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Modern Tupi
Native to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela
Native speakers
19,000 (2004–2008)[1]
Official status
Official language in
São Gabriel da Cachoeira (Brazil)
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. It is also known by the Portuguese names língua geral da Amazônia and língua geral amazônica, both meaning "Amazonian general language", or even by the Latin lingua brasilica (Brazilian language). Nheengatu originated in northern Brazil in the 17th century as a lingua franca. Now known as nheengatu (also nhengatu, nyengatú, língua geral, geral, yeral), it is still spoken along the Rio Negro in northern Brazil (as well as in neighboring Colombia and Venezuela).

Current status[edit]

There are perhaps around 19,000 Nheengatu speakers worldwide according to The Ethnologue (2005),[3] although some journalists have reported as many as 30,000.[4][5] 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.[6][7] 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.[8]

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.[6]


Nheengatu was based on the language of the Tupi along the northern Brazilian coast in Maranhão and Pará. It was standardized by Jesuits from the vocabulary and pronunciation of the tupinambá dialect and adapted into a grammatical framework based on Portuguese. At its height in the 18th century, it was the dominant spoken language throughout Brazil's vast territory, along with is closely related southern counterpart, the Língua Geral Paulista, as it was used not only by Indians and missionaries but also, as an everyday language, by settlers of European ancestry. Nheengatu was carried into the interior and spread across the Amazon region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its use later declined, partially as a result of the imposition of Portuguese by the Marquis of Pombal (1758) and of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Brazil (1759) and because of immigration from Portugal.

Aside from the aforementioned Língua Geral Paulista, now extinct, Nheengatu is also closely related to Paraguayan Guarani, which, far from being extinct, is the most widely spoken language in that country and one of its official languages.

The name of the language is derived from the words nheen (meaning "tongue" or "to speak") and gatu (meaning "good").[6] The name of the related language Ñheengatu, in Paraguay, is similarly derived.



Parentheses mark marginal phonemes occurring only in few words, or with otherwise unclear status.[9]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nheengatu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nhengatu". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Ethnologue Report for Nhengatu
  4. ^ Rohter, Larry. "Language Born of Colonialism Thrives Again in Amazon." New York Times. August 28, 2005.
  5. ^ Angelo, Claudio (December 1998). "A língua do Brasil". Super Interessante. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c Alves Jr, Ozias (2010). Parlons Nheengatu: Une langue tupi du Brésil. Paris: L'Harmattan. ISBN 978-2-296-13259-7. 
  7. ^ "Cursos de Tupi Antigo e Lingua Geral". Retrieved 5 December 2013. 
  9. ^ Moore, Denny; Facundes, Sidney; Pires, Nádia (1994). Nheengatu (Língua Geral Amazônica), its History, and the Effects of Language Contact (PDF). Survey Of California And Other Indian Languages, Berkeley: University of California. 


External links[edit]