as Cerro Neilol lend an appreciation for the past pre-colonial forests and environment, and serve to remind the world and the Mapuche of the importance of cultural and environmental heritage.

Temuco in 35 seconds

Punta Arenas is the largest city in the 46 southern parallel. This city originally developed as a penal colony in 1848, but has since grown as an area of geopolitical and ecological importance.

Due to the history of Cape Horn’s treacherous passages and various seafaring vessels, Punta Arenas has a strong prevalence of maritime culture. During your stay in this city, you can visit the Nao Victoria Museum, and see history firsthand as you explore replicas of the first ship to have sailed completely around the world. Many European languages were introduced to the Americas via this trade route and global expansion of colonial empires as they tried to circumnavigate the globe. Throughout our travels we have witnessed and taken part in Spanish and Portuguese assimilation programs and strong push to homogenize languages in South and Central America. Exploring the route of imperialization and witnessing the damaging effects of linguistic assimilation as has played out in the southernmost tip of South America, we will experience the importance of linguistic tolerance and maintenance of diversity.

The Tierra del Fuego archipeligo is not only famous for its unforgivable seas and treacherous environment, but also for its fragile linguistic heritage. Many languages from this area are extinct due to genocides and conversion to Spanish in the 1800s and 1900s. However, there are still a few speakers of Kawésqar left around these islands.

No visit to Tierra del Fuego would be complete without an encounter with Cape Horn. This historic milestone is known as “the sailor’s graveyard” due to the gales and storms that frequented this area during the circumnavigation attempts by early colonial era sailors, conquistadores, and merchants.

Though Cape Horn is not the southernmost point of South America, it is the southernmost home range of the magestic Megellanic penguin. This threatened species at the bottom of the world serves as a reminder that in order to continue to enjoy the unique and wonderful presence of diversity in our world, we all must work to preserve, respect, and learn from eachother’s differences while maintaining our own way of life.

On this trip, I hope you have gained a snapshot of appreciation for the linguistic, geographic, and cultural diversity of America. Please remind the folks back home how important it is that we all support eachother in whatever ways we can. As your travel guide, it has been my pleasure exploring Central and South America with you. Please don’t forget to donate to The LINGUIST List to ensure future fun, educational adventures like this one in the year’s to come!

Stay tuned for our next exciting trip!

Featured Linguists

Joel Sherzer, Featured Linguist

Goethe Universitat

My contribution to linguistics has been to analyze language in cultural and social contexts. I have used this approach to my study of the language and culture of the Kuna of Panama, the work I am best known for. Many students and scholars who have worked with Latin American indigenous languages and peoples have been influenced by my work.

It all started in Central High School in Philadelphia. Four years of high school Spanish kindled my interest in languages other than English and in grammar. Oberlin College was a decisive experience. I studied French, Spanish, Latin, and Russian, as well as a smattering of linguistics. In the summers I participated in Oberlin programs in France and Mexico. I also took part in a Princeton program in Paris where I sold books in the department store Au Printemps.

After I graduated Oberlin I had a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico that enabled me to study Nahuatl, one of many people who cut their linguistic teeth on this fascinating language. I became part of a group of fascinating anthropologists, linguists, and artists. They worked with Morris Swadesh on Mexican indigenous languages and cultures, including an effort to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs, and volunteered their expertise for the linguistics section of the then new museum of anthropology in Chapultepec park.

With a Woodrow Wilson fellowship I began graduate work in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. There I was fortunate to study and interact with a creative, dynamic, and pioneering group of people in various departments. The work of my Penn teachers has remained with me all of my scholarly life. Along with others, I frequently crossed the street between the anthropology and linguistic departments.
Henry Hoenigswald stressed areal and typological approaches to language change and history.
Dell Hymes trained me in ethnographic approaches to language.
David Sapir, like his father Edward, used texts to reveal grammatical and cultural patterning in his research in Africa.
Erving Goffman focused on structure and pattern in everyday interaction. Bill Labov elaborated fieldwork techniques and studied variation in language use.
My dissertation, which I rewrote as a book, dealt with areal-typological patterns in indigenous languages north of Mexico.

After grad school I was offered a position at the University of Texas in the Anthropology and Linguistics departments. I developed a program in linguistic anthropology, along with wonderful colleagues, Richard Bauman, Greg Urban, and Tony Woodbury. In my first year at Texas I edited Morris Swadesh’s book on the origin and diversification of language. This was a labor of love, as Swadesh had become a good friend before his untimely death. Another person I became close to over the years was William Bright, with whom I shared interests in areal-typological linguistics and verbal art.

While at Texas I began many years of fieldwork among the Kuna of Panama. My Kuna research involved close collaboration with individuals who do not read or write but who shared with me their remarkable linguistic and cultural knowledge, expressed in their conversations, stories, myths, chants, and songs. In addition, I have over the years become friends with and collaborated with many people who study various aspects of Kuna life.

My approach to Kuna language and culture led me to develop, along with colleagues Greg Urban and Tony Woodbury, what has come to be called the discourse centered approach to language and culture. We organized a series of conferences at Texas where people presented their work on different forms of discourse found in indigenous America. The tape recordings were transcribed and translated and stored in published form and/or in libraries. With the availability of the Internet, along with Christine Beier, Heidi Johnson, Lev Michael, and Tony Woodbury, I founded and now direct AILLA, The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, whose purpose is to preserve indigenous languages by archiving them in digital form. AILLA has been very successful. Up to now over 250 languages have been archived, and AILLA will no doubt continue to grow.

Within linguistics and linguistic anthropology, two foci have come to characterize my work, speech play and verbal art. These foci have taken me to various places in the world, including Panama, Mexico, France, and Bali.

Joel Sherzer