Tupi language

Last updated
Native to Brazil
Ethnicity Tupinambá, Tupiniquim
Era(survives as Nheengatu)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
tpw   Tupí (Old Tupí)
tpn    Tupinambá
yrl    Nheengatu
tpk    Tupiniquim (Tupinaki)
Glottolog subg1261  Tupi + Omagua-Cocama
This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.For the distinction between [ ], / / and  , see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.
Father Jose de Anchieta (1534-1597), the first grammarian of Tupi Antonio Parreiras - Anchieta.jpg
Father José de Anchieta (1534-1597), the first grammarian of Tupi

Old Tupi or classical Tupi (also spelled as Tupí) is an extinct Tupian language which was spoken by the aboriginal Tupi people of Brazil, mostly those who inhabited coastal regions in South and Southeast Brazil. It belongs to the Tupi–Guarani language family, and has a written history spanning the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries. In the early colonial period, Tupi was used as a lingua franca throughout Brazil by Europeans and aboriginal Americans, and had literary usage, but it was later suppressed almost to extinction, leaving only one modern descendant with an appreciable number of speakers, Nheengatu.


The names Old Tupi or classical Tupi are used for the language in English and by modern scholars (it is referred to as tupi antigo in Portuguese), but native speakers called it variously ñeengatú "the good language", ñeendyba "common language", abáñeenga "human language", in Old Tupi, or língua geral "general language", língua geral amazônica "Amazonian general language", língua brasílica "Brazilian language", in Portuguese.


Old Tupi was first spoken by the Tupinambá people, who lived under cultural and social conditions very unlike those found in Europe. It is quite different from Indo-European languages in phonology [ citation needed ], morphology, and grammar, but it was adopted by many Luso-Brazilians born in Brazil as a lingua franca known as Língua Geral .

It belonged to the Tupi–Guarani language family, which stood out among other South American languages for the vast territory it covered. Until the 16th century, these languages were found throughout nearly the entirety of the Brazilian coast, from Pará to Santa Catarina, and the River Plate basin. Today, Tupi languages are still heard in Brazil (states of Maranhão, Pará, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás, São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, and Espírito Santo), as well as in French Guiana, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina.

It is a common mistake to speak of the "Tupi–Guarani language": Tupi, Guarani and a number of other minor or major languages all belong to the Tupian language family, in the same sense that English, Romanian, and Sanskrit belong to the Indo-European language family. One of the main differences between the two languages was the replacement of Tupi /s/ by the glottal fricative /h/ in Guarani.

The first accounts of the Old Tupi language date back from the early 16th century, but the first written documents containing actual information about it were produced from 1575 onwards – when Jesuits André Thévet and José de Anchieta began to translate Catholic prayers and biblical stories into the language. Another foreigner, Jean de Lery, wrote the first (and possibly only) Tupi "phrasebook", in which he transcribed entire dialogues. Lery's work is the best available record of how Tupi was actually spoken.

In the first two or three centuries of Brazilian history, nearly all colonists coming to Brazil would learn the tupinambá variant of Tupi, as a means of communication with both the Indians and with other early colonists who had adopted the language.

The Jesuits, however, not only learned to speak tupinambá, but also encouraged the Indians to keep it. As a part of their missionary work, they translated some literature into it and also produced some original work written directly in Tupi. José de Anchieta reportedly wrote more than 4,000 lines of poetry in tupinambá (which he called lingua Brasilica) and the first Tupi grammar. Luís Figueira was another important figure of this time, who wrote the second Tupi grammar, published in 1621. In the second half of the 18th century, the works of Anchieta and Figueira were republished and Father Bettendorf wrote a new and more complete catechism. By that time, the language had made its way into the clergy and was the de facto national language of Brazil – though it was probably seldom written, as the Roman Catholic Church held a near monopoly of literacy.

When the Portuguese Prime Minister Marquis of Pombal expelled the Jesuits from Brazil in 1759, the language started to wane fast, as few Brazilians were literate in it. Besides, a new rush of Portuguese immigration had been taking place since the early 18th century, due to the discovery of gold, diamonds, and gems in the interior of Brazil; these new colonists spoke only their mother tongue. Old Tupi survived as a spoken language (used by Europeans and Indian populations alike) only in isolated inland areas, far from the major urban centres. Its use by a few non-Indian speakers in those isolated areas would last for over a century still.

Tupi research

Anchieta, Jose de. Arte de gramatica da lingua mais usada na costa do Brasil. Ed. da Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1933. Facsimile da 1. ed. (1595). Arte de gramatica da lingua mais usada na costa do Brasil - Jose de Anchieta-corte.jpeg
Anchieta, José de. Arte de gramática da língua mais usada na costa do Brasil. Ed. da Bibliotéca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1933. Facsímile da 1. ed. (1595).

When the Portuguese first arrived on the shores of modern-day Brazil, most of the tribes they encountered spoke very closely related dialects. The Portuguese (and particularly the Jesuit priests who accompanied them) set out to proselytise the natives. To do so most effectively, doing so in the natives' own languages was convenient, so the first Europeans to study Tupi were those priests.

