A Brief History of Indigenous Words in Brazilian Portuguese

A Brief History of Indigenous Words in Brazilian Portuguese graphic

What are the indigenous words in Brazilian Portuguese?

The Portuguese docked in what would become Brazil in the year 1500.

They proceeded to scout out their jackpot, apparently an Eden on Earth. Though mostly they scattered up the coasts because of the dense, Jurassic Park-like forests that crept to the ocean. When the Portuguese arrived those forests were home to an estimated 3 million natives, divided into 1000 different populations (Funai data).  

In the North, which is the bulk of the Amazon, the Portuguese remained firmly glued to the beach. It wasn’t even until 1690 that the first settlement called Manaus, now the capital of the state of Amazonas, was established some 1000 miles from the ocean.

The rolling expanses of Brazil were a ticking timebomb. If the Portuguese didn’t populate it fast, some other hovering European empire would snatch it away. The French tried it in 1612 and the Dutch tried partially successfully from 1630 and 1654.

There just weren’t enough women. Or were there?

What Was North Brazil Like 1500 – 1600? 

  • Many indigenous, 3 million in Brazil in 1500 (1 million in the interior, 2 million on the coast).
  • Fights between the colonizers (seeking wealth) and the Jesuit missionaries (seeking to convert natives + have some wealth).
  • Little bonafide money, as most trade was made with goods.
  • Poor soil for farming.
  • Lingua Franca (a variant of the indigenous language Tupi, which is now extinct) was spoken as the main common language.

The Portuguese were just grasping at straws. They had no profits, no foothold in culture, were riddled with internal fights (Jesuits/ indigenous) and external fights (invading Europeans) and most importantly had no babies.

What happened to the Indigenous in Brazil in the 1600s?

  • Beginning in 1617 there was forced migration from Azores Islands in an attempt to bring more European women to the new colony. It didn’t work.
  • The mameluco was born. A mixture of European and indigenous people, mamelucos were the up-and-coming Brazilian generation.
  • Brazil became a wild west of tribal wars spurred on by the Portuguese. Gangs or war groups roamed Brazil capturing other indigenous to use as slaves throughout the 1600s. One such example was the 1629 gang of Manuel Preto and Raposo Tavares, which had an approximate ratio of 900 mamelucos, 2000 natives and 69 Europeans.
  • By 1650 the indigenous Brazilian population had plummeted to 700,000. Nearly 80% of the natives were wiped out.
  • The missionaries managed to stop mass abuses against the indigenous populations. Padre Antonio Vieira was a Jesuit priest who in 1653 secured protection of Indians from enslavement, though to some extent it continued. He also helped recruit all types of Brazilians to expel the Dutch (so the Portuguese were back in business).

Things hadn’t solidified for the Portuguese, but they were on the cusp of securing the largest land allotment in Latin America.

How Did the Situation Settle in the 1700s?

  • Slavery of the indigenous was extinct in 1757.
  • In 1758 the Tupi language was outlawed in public life. Portuguese was exclusively approved in educational institutions and public agencies.
  • The Jesuits were expelled in 1759, and they swiftly moved back to Europe or South to the edges of the Spanish empire in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.
Parrot in tree in Brazil
Capybara in Curitiba

Marriage with the indigenous solidified the Portuguese’s grasp on the Amazon and Mato Grosso, a sizeable chunk of Brazil. Secondly, Tupi and other indigenous languages were the main form of communication for at least 250 years.

Both the mixture of the native population and the time that Portuguese took to take grasp of public life means that Brazilian Portuguese is thoroughly infiltrated with indigenous words until today.

There are still at least 150 indigenous languages spoken in Brazil right now. Some argue a further 50 languages exist, though there is disagreement on whether they constitute dialects. There are at this point 5 main indigenous languages that have at least 10,000 speakers within Brazil. These languages are as follows:

Tikuna (34,000)

Guarani Kaiowá (26,500)

Kaingang (22,000)

Axvante (13,300)

Yanomami (12.700)

With that in mind, there are plenty of native Brazilian words to know when learning Portuguese. In this article we outline 63 indigenous words to know in the Brazilian Portuguese.

Indigenous Words in Brazilian Portuguese You Should Know

Foods Deriving from Indigenous Words

Amendoim = peanut

Açaí = a purple berry found in the Amazon and indigenous Brazilian fruit

Aipim = cassava (a root vegetable and staple of indigenous American’s diets)

Jabuticaba = dark purple Brazilian berry that grows on tree trunks in the Atlantic Forest

Caju = cashew

Pequi = pequi is a yellow Brazilian fruit native to the cerrado region

Cacau = cacau fruit whose beans are used to make cocoa

Mandioca = another word for cassava

Abacaxi = pineapple

Pipoca = popcorn (often sold as a street food around Brazil, read more here)

Macaxeira = cassava

Pupunha = “Bactris gasipaes” is a species of palm native to the tropical forests of South and Central America. It is also a food eaten often at Festas Juninas, the Brazilian harvest festival.

Tapioca = rehydrated cassava starch

Catupiry = runny, soft cheese similar to cream cheese

Pitanga = a red Brazilian fruit


Animals with Indigenous Names

Tamanduá = anteater

Jacaré = alligator

Urubu = vulture

Perereca = tree frog

Capivara = capybara

Piranha = pirana

Gambá = skunk

Sabiá = native South American bird with an orange breast. There’s a beautiful Brazilian song on the migration of the sabiá.

Tatu = armadillo (found in the cerrado and caatinga biomas of Brazil)

Arara = macaw

Jiboia = boa constrictor

Jabuti = tortoise


Other Indigenous Words

Capim = grass or lawn

Caboclo or Mamaluco = a person of mixed Indigenous Brazilian and European

Canoa = canoe

Jururu = sad

Pajé = shaman

Catapora = chickenpox

Cacique = tribal leader

Caipira (n) = bumpkin/ country person

Caipira (adj) = from the country, i.e. frango caipira (country/ rustic chicken)

Capoeira = Brazilian dance and marshall art

Caatinga = type of vegetation found in the arid lands of the sertão

Pindaíba do banto = penniless

Estar na pindaíba = without money

Peteca = a type of shuttlecock used in the sport of the same name. The word comes from Tupi meaning to hit with a flat hand.

Guri = infant

Places with Indigenous Words

Many of the Brazilian state names maintain the original indigenous words, as well as various neighbourhoods and cities located where vast native populations lived. Therefore, here are just some examples of famous places retaining their indigenous names.

Carioca (a person from Rio), Guanabara, Ubatuba, Acre, Amapá, Iguaçu, Ipanema, Pernambuco, Piauí, Tocantins, Iguaçu, Ceará, Copacabana, Pará, Paraíba, Paraná, Roraima, Sergipe, Maracanã, Araponga.


Sources and Resources on Indigenous Brazilians 

História Concisa do Brasil by Boris Fausto in Portuguese condenses the last 600 years of Brazil into 5 comprehensive chunks.

Portuguese has 5 indigenous languages with more than 10,000 speakers in Brazil on Agência Brasil in Portuguese.

Indigenous Brazilian Portuguese words in Dicio.

Words that come from indigenous languages in Portuguese by Globo.

The indigenous population in Brazil from Mundo Educação.

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