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UK Professor Produces Online Atlas of Mixture of Spanish and a Native Language in South America

By Richard LeComte 

Haralambos Symeonidis
Haralambos Symeonidis

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Starting Nov. 7, linguists will have an online atlas to track how people in Paraguay and adjacent countries mix and mingle such European Romance tongues as Spanish and Portuguese with Guaraní, a living language native to South Americans.   

Haralambos Symeonidis, professor of Spanish Linguistics in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences, is instrumental in developing the Atlas Lingüístico Guaraní-Románico, which features maps of where and how Spanish, Portuguese and Guarani are used based on research among more than 400 people native to Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and other areas. Now that research will be available to scholars online. Symeonidis used research funds from the John Keller Endowed Professorship to start the project. 

 "We already had published these two volumes of the atlas,” Symeonidis said. “But I thought ‘What about creating a home page and launching the whole material online?’ You can go to conferences and attendees will say they’ve heard of the atlas, but they’ve never seen it, because libraries cannot buy these huge books. I thought, ‘Why, this is not good.’ There are many people who would like to see this material, and it could be placed online. This is why we created this homepage.” 

Nearly 90% of the people of Paraguay use both Spanish and Guaraní, but Spanish is used in most official government documents. Guaraní is used more in informal situations. 

"It’s very funny, because in Paraguay, when they make jokes, the jokes are never, or almost never, in Spanish," he said. “They are always in Guarani, because this is their own, intimate language. The other one, Spanish, is the official one outside of the home.” 

In 1996, the Paraguayan government started teaching Guarani in schools, and a considerable amount of literature is written in the language. Over the years, Guaraní has mixed with Spanish, much as Spanglish speakers have mingled languages in the United States. 

"The languages have been coexisting for five centuries,” Symeonidis said. “Guaraní is not a pure form of the native language. It changed because of the confluence of both languages. They speak it this way because it's how they express their identity.” 

The purpose of the atlas is to explore how from region to region Guaraní and Spanish have mixed and how people use Guaraní in their daily lives. The atlas also looks at how Guaraní fares in border areas of Argentina and in Brazil, where it mixes with Portuguese.  

“We targeted specific regions to find variations, and then we arranged to do the interviews,” he said. “Sometimes we were wrong — we wouldn’t find anything. But we did find that this native language is more active and vivid in the rural areas, more so than in the urban areas where it still exists. Spanish is more dominant in these urban areas.” 

Symeonidis became interested in Guaraní while he was studying Judeo-Spanish in a doctoral program at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany. He said he took two classes in the subject and was hooked.  

"I thought, ‘Oh, I'll take this class because I don't know what the language it is, and I was always interested in languages,’” he said. "Let's see what this language looks like. I ended up finishing my Ph.D., and they were looking for someone with a Ph.D. to work on the atlas project. My first visit to the region was in ’99. I was a part of a group of people who went into the region and interviewed people in different geographical spots. This is how I got involved.” 

The website will be available Nov. 7.