The priests modeled their analysis of the new language after the one with which they had already experience: Latin, which they had studied in the seminary. In fact, the first grammar of Tupi – written by the Jesuit priest José de Anchieta in 1595 – is structured much like a contemporary Latin grammar. While this structure is not optimal, it certainly served its purpose of allowing its intended readership (Catholic priests familiar with Latin grammars) to get enough of a basic grasp of the language to be able to communicate with and evangelise the natives. Also, the grammar sometimes regularised or glossed over some regional differences in the expectation that the student, once "in the field", would learn these finer points of the particular dialect through use with his flock.

Significant works were a Jesuit catechism of 1618, with a second edition of 1686; another grammar written in 1687 by another Jesuit priest, Luís Figueira; an anonymous dictionary of 1795 (again published by the Jesuits); a dictionary published by Antônio Gonçalves Dias, a well-known 19th century Brazilian poet and scholar, in 1858; and a chrestomathy published by Dr Ernesto Ferreira França in 1859.

Considering the breadth of its use both in time and space, this language is particularly poorly documented in writing, particularly the dialect of São Paulo spoken in the South.


The phonology of tupinambá has some interesting and unusual features. For instance, it does not have the lateral approximant /l/ or the multiple vibrant rhotic consonant /r/. It also has a rather small inventory of consonants and a large number of pure vowels (12).

This led to a Portuguese pun about this language, that Brazilians não têm fé, nem lei, nem rei (have neither faith, nor law, nor king) as the words (faith), lei (law) and rei (king) could not be pronounced by a native Tupi speaker (they would say , re'i and re'i).


Close/i/, /ĩ//ɨ/, /ɨ̃//u/, /ũ/
Mid/ɛ/, /ɛ̃//ɔ/, /ɔ̃/
Open/a/, /ã/

The nasal vowels are fully vocalic, without any trace of a trailing [m] or [n]. They are pronounced with the mouth open and the palate relaxed, not blocking the air from resounding through the nostrils. These approximations, however, must be taken with caution, as no actual recording exists, and Tupi had at least seven known dialects.


Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasals m /m/n /n/ñ /ɲ/ng /ŋ/
Plosive prenasalized mb /ᵐb/nd /ⁿd/ng /ᵑɡ/
voiceless p /p/t /t/k /k/(/ʔ/)^
Fricatives b /β/s /s/x /ʃ/g /ɣ/h /h/
Semivowels û /w/î /j/ŷ /ɰ/
Flap r /ɾ/

Alternative view

According to Nataniel Santos Gomes,[ citation needed ] however, the phonetic inventory of Tupi was simpler:

This scheme does not regard Ŷ as a separate semivowel, does not consider the existence of G (/ɣ/), and does not differentiate between the two types of NG (/ŋ/ and /ⁿɡ/), probably because it does not regard MB (/ⁿb/), ND (/ⁿd/) and NG (/ⁿɡ/) as independent phonemes, but mere combinations of P, T, and K with nasalization.

Santos Gomes also remarks that the stop consonants shifted easily to nasal stops, which is attested by the fitful spelling of words like umbu (umu, ubu, umbu, upu, umpu) in the works of the early missionaries and by the surviving dialects.

According to most sources, Tupi semivowels were more consonantal than their IPA counterparts. The Î, for instance, was rather fricative, thus resembling a very slight [ʑ], and Û had a distinct similarity with the voiced stop [ɡʷ] (possibly via [ɣʷ], which would likewise be a fricative counterpart of the labiovelar semivowel), thus being sometimes written gu. As a consequence of that character, Tupi loanwords in Brazilian Portuguese often have j for Î and gu for Û.

Writing system

It would have been almost impossible to reconstruct the phonology of Tupi if it did not have a wide geographic distribution. The surviving Amazonian Nhengatu and the close Guarani correlates (Mbyá, Nhandéva, Kaiowá and Paraguayan Guarani) provide material that linguistic research can still use for an approximate reconstruction of the language.

Scientific reconstruction of Tupi suggests that Anchieta either simplified or overlooked the phonetics of the actual language when he was devising his grammar and his dictionary.

The writing system employed by Anchieta is still the basis for most modern scholars. It is easily typed with regular Portuguese or French typewriters and computer keyboards (but not with character sets such as ISO-8859-1, which cannot produce , ĩ, ũ, ŷ and ).

Its key features are:


Most Tupi words are roots with one or two syllables, usually with double or triple meanings that are explored extensively for metaphorical purposes:

The most common words tend to be monosyllables:

Disyllabic words belong to two major groups, depending on which syllable is stressed:

Polysyllabic (non-compound) words are less common but are still frequent and follow the same scheme:

Nasal mutation of the initial consonant is always present, regardless of stress. Polysyllabic words are never stressed on the first syllable.

Compound nouns are formed in three ways:

Later, after colonisation, the process was used to name things that the Indians originally did not have:

Some writers have even extended it further, creating Tupi neologisms for the modern life, in the same vein as New Latin. Mário de Andrade, for instance, coined sagüim-açu (saûĩ + [g]ûasú) for "elevator", from sagüim, the name of a small tree-climbing monkey.

