The linguistic diversity and multiplicity of South America probably is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Thousands of languages and dialects have been cataloged, including all those that have developed since the European conquest. Classification systems vary a great deal—from more than 100 “linguistic families” and many unrelated languages at one extreme to extremely simplified schemes at the other. There also is considerable disagreement on the composition of these “stocks” and how many languages should be classified. Most are now extinct, either because the peoples who spoke them have disappeared or because of acculturation into a European language or, in some instances, into another indigenous tongue.
The survival of Indian languages in the Indian-American areas has depended on a variety of factors. Colonial authorities helped spread Quechuan languages (those spoken by the Inca) because they were convenient for missionary activities and for government, and these languages often displaced local indigenous languages. Elsewhere, local languages gave way to new languages such as the língua-geral of Brazil (combining Tupí-Guaraní and Portuguese).
In many cases populations became bilingual, with an Indian language spoken at home and Spanish used for public transactions; examples include the Spanish-Guaraní speakers of Paraguay and the Quechuan-Spanish speakers throughout the Andes. The largest surviving indigenous language groups are Quechuan, Aymaran, Tupí-Guaraní, and Mapuche. Quechuan languages are in use primarily in the Andean highlands (southern Colombia to Bolivia) but also in large areas of the Amazon basin and in northwestern Argentina.
Quechuan, collectively the third largest language group in South America after Spanish and Portuguese, is not spoken by all Andean highlanders but is limited to certain sharply defined geographic domains. Aymaran languages are spoken in northwestern Bolivia, southeastern Peru, and small areas of northwestern Argentina and northern Chile. Most people in Paraguay speak Spanish and a dialect of Tupí-Guaraní and consider themselves to be mestizo Paraguayans rather than Indians. Mapuche speakers, who constitute the largest Indian population in Chile, are restricted to the south-central part of the country, with smaller groups found in Argentina, especially in Neuquén province. A great many other Indian languages also are spoken by members of numerous smaller groups, many of which are extremely localized and some of which are on the verge of extinction. These groups are found primarily on the periphery of lowland regions, in areas once isolated from slave trading and the rubber trade. Relatively few lowland groups are located in Brazil, the rest being found in the Hispanic countries.
Among the larger groups of the Amazon basin (excluding Quechua speakers) are the Chiquitanos of eastern Bolivia, the Arawaks (Campa, Machiguenga, etc.) and Shipobo of east-central Peru, the Cocama-Cocamilla of northeastern Peru, the Jívaroans along the Ecuador-Peru border, the Tikuna of the Brazil-Colombia-Peru border region, the Yanomamo of the Venezuela-Brazil border region, and the Makushí along the Brazil-Guyana border. Groups south of the Amazon basin include the Guaraní of southeastern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina and the Toba of northern Argentina. North of the Amazon basin are the Arawaks of Guyana, the Goajiro and Sinu (Cenú) of northern Colombia, and the Emberá along the Colombia-Panama border. The Quillacingas of Colombia occupy lands just to the north of the Quechua domain. "South America" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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