In “A Parlous Battle”, Gerard and Oludara meet a tribe of natives called Tupinambás. The language used by them, Tupi, was the most common language of Brazilian coastal tribes at the time of European colonization. The native nations who spoke Tupi included: Tupinambás, Tupiniquins, Tabajaras, Potiguares, Caetes, Tupinaés, Tamoios and Temiminos. The word “Tupi” can also be used to refer to these peoples.
This language, now known as Old Tupi, is part of a set of language families of South American indigenous peoples known as “Macro-Tupi”. Languages englobed by this linguistic branch include: Ariquem, Aueti, Juruna, Maue, Monde, Mundurucu, Purubora, Ramarrama, Tupari, and Guarani.
A version of Tupi has become the lingua franca (language adopted for the communication of multilingual groups, usually for commercial, diplomatic, and administrative reasons) from the arrival of the first settlers in the early 1500s until 1758, when a law appointed Portuguese as the official language. However, this lingua franca gave rise to nheengatu (“good talks” in Tupi), a dialect still spoken in parts of the Amazon region.
Old Tupi became extinct hundreds of years ago. However, thanks to linguists such as Eduardo de Almeida Navarro, the language has been recovered. It is even being reintroduced to communities formed by descendants of the original tribes.
In Brazil, the influence of the language remains prevalent. Many Portuguese terms and thousands of geographic locations come directly from Old Tupi. While most Brazilians don’t understand the underlying meanings of many of these terms, Old Tupi has nevertheless had an undeniable influence on the nation’s cultural and linguistic identity. This influence has had a great deal to do with the difference between Brazilian and Portuguese, even explaining such things as the Brazilian preference for the gerund, a construction rarely used in Portugal.
In 1999, linguists worked with the actors in the film Hans Staden to authentically recreate Old Tupi. Watching this movie is a great way to hear how it once sounded.