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Modern Tupi
Native to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela
Native speakers
19,000 (2004–2008)[1]
Official status
Official language in
 Brazil (São Gabriel da Cachoeira)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 yrl
Glottolog nhen1239[2]
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The Nheengatu language (Tupi: [ɲɛʔɛ̃ŋaˈtu], Portuguese: [ɲe.ẽgaˈtu]), often spelled Nhengatu, is an indigenous language of the Americas from the Tupi–Guarani language family. The name of the language is derived from the words nheen (meaning "tongue" or "to speak") and gatu (meaning "good").[3] The name of the related language Ñheengatu, in Paraguay, is similarly derived. Nheengatu is referred to by a large variety of names in literature, including Nhengatu, Coastal Tupian, Geral, Yeral (in Venezuela), Modern Tupí, Nyengato, Nyengatú, Waengatu, Neegatú, Is’engatu, Língua Brasílica and Tupi Amazônico.[3] It is also commonly referred to as Língua Geral Amazônica (LGA) in Brazil.

Speakers of Nheengatu can be found in the Upper Rio Negro region, with a close variety spoken in the Middle Rio Negro region. More specifically, speakers can be found in the municipality of São Gabriel de Cachoeira in the state of Amazonas in Brazil, where Nheengatu has been made an official language (alongside Baniwa, Tukano and Portuguese) since 2002. Speakers can also be found in the neighbouring countries of Venezuela and Colombia.[4]

Current status[edit]

There are around 2000 speakers in Venezuela, 3000 in Colombia, and around 3000 in Brazil. However, there are inconsistencies across literature with regards to the number of speakers of Nheengatu: the Summer Institute of Linguistics gives an estimate of 3000 speakers in Brazil, where as other sources have cited the speakers to be at around 30,000 (Ângelo, 1998), which is highly unlikely based on the total population of 41,885 of São Gabriel de Cachoeira.[3]

There are perhaps around 19,000 Nheengatu speakers worldwide according to The Ethnologue (2005),[5] although some journalists have reported as many as 30,000.[6][7] The language has recently regained some recognition and prominence after having been suppressed for many years. It is spoken in the Upper Rio Negro region of Amazonas state, in the Brazilian Amazon, and in neighboring portions of Colombia and Venezuela. It is the native language of the area's rural population, and it is also used as a common language of communication between Indians and non-Indians, and between Indians from different tribes. Its use is also a way for some of the native peoples who have lost their original languages to affirm their ethnic identity, as in the case of the Barés, the Arapaços, the Baniwa people, the Werekena and others.

In 1998, a professor at the University of São Paulo, Eduardo de Alameida Navarro, founded an organization called Tupi Aqui (Tupi Here), dedicated to promoting the teaching of historic Tupi and Nheengatu in high schools in São Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil.[3][8] Professor Navarro has written a textbook for the teaching of Nheengatu which Tupi Aqui makes available, together with other teaching materials, on a website hosted by the University of São Paulo.[9]

In December 2002, Nheengatu gained the status of official language alongside Portuguese in the municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, where many speakers are concentrated, pursuant to local law 145/2002.[3]

Ethnologue classifies Nheengatu as “shifting”, with a ranking of 7 on the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) (Simons and Fennig 2017). According to this scale, this rating suggests that “the child-bearing population can use the language amongst themselves, but it is not being transmitted to children”. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Nheengatu is classified as “severely endangered” (Moseley 2010).


To understand Nheengatu as it exists today, it is crucial to understand its historical origins and its evolution. Moore (2014) documents the historical development of Nheengatu, which is a case of language contact that has stretched over five hundred years, ever since the Portuguese landed in Brazil in 1500. Upon European contact, there was a lot of cultural and commercial exchange. European men also sought after local women and started families, producing children (or mestizos) who would speak their native language, which is the now-extinct precursor of Nheengatu called Tupinambá (also known as Brasílica or Coastal Tupi). Europeans also learned this language in order for them to act as middlemen, and Tupinambá went on to be used in the colony after the Portuguese settled down in the new lands permanently.[4] By the mid-16th century, Jesuits arrived in Bahia, Brazil. These missionaries were active learners of the native languages, even producing language manuals. Better-known linguistic works from the 16th and early 17th century are Arte da Grammatica da Lingoa mais usada na costa do Brasil by Father José de Anchieta (1595) and Arte da Língua Brasilíca by Luis Figueira (1621).[4][10]

Amazonia was established as the second colony at the beginning of the 17th century. At the mouth of the Amazon, the state of Maranhão was linguistically diverse, and faced an influx of immigrants from Brazil who spoke Tupinambá: “Indians, whites, blacks, mulattos and mestizos leaving their homes in Brazil to populate the northern colony brough the Brasílica with them”.[4] The number of speakers of other languages immensely outnumbered the Portuguese settlers in this second colony. With this influx of immigrants from Brazil, Tupinambá was the language that people would go to within the colony. (Rodrigues 1996a and Freire 2004)

