A Bilingual Country

Paraguay and the Guarani Tongue

By Benjamín Fernández

Although Paraguay does not have a coast, water forms an integral part of its landscape. Photo by Tetsu Espósito, www,yluux.com

If you arrived in a country where almost 90% of the inhabitants speak Guarani, an official and national language along with Spanish but do not identify themselves as “Indian” or aboriginal (and even the tribe has disappeared), you would think they suffered a severe identity crisis. However, we Paraguayans are very proud of our bilingual (Spanish and Guarani) condition and of Guarani as an assimilation tool for our many different cultures: Mennonites from Europe and Canada, Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs, Japanese, Koreans, North Americans, Indians from India and Europeans from every corner of that continent.

Immigration has been encouraged in Paraguay in part because the country was almost completely depopulated during the so-called Great War (1865-1870). Some say as little as 15% of the population survived after confronting the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. That was an extremely high price to pay in military and civilian victims to defend its territory, identity and culture.

Paraguay was reconstructed by women—the majority of men perished, as Brazilian author Julio José Chiavenato explains in his book, American Genocide: The Paraguayan War. He cites a letter sent by the Duke of Caxias, the commander of the Brazilian Army to Emperor Don Pedro II on November 18, 1867:

It is impossible to triumph in the war against Paraguay…instead of being a war that strives for legitimate aspirations, it is a war determined to destroy, to annihilate. This demonstrates beyond a doubt that even if we had 200,000 troops to continue the war against Paraguay, we would have to reduce the entire Paraguayan population to ashes in order to triumph; and this is not an exaggeration because I am in possession of some irrefutable data that if we managed to kill all the men, we would have to combat the women, who would replace them with equal courage and martial fervor and with the impetus and determination inspired by their lost relatives that feeds their desire for revenge. Would such a triumph against a people be acceptable? We could, perhaps, count on elements to obtain such a victory, but if we obtained it, what would we have achieved? ….

It would mean conquering not only an entire people, but a vast cemetery in which we bury all the Paraguayan population and resources with a hundred times more the Brazilian population and resources. And what would we be in this vast cemetery? We would be the gravediggers who have to bury the ashes of our victims, and we would have to answer to God and the world with its outcries and, more than this, with the Paraguayan nation disappeared and the Brazilian population disappeared in proportion to its greater size, who would hold the responsibility, if not Brazil and Brazil alone, for the damage caused by this war and its subjects (p. 205).

The text is more than eloquent about Brazil's perception of this largely unrecognized war whose cruel legacy is still perceptible in Paraguay, reflected in the courage of its men and the commitment of its women. A few months ago, Pope Francis, an Argentine, recognized the importance not only of the reconstruction of the nation, but also the very preservation of its culture through its mother tongue: Guarani. Language is our principal tool to affirm our identity as a nation and as a collective. We shield ourselves from a hostile world through our language. It defines our character, temperament and personality. We absorb every other culture with the assumption that learning the language is a key to understanding and integration. Paraguay has the highest level of bilingualism in all of Latin America. Nine out of ten Paraguayans speak both languages, and it is impossible to understand the subtleties of the Paraguayan culture without understanding some Guarani. 

A few years ago, former U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay James Cason, now the mayor of Coral Gables, Florida, decided to learn Guarani. He had done such a good job that his farewell was a song concert in Guarani at a large local theatre. We felt very proud of him for his effort and interest in understanding the country.


Paraguay is a complicated country with a language that is difficult to explain; for example, there are five ways to say “dawn” (ko ´e, koé, ti ko ´embota, koe ju, koe soro). It takes about three minutes for the sun to dawn, but it requires five different expressions to describe it in Guarani. 

Guarani is an onomatopeic language that imitates the sounds of nature, so a waterfall may be called chololó or charará to describe the unique characteristics of Iguazú as one of the largest waterfalls in the world.  Or it plays with the very name of the country: some define Paraguay as the “land of the payaguaes,” an indigenous group which the first Spanish conquerors found when they arrived in 1525. 

