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The Tinder Linguist: Guarani

Paraguay in South America has both Spanish and Guarani as official languages. Guarani is an indigenous language that belongs to the Tupi–Guarani subfamily of the Tupian language family. Tupi–Guarani languages were once widely spoken across lowland South America including the centre and the southeast of Brazil (Tupinambá) and eastern Bolivia (Chiriguano). Today, Guarani is by far the most widely spoken not just of its language family but probably of all indigenous languages in South America.

Whereas many indigenous languages count the number of their speakers in the tens, hundreds, and thousands, Guarani is spoken by more than 90% of Paraguay’s population of 6.8 million, a slightly larger share than the 87% or so of the population that speaks Spanish. Half of the rural population is monolingual in Guarani. In fact, Guarani is the only indigenous language of the Americas that is spoken by many non-indigenous people.

So if I were to find any traces of an indigenous language in South America on Tinder, I figured my best bet would be in Paraguay with Guarani. However, despite the impressive statistics, I was sceptical whether I would be able to find any use of Guarani on Tinder. First of all, Tinder is an urban phenomenon, and everyone speaks Spanish in the cities in Paraguay. Most people are bilingual in Spanish and Guarani, and those who speak just one language would be Spanish speakers. So the language of choice on Tinder was highly likely to be Spanish.

And so it proved. Starting my search in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital and largest city, I encountered profiles mostly in Spanish, with some English thrown in. When I expanded my search to Ciudad del Este near the border with Brazil, I saw profiles in Portuguese as well. But the language of Tinder in Paraguay was predominantly Spanish.

Still, I was amused to find a couple of mentions of tereré (pronounced [teɾeˈɾe] in Spanish), the traditional drink of Paraguay and the surrounding areas of central South America. This is an infusion of the plant yerba mate in cold water. The same plant is also used to prepare the hot drink mate (pronounced [ˈmate] in Spanish and sometimes spelled maté in English to prevent incorrect pronunciation).

“Concepción inhabitant. I like listening to music, drinking terere! Terere is timeless. A good beer, and pizza is the best combination, travelling, concerts…” (Concepción, Spanish)

The name tereré is often suggested to be from Guarani, of onomatopoeic origin imitating the sound of sipping the drink. It is interesting that the couple of profiles I found mentioning this drink used the spelling terere without the accent; this is the form it has in Guarani orthography.

“Mixed and tereré” (Somewhere in Paraguay, Spanish)

Stress, while not as prominent in Guarani as in Spanish or English, usually falls on the final syllable of the word root. So if a Guarani word is written without accents, it means that the stress falls on the last syllable. However, a Spanish word ending in a vowel is written without accents, the next-to-last syllable is stressed, so to mark final stress you need to add an accent to it. Therefore, [teɾeˈɾe] is spelled terere in Guarani but tereré in Spanish. The very word for Guarani is spelled simply guarani in Guarani but guaraní in Spanish, while Paraguay is spelled Paraguái in Guarani but Paraguay in Spanish.

The plant yerba mate is called ka’a [kaˈʔa] in Guaraní (The ‘ represents the glottal stop [ʔ], the catch in the throat as in “uh-oh”). Combined with y [ɨ] (a high central vowel, i.e. similar to the vowel of English “hit” but pronounced more towards the back) which means “water”, ka’ay [kaʔaˈɨ] means mate, the hot drink. The Spanish Wikipedia article on tereré suggests that tereré is called ka’ay’u in Guarani, but this is hard to verify and somewhat questionable as ‘u means “eat” or “drink”—why would the word tereré mean “drink mate”? The Guarani Wikipedia article simply calls the drink terere.

So the word terere seems to have nothing to do with the Guarani words for yerba mate or mate. The word mate which is used in Spanish and Portuguese comes from mati in Quechua, an unrelated indigenous language spoken in the highlands of South America.

After searching various locations in Paraguay and almost giving up, I finally found a profile in Benjamín Aceval about 42 km north from Asunción that contains a phrase in Guarani:

“Drunk, but good girl (in Spanish) / We get drunk, we have fun and we dance (in Guarani) / Bisexual bc my mama says you have to eat everything (in Spanish)” (Benjamín Aceval, Spanish and Guarani)

The Guarani phrase Jaka’u, javy’a ha jajeroky (“We get drunk, we have fun and we dance”) seems to have been popularized on the dance competition television series Baila Conmigo Paraguay (“Dance with me Paraguay”). In the following clip, contestant Kassandra Frutos quotes the phrase while otherwise speaking in Spanish to one of the judges on the show, Zuni Castiñeira.

So we may have a meme to thank for the tiny presence of Guarani on Tinder.

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