Língua Geral was established as an official language from 1689-1727, after which Portuguese was promoted instead, but to no avail. By the mid 18th century, Língua Geral Amazônica (distinct from Língua Geral Paulista, a similar variety used farther south) was used throughout the colony. At this point, Tupinambá remained intact, but as a “liturgical language”.[4] The languages used in daily life had evolved drastically over the century due to language contact, with Tupinambá as the “language of the ritual acts, and Língua Geral Amazônica the language of popular communication and, therefore, of religious instruction”.[11] Moore (2014) observes that by the mid-18th century, Língua Geral Amazônica and Tupinambá were already distinct from each other.[4] By then, the original Tupinambá community was facing a decline, but other speech communities were still required by the Portuguese missionaries to learn the Tupinambá language. Efforts to communicate between communities resulted in the ‘corruption’ of the Tupinambá language, hence the distinction between Tupinambá and Língua Geral Amazônica.

Also during the mid 18th century, however, the indigenous population then faced a sharp decline due to disease, being forced into hard labour and being oppressed by their Portuguese colonisers. There was an active push by the colonisers to increase the Portuguese presence: villages were eradicated along the Amazon, and there was an effort to replace Língua Geral Amazônica with Portuguese. There were different varieties of Tupinambá within the different communities along the Amazon, but these varieties were large replaced by Portuguese at the beginning of the 19th century.[11] 1822 marked Brazil’s independence; after which there was a large revolt, called the Cabanagem, against the Europeans. This involved Indians, caboclos and blacks, over a decade, and much blood was shed. 40,000 lives were lost; all of which were from the Nheengatu-speaking community.[12] With the increase in immigration due to urbanization, remaining speakers of Língua Geral Amazônica, or Nheengatu, were pushed to more remote areas in western Amazonia. Linguistic documents were also published during this time, due to increased interest in Nheengatu.

Nheengatu continued to evolve in the 20th century, as it expanded in the Upper Rio Negro region. There was contact with other languages such as Baré, Baniwa, Warekana, Tukano and Dâw (Cabalzar; Ricardo 2006 in Cruz 2015) Due to significant economic and political events such as the Rubber Booms, Portuguese presence was once again felt due to these events, forcing indigenous populations to relocate or into hard labour. Their language, naturally, was once again influenced with the increased presence of Portuguese speakers.[4]

Hence, Nheengatu has evolved tremendously over the course of time, since its origins as Tupinambá.

Language family[edit]

Nheengatu developed from the now-extinct Tupinambá language, and belongs to the Tupi-Guarani branch of the Tupi language family.[4] The Tupi-Guarani language family accounts for a large, diverse group of languages “including, for example, Xetá, Sirionó, Araweté, Ka’apor, Kamayurá, Guajá, and Tapirapé”. Many of these languages had differentiated years before the Portuguese arrived in Brazil. Over time, the term Tupinambá was employed to describe groups that were “linguistically and culturally related”, even though the original tribe was mostly gone.

Existing literature[edit]

Over the course of its evolution since its beginnings as Tupinambá, extensive research has been done on Nheengatu. There have been studies done at each phase of its evolution, but much has been focused on how aspects of Nheengatu, such as its grammar or phonology, have changed upon contact over the years. (Facundes et al. 1994 and Rodrigues 1958, 1986).

As mentioned earlier, the first documents that were produced were by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Arte da Grammatica da Lingoa mais usada na costa do Brasil by Father José de Anchieta (1595) and Arte da Língua Brasilíca by Luis Figueira (1621). These were detailed grammars that served their religious purposes. Multiple dictionaries have also been written over the years (Mello 1967, Grenand and Epaminondas 1989, Barbosa 1951). More recently, Stradelli (2014) also published a Portuguese-Nheengatu dictionary.

There have also been several linguistic studies of Nheengatu more recently, such as Borges (1991)’s thesis on Nheengatu phonology and Cruz (2011)’s detailed paper on the phonology and grammar of Nheengatu. She also studied the rise of number agreement in modern Nheengatu, by analyzing how grammaticalization occurred over the course of its evolution from Tupinambá (Cruz 2015). Cruz (2014) also studies reduplication in Nheengatu in detail, as well as morphological fission in bitransitive constructions. A proper textbook for the conducting of Nheengatu classes has also been written. (Navarro 2011). Lima and Sirvana (2017) provides a sociolinguistic study of Nheengatu in the Pisasu Sarusawa community of the Baré people, in Manaus, Amazonas.