To understand Paraguay as a nation, one must examine how the aboriginal language was used to reconstruct the country's pride and confidence. The language is a mask and shield to protect us from the outside world. Paraguay is a country without a coast and in unique isolation. It was defined a century ago by the famous Spanish writer Rafael Barret as “difficult and beautiful, where some people have luck, but the country doesn’t.” This phrase left an impression on our own famous writer Augusto Roa Bastos, who declared, “misfortune fell in love with Paraguay.” In a certain fashion, we like to perceive ourselves as strange, complex, inscrutable and different, and success sometimes feels uncomfortable to us, perhaps as a result of national trauma; when Paraguay was the most developed nation in Latin America, the Great War punished the country and left the impression that success is the closest thing there is to tragedy. 

The question of identity is forged in the language and gives each Paraguayan a sense of pride, although in the process this syncretism generates conflicts. Thinking in one language and expressing oneself in another—disglossia—is still an unresolved issue. Although the 1992 Constitution established Guarani as an official language, the levels of bilingual instruction are far from developing both languages on an equal basis, leading to a linguistic mixture known as jopará, a neo-language similar to Spanglish in the United States. The Guarani language now has its own Academy that dictates uniformity in writing, thus making the obligatory teaching of Guarani in private and public schools an easier task. Even though the national currency is printed in the two languages, there is still a long path before education becomes truly bilingual, achieving a true degree of both oral and written fluency.

Paraguay has managed to develop traits of its culture through a complex language that contributed to establishing isolation as its central characteristic. “An island surrounded by land,” as Augusto Roa Bastos described the country, reflects metaphorically the characteristics of a culture that has taken refuge in its language to keep itself vibrant, different and unique. 

Guarani is largely a cultural construct.  The tribe does not now exist, but its presence remains in the 17 surviving ethnic groups that reference its grammatical roots in their own languages. Ours is a country that embraces, absorbs and “submits” in the best sense of the word to recent arrivals, even making notably different cultures part of its obligatory usage. In a few years, these people are absorbed through the language that defines the Paraguayan cosmovision and reality. 

Although the promotion of Guarani is slow, the dynamics have been so great that the dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy decided to include Guarani words in its Spanish edition, thus registering the increase in the use of jopará, the Spanish-Guarani mix. 

Paraguay’s great challenge is to deepen its cultural values and to avoid the debates that certain sectors of the intelligentsia put forth about the real utility of the Guarani language for Paraguayans. The cultural value of Guarani helps us not only to understand the identity of Paraguayans, but of the entire region that extends to Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and even Uruguay. The names of cities and towns with clean Guarani roots have led Mercosur to recognize Guarani as a language. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, as the country is now officially called, includes the Guarani nation. In these times dominated by globalization, a return to local roots seeks to recognize the universal in the local. 

Today, politicians take Guarani language courses to improve their pronunciation because they know that without speaking Guarani, no one can get elected in Paraguay. Films in Guarani are becoming popular, and well-known singers in the Spanish-speaking world have recorded songs in Guarani, such as Joan Manuel Serrat of Spain with “Che Pykazumi” (My Dove).  Courses in Guarani are also being offered at major universities throughout the world.

For now, we can say that Spanish speakers also speak jopara and a scarce few speak pure Guarani; the language has now become a living laboratory in Paraguay in which its use is preferred for its cultural value—making it different and distinct in the world. 

Identity issues are better known for being a factor for crisis in the world. However, in Paraguay, the use of Guarani emerges as a reaffirmation of the national capacity to coexist with other languages and cultures and, at the same time, of being a powerful factor for cohesion for the foreign-born communities who make up this country of seven million in the center of South America. 

The language has been an instrument of recognition and defense, one that has helped reconstruct the country after the genocide of the Great War. A country, a language, an identity and a projection…that is no small thing in the rich history of the subcontinent.

Benjamín Fernández Bogado, Nieman Fellow ’00, is a Paraguayan lawyer and journalist who has written more than fifteen books on democracy and freedom of the press. He is a university professor and the founder of Radio Libre and the financial newspaper 5Días