On any given day, people throng the busy market in Concepción, Paraguay. Shoppers peruse the multicolored array of fruits and vegetables and occasionally pause to chat with the vendors or inquire about a price. Old women eye up potential buyers of yuyos, traditional medicinal herbs that they assure will cure any ailment, from hangovers to high cholesterol.
As people shop, gossip, and barter, they speak overwhelmingly in Guaraní. The most widely spoken Indigenous language in the country, it is used by more than 5 million Paraguayans. In a country of 6.8 million people, that’s a substantial number.
Guaraní is unique for several reasons. It’s the only Indigenous language in the Americas spoken by a majority of the non-Indigenous population. It has also survived centuries of colonialism and repression.
But beyond the streets or rural areas, Guaraní is conspicuously absent. Although written works in Guaraní exist from the 17th century forward, today it is primarily considered an oral language. And that, says anthropologist and Guaraní activist David Galeano Olivera, is a problem, particularly as societies become increasingly digital.
“We all live in two worlds: the concrete world and the virtual one,” Galeano says. “We have to think about what would happen if, in the virtual world, everything happened in Spanish and nothing in Guaraní. For me, that would mean that Guaraní didn’t exist anymore.”
Galeano has refused to allow the language to rest on such shaky foundations and so is working hard to bring the language into the digital realm, as other language advocates have done. In 2013, for example, he, along with Guaraní speakers from state and private groups, created a Guaraní version of Mozilla Firefox, or Aguaratata, as it is known in the Indigenous language. The effort represented more than two years of work and required translating some 45,000 terms.
Galeano’s work and collaborations with academics and enthusiasts around the world have a common goal: to keep Guaraní alive. Guaraní is not just a language but an integral part of being Paraguayan, he believes. “It’s impossible to understand Paraguay and its past, present, and future without Guaraní,” he says.
This digital effort marks just one chapter in this resilient language’s history. But it could be a model for how other Indigenous or threatened languages the world over could survive in the age of the internet.
Read more: Sapiens