In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section South American Indian Languages

  • Introduction
  • Surveys
  • Bibliographies
  • Dictionaries
  • Text Editions
  • Edited Volumes With Miscellaneous Topics
  • Journals
  • Classification
  • Historical Overviews of Individual Languages
  • Anthropological Linguistics
  • Dialect Studies
  • Typological Studies
  • Historical-Comparative Linguistics Studies
  • Language Contact Studies
  • Multidisciplinary Studies

Linguistics South American Indian Languages
Willem F. H. Adelaar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0040


With more than a hundred linguistic lineages and a considerable amount of typological variation, South America is among the most complex linguistic areas on earth. Its languages continue to provide linguistic typology with a wealth of hitherto unrecorded phenomena. Meanwhile, our understanding of the historical relations between these languages, whether phylogenetic or contact based, is still rudimentary. Due to conquest and massive foreign immigration, the South American languages have become socially and numerically marginalized. Most of them are heavily endangered or on the verge of extinction. Nevertheless, some of the South American languages were among the first to receive a focused attention from grammar and language students during the colonial rule of the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries. These premodern grammarians developed innovative insights in relation to lexical semantics and the meaning of grammatical categories, some of which have percolated into modern linguistics. After a long period of neglect, the study of South American languages has made a remarkable comeback and now occupies a distinct position on the scene of modern linguistic research. This contribution has become indispensable for the recognition of unique typological distinctions and language contact phenomena, for the study of languages in precarious situations of survival, and for the further development of methods of linguistic documentation and description. Although the literature on South American Indian languages in English is growing, it is impossible to obtain a balanced view of the literature dealing with this linguistic area without a thorough reading knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese. Consequently, many of the titles cited in this article are in these languages.


The books cited in this section are handbook-style introductions to the languages of the area with a discussion of some of the characteristics of the languages under consideration. They have the intention to present the different indigenous languages spoken in South America as a whole (Campbell and Grondona 2012) or in important subareas of the subcontinent (Adelaar and Muysken 2004, Aikhenvald 2012, Dixon and Aikhenvald 1999). They can serve as introductions to a more focused study of linguistic themes related to those areas. The other surveys mentioned here are relevant to one particular country (Crevels and Muysken 2009, González de Pérez and Rodríguez de Montes 2000, Mosonyi and Mosonyi 2000, Rodrigues 1986).

  • Adelaar, Willem F. H., and Pieter C. Muysken. 2004. The languages of the Andes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486852

    An overview of the languages spoken in the western part of South America (Andes, Pacific coast, and eastern Andean slopes) presenting their main characteristics (phonology, grammatical structure, etc.) as well as historical and sociolinguistic information. The organization is by area and by language or language family.

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2012. The languages of the Amazon. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199593569.001.0001

    A state-of the-art overview of the principal themes relating to the languages of the Amazon region. This new book is of exceptional significance for research in typological linguistics based on data from one of the most linguistically varied areas of the world.

  • Campbell, Lyle, and Verónica Grondona, eds. 2012. The indigenous languages of South America: A comprehensive guide. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110258035

    A comprehensive handbook covering all of South America. It contains informative chapters on different topics such as classification and typology, linguistic areas, and a selection of language families.

  • Crevels, Emily, and Pieter C. Muysken, eds. 2009. Lenguas de Bolivia. Vol. 1, Ámbito andino. La Paz, Bolivia: Plenum Editores.

    This is the first volume in an ambitious publication project featuring sketch grammars of most of the languages spoken in Bolivia today and in the past. It contains chapters on languages located in or near the Andean highlands of Bolivia.

  • Dixon, Robert M. W., and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, eds. 1999. The Amazonian languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A very useful overview of the languages spoken in the Amazonian part of South America, organized by phylogenetic groupings and geographical subareas.

  • González de Pérez, María Stella, and María Luisa Rodríguez de Montes. 2000. Lenguas indígenas de Colombia: Una visión descriptiva. Bogotá, Colombia: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

    A beautifully edited and most informative volume on the indigenous languages of Colombia with language sketches, sociolinguistic essays, and detailed maps of the geographical areas in which these languages are spoken.

  • Mosonyi, Esteban Emilio, and Jorge Carlos Mosonyi. 2000. Manual de lenguas indígenas de Venezuela. 2 vols. Caracas, Venezuela: Fundación Bigott.

    A useful handbook with detailed sketches of a selection of indigenous languages spoken in Venezuela.

  • Rodrigues, Aryon Dall’Igna. 1986. Línguas brasileiras: Para o conhecimento das líguas indígenas. São Paulo, Brazil: Edições Loyola.

    A concise overview of the indigenous languages spoken in Brazil, organized by language families with examples of cognates.

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