Grammatical structure

Tupi was an agglutinative language with moderate degree of fusional features (nasal mutation of stop consonants in compounding, the use of some prefixes and suffixes), although Tupi is not a polysynthetic language.

Tupi parts of speech did not follow the same conventions of Indo-European languages:

Tupi had a split-intransitive grammatical alignment. Verbs were preceded by pronouns, which could be subject or object forms. Subject pronouns like a- "I" expressed the person was in control, while object pronouns like xe- "me" signified the person was not. The two types could be used alone or combined in transitive clauses, and they then functioned like subject and object in English:

Although Tupi verbs were not inflected, a number of pronominal variations existed to form a rather complex set of aspects regarding who did what to whom. That, together with the temporal inflection of the noun and the presence of tense markers like koára "today," made up a fully functional verbal system.

Word order played a key role in the formation of meaning:

Tupi had no means to inflect words for gender, so used adjectives instead. Some of these were:

The notion of gender was expressed, once again, together with the notion of age and that of "humanity" or "animality".

The notion of plural was also expressed by adjectives or numerals:

Unlike Indo-European languages, nouns were not implicitly masculine except for those provided with natural gender: abá "man" and kuñã[] "woman/girl"; for instance.

Without proper verbal inflection, all Tupi sentences were in the present or in the past. When needed, tense is indicated by adverbs like ko ara, "this day".

Adjectives and nouns, however, had temporal inflection:

That was often used as a semantic derivation process:

With respect to syntax, Tupi was mostly SOV, but word order tended to be free, as the presence of pronouns made it easy to tell the subject from the object. Nevertheless, native Tupi sentences tended to be quite short, as the Indians were not used to complex rhetorical [ citation needed ] or literary uses.

Most of the available data about Old Tupi are based on the tupinambá dialect, spoken in what is now the Brazilian state of São Paulo, but there were other dialects as well.

According to Edward Sapir's categories, Old Tupi could be characterized as follows:

  1. With respect to the concepts expressed: complex, of pure relation, that is, it expresses material and relational content by means of affixes and word order, respectively.
  2. With respect to the manner in which such concepts are expressed: a) fusional-agglutinative, b) symbolic or of internal inflection (using reduplication of syllables, functionally differentiated).
  3. With respect to the degree of cohesion of the semantic elements of the sentence: synthetic.

Sample vocabulary




The body





Sample text

This is the Lord's Prayer in Tupi, according to Anchieta:

Oré r-ub, ybak-y-pe t-ekó-ar, I moeté-pyr-amo nde r-era t'o-îkó. T'o-ur nde Reino! Tó-ñe-moñang nde r-emi-motara yby-pe. Ybak-y-pe i ñe-moñanga îabé! Oré r-emi-'u, 'ara-îabi'õ-nduara, e-î-me'eng kori orébe. Nde ñyrõ oré angaîpaba r-esé orébe, oré r-erekó-memûã-sara supé oré ñyrõ îabé. Oré mo'ar-ukar umen îepe tentação pupé, oré pysyrõ-te îepé mba'e-a'iba suí.

Notice that two Portuguese words, Reino (Kingdom) and tentação (temptation) have been borrowed, as such concepts would be rather difficult to express with pure Tupi words.

Presence of Tupi in Brazil

As the basis for the língua geral , spoken throughout the country by white and Indian settlers alike until the early 18th century, and still heard in isolated pockets until the early 20th century, Tupi left a strong mark on the Portuguese language of Brazil, being by far its most distinctive source of modification.[ dubious ][ citation needed ]

Tupi has given Brazilian Portuguese:

Some municipalities which have Tupi names:

Among the many Tupi loanwords in Portuguese, the following are noteworthy for their widespread use:

It is interesting, however, that two of the most distinctive Brazilian animals, the jaguar and the tapir, are best known in Brazilian Portuguese by non-Tupi names, onça and anta, despite being named in English with Tupi loanwords.

A significant number of Brazilians have Tupi names as well:

Some names of distinct Indian ancestry have obscure etymology because the tupinambá, like the Europeans, cherished traditional names which sometimes had become archaic. Some of such names are Moacir (reportedly meaning "son of pain") and Moema.


Old Tupi literature was composed mainly of religious and grammatical texts developed by Jesuit missionaries working among the colonial Brazilian people. The greatest poet to express in written Tupi language, and its first grammarian was José de Anchieta, who wrote over eighty poems and plays, compiled at his Lírica Portuguesa e Tupi. Later Brazilian authors, writing in Portuguese, employed Tupi in the speech of some of their characters.


Tupi is also remembered as distinctive trait of nationalism in Brazil. In the 1930s, Brazilian Integralism used it as the source of most of its catchphrases (like Anaûé (meaning "you are my brother", the old Tupi salutation which was adopted as the Brazilian version of the German Sieg Heil, or the Roman "Ave") and terminology.

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