Language documentation projects[edit]

Language documentation agencies (such as Soas, Museu do Índio, Museu Goeldi and Dobes) are currently not engaged in any language documentation project for Nheengatu. However, research on Nheengatu by Moore (1994) was supported by Museu Goeldi and the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq), and funded by the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA) and the Inter-American Foundation. In this study, Moore focused on the effects of language contact, and how Nheegatu evolved over the years with the help of a Nheegatu-speaking informant. Moore (2014) urges for the “location and documentation of modern dialects of Nheegatu”, due to their risk of becoming extinct.[4]


Anthropological research has been done on the changing cultural landscapes along the Amazon, as well as life of the Tupinambá people and their interactions with the Jesuits.[13] Floyd (2007) describes how populations navigate between their “traditional” and “acculturated” spheres.[14] Other studies have focused on the impact of urbanization on Indigenous populations in the Amazon (de Oliveira 2001).



Parentheses mark marginal phonemes occurring only in few words, or with otherwise unclear status.[4]

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
plain lab.
Plosive plain p t (tʃ) k (kʷ) (ʔ)
voiced (b) (ɡ)
prenasalised ᵐb ⁿd ᵑɡ
Fricative s ʃ
Trill r
Nasal m n
Approximant w j j̃


Short Nasal
Close i ĩ
Mid e
Close-mid o õ
Open a ã
Close-back u ũ


There are eight word classes in Nheengatu: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, postpositions, pronouns, demonstratives and particles.[4] These eight word classes are also reflected in Cruz (2011)’s Fonologia e Gramática do Nheengatú. In her books, Cruz includes 5 chapters in the Morphology section that describes lexical classes, nominal and verbal lexicogenesis, the structure of the noun phrase and grammatical structures. In the section on lexical classes, Cruz discusses personal pronominal prefixes, nouns and their subclasses (including personal, anaphoric and demonstrative pronouns as well as relative nouns), verbs and their subclasses (such as stative, transitive and intransitive verbs) and adverbial expressions. The subsequent chapter on nominal lexicogenesis discusses endocentric derivation, nominalization and nominal composition. Under verbal lexicogenesis in Chapter 7, Cruz covers valency, reduplication and the borrowing of loanwords from Portuguese. The following chapter then discusses the distinction between particles and clitics, including examples and properties of each grammatical structure.


There are two types of pronouns in Nheengatu: personal or interrogative. Nheengatu follows the same pattern as Tupinambá, in that the same set of personal pronouns is adopted for the subject and object of a verb.[4]

Singular Sg Prefix Plural Pl Prefix
1 isé se- yãndé yane-
2 ĩndé ne- pẽỹẽ pe-
3 aʔé i-


aẽtá ta-

Examples of Personal Pronouns in use:

    inde re-kuntai amu nheenga
2SG 2sgA-speak other.entity language
"You speak another language."
    isé se-ruri a-iku.
1SG 1sgE-be.happy 1sgA.be
"I am happy."

As observed in Table 3, in Nheengatu, personal pronouns can also take the form of prefixes. These prefixes are necessary in the usage of verbs as well as postpositions. In the latter case, free forms of the pronouns are not permitted.[4] Moore illustrates this with the following:

    i) se-irũ ii) *isé-irũ
1SG(prefix)-with 1sg-with
‘with me’ ‘with me’

The free form of the first person singular pronoun cannot be combined with the postposition word for ‘with’.

The second set of pronouns are interrogative, and are used in question words.

    mãʔã ‘what, who, whom’
awá ‘who, whom’

Verbal affixes[edit]

According to Moore (2014), throughout the evolution of Nheengatu, processes such as compounding were greatly reduced. Moore cites a summary by Rodrigues (1986), stating that Nheegatu lost Tupinambá’s system of five moods (indicative, imperative, gerund, circumstantial and subjunctive), converging into a single indicative mood. Despite such changes alongside influences from Portuguese, however, derivational and inflectional affixation was still intact from Tupinambá. A select number of modern affixes arose via grammaticization of what used to be lexical items. For example, Moore (2014) provides the example of the former lexical item ‘etá’, which means ‘many’. Over time and grammaticization, this word became to plural suffix ‘-itá’.[4]

It is interesting to note that apart from the pronominal prefixes shown in Table (3), there are also verbal prefixes.[4] Verbs in Nheengatu fall into three mutually exclusive categories: intransitive, transitive and stative. By attaching verbal prefixes to these verbs, a sentence can be considered well-formed.

Singular Plural
1 a- ya-
2 re- pe-
3 u- aẽtá-ú

Examples of verbal prefixes:

    i) a-puraki ii) a-mũỹã
1sg-work 1sg-make
‘I work.’ I make (an object).’

