Losing elders to COVID-19 endangers Indigenous languages

Eliézer Puruborá, one of the last people to grow up speaking the Puruborá language, died of COVID-19 in Brazil earlier this year. His death at the age of 92 weakened the fragile hold his people have on their language.

Indigenous languages in Brazil have been threatened since the Europeans arrived. Only 181 or so of the 1,500 languages that once existed are still spoken—each mostly by fewer than a thousand people. Some Indigenous groups, especially those with larger populations, such as the Guarani Mbya, have managed to maintain their mother tongue. But the languages of smaller groups, such as the Puruborá, who now number only 220, are on the verge of dying out.

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By Jill Langlois

Photos by Rafael Vilela for National Geographic, supported by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists

Originally published online on November 13, 2020.