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Concise Dictionary of Guaraní-English and English-Guaraní
Author: A. Scott Britton
Publisher: Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York
Copyright © 2005
ISBN: 0-77818-1066-3
240 pages, 120 pages with an estimated 3600 entries in each direction
Price printed on the back of the book: US$ 14.95 (available from major booksellers on the web at discounted price)

Robert CroeseThis paper-bound, small-sized (4 x 6 inches) booklet is one in a series of concise dictionaries published by Hippocrene Books, Inc. The inside cover lists 41 other dictionaries in print, including such mainstream languages as Arabic, Czech, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, etc., but also such esoteric languages as Gypsy, Ladino, Nahuatl, Twi and Zapotec (Isthmus). The back cover mentions other types of books published by Hippocrene Books, with such interesting topics as the culinary practices of various Latin American countries and a Dictionary and Phrasebook of Chilenismos. The last-named title lists at US$ 11.95.

The introduction to the dictionary states that "Guaraní, Avañe'ê to its speakers, is the language of over four million people in Paraguay and maintains and official status with Spanish in that country." This indigenous language pertains to the Tupi language family, members of which extend from the Peruvian rainforest and Bolivia to the west, throughout Brazil to the north and the east, and into Argentina to the south. Mary Ritchie Key (1997, 77) mentioned that:

"Perhaps the most famous member of [the Tupi family] is the Guaraní of Paraguay. It has captured the attention of sociolinguists, sociologists, and people in education, because of the bilingual nature of the country and the dominant position of Guaraní even among non-Indian speakers. It is said in Paraguay that 'Spanish comes from the Paraguayan mind; Guaraní springs from the heart.' (Gorham 1973: 1) This language has also provided a lingua franca for a large area in Brazil where travel and migrations were extensive."

According to the Ethnologue (12th Ed., Page 110), some three million people speak Guaraní in Paraguay, which is 95% of the population. Just over 50% of rural Paraguayans are monolingual in Guaraní.

There are two types of Guaraní language: The pure indigenous form and a mixed language spoken in and around Asunción, called Jopara, which, according to Britton (Page 3), is "more of a switching back and forth than a cohesive blend between Guaraní and Spanish."

I had high hopes that this dictionary might include useful phrases for learning some of the basics of Guaraní communication, but, unfortunately, the dictionary only consists of single lexical entries, identified by part of speech, and primarily glossed with one or two entries from the other language. All entries appear to be faithfully cross-referenced in the reverse dictionary. Verbs are only listed as v.r. (verb root), with no indication of verb conjugations.

I asked the publisher to be put in touch with Mr. Britton, the author of this dictionary (which didn't happen), so I could ask him a couple of simple questions: 1) What is the mission of this one-term basically one-meaning dictionary, and 2) what is the source of the word list or how was the material gathered? Unfortunately, I don't have the answers to these questions. The publisher did tell me, however, that Britton had also authored the Zapotec dictionary, and that he planned to do many more of this genre.

I can only think of a couple of uses for this dictionary, but there may be some I have not thought of. It could be a useful tool to linguists doing historical and comparative linguistics (I only found two plausible "cognates": róga 'house': ruka 'house' in Mapudungun (language of the Mapuche people of Chile/Argentina); taita 'father': same in Quechua, but either or both of these could be due to chance or to borrowing, and the dictionary could help to find the basic meanings of isolated Guaraní terms found in written documents. But after many years of translating documents from Spanish to English, I have yet to encounter the first Guaraní term, but that will probably change tomorrow, of course.

Before we take a look at the dictionary entries, something must be said about the phonological/orthographic inventory/convention. I conjoined these two pairs on purpose because they are, unfortunately, not differentiated. The introduction lists six vowels (which is supported by other linguistic sources): a, e, i, o, u and y and their nasalized counterparts (which are indicated with the standard phonetic notation of a tilde over the vowel). Britton offers a rather unsophisticated description of the "y" vowel, and says that it is "Similar to (but not exactly like) the y in English yellow. As a matter of fact, this sixth vowel is really a high, central, unrounded vowel (which, indeed, does not exist in English, but is a common feature in Tupi and Panoan languages, as well as in Mapudungun, among others). Typically, linguists write this vowel as an "i" with some sort of superscript, such as an umlaut, which would prevent the use of the "y", which is normally reserved for a semi-vowel/consonant (an "i" in a consonant slot), and it would prevent such strange-looking items as yvyryryi 'earthquake,' tyvyta 'eyebrow' and yvy 'floor' (which is actually more like 'earth, soil, dirt'). Now, if the y vowel sounds like the "y" of yellow, try to pronounce yvyryryi. If you figure out how to produce a high, central, unrounded vowel (try slurring your tongue/mouth position from "i" (ee) to "o", maintaining unrounded lips, and the vocalic sound in question will be about half-way down the slur) than yvyryryi can be pronounced without much trouble as ïvïrïrïi (obviously an onomatopoetic expression for an earthquake event).

The consonants represent a full range of voiceless stops: p, t, k, plus a phonemic glottal stop. According to Britton, there are prenasalized stops: mb, nt, nd and ng, plus the standard nasals: m, n, ñ. That, along with the nasalized vowels must give it a particularly nasal/whiney sound, and is perhaps the reason why the Chilean lady told me that Guaraní is the greatest language on earth for expressing love (the dictionary does list a number of nouns and verbs for 'love' and 'lover'). The consonantal system is rounded out by an isolated voiced fricative v, an affricate sh written as 'ch,' a voiced affricate dzy written as a 'j,' and r and s. Britton indicates a g in the consonantal inventory, but the dictionary almost exclusively (except for some Spanish loans) uses the 'g' in combination with following 'u' (thus 'gu'), which suspiciously looks like an influence from Spanish orthography and probably represents the 'w' sound. Therefore, I suspect that an entry such as guyra 'bird' would then be pronounced as "wïra", and the adverb for 'down,' which is listed as iguype would probably be pronounced as "iwïpe". The author forgot to mention the l in his inventory, which is used throughout the Guaraní entries, albeit mostly in Spanish loans. The r was said to sound "as r in English radio", which I seriously doubt, as the American English 'r' is mostly vocalic, in which the tongue (articulator) does not really make contact with any point of articulation. I suspect that the 'r' is a true 'flapped r' in Guaraní, sounding like the middle sound in the word "butter" in standard American English.

The dictionary entries include solid indigenous items, such as many flora and fauna names, intricate non-western kinship terminology, cosmology items and, interestingly, a large number of religious and theological items of Roman Catholic usage, which may reflect the somewhat unusual practice of early (Jesuit) missionaries communicating with the people in their native tongue.

There are also some newly-coined native terms for such relatively modern concepts as: telegram, radio, television, linguistics, etc. There are native terms for the twelve months and almost all of the days of the week, as well as native unit terms for the numbers 1 through 20, plus words for hundred, thousand and million. There is even a native word for 'zero' papa'y.

The dictionary also lists quite a few loans from Spanish, such as: Kolõ 'Columbus,' kolo 'color,' komáyre [in which the 'y' is obviously not the sixth vowel] 'godmother,' kompáyre 'godfather,' etc. And then there are some loans the author presumably did not recognize as loans: chikóte 'whip,' líña 'cord,' máta 'plant, tree,' asukary 'syrup,' etc. Strangely enough, the word for "shaman" is a loan from Spanish médiku.

There is a notable absence in the dictionary of three crucial cultural items, they are: chipá the ubiquitous and all-important staple food in the form of a crunchy donut, made with manioc flour, lard and cheese; tereré which is the cold mate drink, seen everywhere in Paraguay, and; mandi'o the word used for the important crop of manioc, yuca, casava, tapioca. I was lucky to find 'mate' under 'tea' ka'ay, tata'y.

As a bonus, I discovered that the colloquial term for popcorn in Argentina, "pururú" or "pororó" may have come from Guaraní pururû 'crackle, to crackle,' unless both borrowed it from a third source. The term kaguy (presumably pronounced kawï) is misleadingly glossed as 'beer,' but after searching other sources it turns out to be traditional fermented drink that can be made of a number of fruits or tubers.

Conclusion: When I first saw the dictionary, I didn't think much of it, but after spending quite a bit of time thumbing its pages, I have come to the conclusion that it is a fascinating little volume for the inquisitive linguist with a background in indigenous languages of the Americas. I have no idea what this dictionary will do for the layman. The price is low enough that any field linguist should have it, and it could perhaps be used along with other, more expensive, linguistic treatments of the Guaraní language. On the other hand, there is at least one free online Guaraní/Spanish/German dictionary that seems to be somewhat more complete than this Guaraní/English dictionary, but has the same orthographic/phonological shortcomings.


Grimes, Barbara F. Ed., Ethnologue, Languages of the World, 12th Ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992.

Ritchie Key, Mary, The grouping of South American languages. Ars Linguistica, Commentationes analyticae et criticae 2. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1979.


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