The Tupi Language and Its Influence on Brazilian Portuguese

Brazil flag
Brazil flag | © AK Rockefeller / Flickr
Euan Marshall

It is common knowledge that the official language of Brazil is Portuguese, in particular, a dialect called Brazilian Portuguese, which has some grammatical and pronunciation differences from European Portuguese. However, the language wasn’t always spoken in Brazil, only becoming the accepted national tongue in the late 18th century. Beforehand, people in Brazil spoke lots of languages, mostly variations on the native Tupi language of indigenous tribes. The influence of Tupi was so great that even today, in the 21st century, several Tupian words are still used in modern Brazilian Portuguese.

Naturally, many of the most prominent Tupi words used in Portuguese are place names, as the naming of towns and rivers preceded the arrival of the colonizers in the 1500s. Of Brazil’s 26 states (and one Federal District), 13 have names which originate from Tupi.

Some are fairly straightforward, such as Roraima, which translates as “Green Mountain”—joining rora (green) and imã (mountain)—and is surely a reference to the stunning tabletop mountain Monte Roraima, the state’s highest peak. The northeastern state of Maranhão originates from the Tupi expression “mar’anhan,” meaning “the river that runs.”

Roraima, or “Green Mountain”

Some of Brazil’s states have more poetic Tupi names; for example, the state of Ceará—made from of the words cemo and ara—translates as “The Song of the Jandaya Parakeet,” a tropical bird native to the area. The state of Sergipe, also in the northeast region, translates as “River of Crabs,” after the Sergipe River which cuts through the state capital Aracaju.

Meanwhile, some names are less flattering. Pernambuco, one of the most populous states in the northeast region, translates literally as “Hole in the Sea”; its neighbor to the north, Paraíba, means “Bad River” in the native tongue. Both are in fact beautiful parts of the country, but this hasn’t stopped the Tupi language in the past. Ibirapuera, as in the name of São Paulo’s famous urban park, translates as “Sick Trees,” while Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Ipanema Beach means “Worthless Water,” a compound of the words ‘y (water) and panema (good-for-nothing).

Ipanema, or “Worthless Water”

Along the Rio de Janeiro coast, there is the beach town of Saquarema, which attracts tourists from all over as it’s known as Brazil’s surfing capital. However, much to the chagrin of the Saquarema tourist board, the city’s name in Tupi has nothing to do with surfing, waves or sunshine. Saquarema comes from the indigenous words sakurá and rema, which translates into English as—wait for it—Smelly Periwinkles.

Saquarema, or “Smelly Periwinkles”

Tupi place names are some of the hardest words for Portuguese learners to pronounce correctly because of the language’s use of sounds rarely seen in Romance or Germanic languages. For instance, the neighborhood of Anhangabaú in São Paulo (an-yang-ga-ba-OO) is a notorious tongue twister. Incidentally, the area used to be home to the Anhangabaú River, which, in Tupi, translates as “The Cursed River”—a claim some Paulistanos would probably agree with.

Place names aren’t the only examples of Tupi words which still exist in modern Brazilian Portuguese. Many names of fruits, foods, plants, and animals used today in Brazil are in fact Tupi words. Pineapples in Portuguese are known as “abacaxi” (in Brazil) or “ananás” (in Portugal), both words incidentally having roots in Tupi. “Abacaxi” is a compound of the terms i’bá and ká’ti, meaning “fruit which smells pleasant and intense,” while “ananás” comes from naná, which means “nice smell.” Interestingly, pineapples are known as “ananas” in a number of languages around the world, including French, German, Russian, and Arabic.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article