In these examples from Moore (2014), the verbal first person singular prefix ‘a-’ is added to the intransitive verb for ‘work’ and transitive verb for ‘make’ respective. Only when prefixed with this verbal clitic, can they be considered well-formed sentences.[4]


Another interesting morphological feature of Nheengatu is reduplication, which Cruz (2011) explains in her grammar to employed differently based on the community of Nheengatu speakers. This is a morphological process that was originally present in Tupinambá, and it tends to be used to indicate a repeated action.[4]

    u-tuka-tuka ukena
"He is knocking on the door (repeatedly)."

In this example, the reduplicated segment is tuka, which is the Nheengatu verb for ‘knock’. This surfaces as a fully reduplicated segment. However, partial reduplication also occurs in this language. In the following example elicited by Cruz, the speaker reduplicates the first two syllables (a CVCV sequence) of the stem word.

    Apiga ita sasi~sasiara.
Men PL RED~BE.sad
"The men are sad."

Another point to note from the above example is the usage of the plural word ita. Cruz (2011) highlights that there is a distinction in the usage of reduplication between communities. The speakers of Içana and the upper region of the Rio Negro use Nheengatu as their main language, and reduplication occurs in the stative verbs, expression intensity of a property, and the plural word ita need not be used necessarily. On the other hand, in Santa Isabel do Rio Negro and the more urban area of São Gabriel de Cachoeira, speakers tend to be bilingual, with Portuguese used as a main mode of communication. In this context, these speakers also employ reduplication to indicate the intensity of a property, but the plural ita must be used if the subject is plural.


Valency change[edit]

In her description of the phonology and grammar of Nheengatu, Cruz (2011) writes that there are two strategies in Nheengatu that express valency change, which involves the transformation of verbs. As Cruz (2011) explains in a previous chapter, transitive verbs are defined syntactically by their ability to select two arguments, while intransitives allow the selection of only one argument. This division is marked morphologically distinctly in Nheengatu. Intransitive verbs need to be morphologically transformed so they can select two arguments, and vice versa. There are two morphological operations that allow to change valency:

  1. intransitive to transitive, via mu- 'causative', and
  2. transitive to intransitive, via yu- ‘reflexive/reciprocal’.

According to Cruz, it is not possible for the same verb to function either as transitive or as intransitive. The identification of morphemes as valency-change operators takes only syntactic criteria into consideration. However, from a semantic point of view, Cruz notes that these morphemes are somewhat restricted in the type of thematic role that the inserted (or demoted) argument can receive. Cause-derived verbs select a subject that receives the thematic role CAUSER. On the other hand, verbs derived by the 'reflexive / reciprocal' morpheme select a single argument, characterized at the same time as AGENT and PATIENT.


The causative mu- is used to increase the valence of intransitive predicates. According to Cruz, it is a highly productive process, which allows nouns and intransitive verbs (both dynamic and stative) to be derived as transitive verbs. Cruz provides the following two examples to illustrate this process:

    1a) i-manha u-paka
3SGE-mother 3SGA-wake.up
“His mother woke up."
    1b) tambaka nhaã miku
3plA-CAUS-to.wake.up DEMDIST monkey
“They woke the monkey up.”
    2a) kunhãtai-miri suri
girl-DIM 3SGE:be.happy
“The little girl is happy.”
    2b) a-muri wera inde
1SGA-CAUS-be.happy HAB 2SG
“I always please you.”

Example 1a illustrates a dynamic intransitive verb, while example 1b indicates how possessing the mu- causative morpheme changes the argument. Similarly, example 2a illustrates stative intransitive verbs, which becomes a transitive predicate in 2b.

Cruz (2011) also provides the following table to illustrate more examples of dynamic intransitive verbs with the causative morpheme:

Base (semantic characterization of the event) Intransitive Causative
Change of state (internal cause) puka “to burst” mpuka “to burst OBJ”
Movement wike “to enter”

paka “to wake up”

muwike “to make OBJ enter”

mbaka “to make OBJ wake up”

Change of state (external cause) pa(wa) “to end”

sasa “to pass” yupiru “to begin”

mba(wa) “to make OBJ end”

musasa “to pass O” muyupiru “to make OBJ begin”

According to Cruz, nouns can also be combined with the causative. In a previous chapter, Cruz describes how a noun phrase can occur as a noun predicate, which selects an argument to function as the subject. The causative morpheme allows an increase of valency of this predicate. As a result of this operation, the noun is transformed into a transitive verb. In semantic terms (Cruz (2011: 288)), the transitive predicate formed from a noun can be interpreted as a “transfer relation”, in which a CAUSER is generated, and in relation to the entity referred to by the original noun, affects a CAUSEE. This is illustrated in the example below:

    3) a-su a-mu-pasanga se-mbira perewa
1SGA-go 1SGA-CAUS-medicine 1SGS-son wound
“I will heal my son’s wound.”

Literally: “I am going to make medicine on my son’s wound”

Cruz (2011) provides the following table, based on data she collected from Grenand and Ferreira (1989)’s dictionary: