On the meanings and etymology of ‘anhinga’: The devil is in the details

The anhinga is a common sight in all parts of Amazonia that I have visited: it is an elegant piscivorous bird utterly at home in the water, and I have often seen it diving, swimming with its slender curved neck craning out of the water, or perched on a branch or log near the water’s edge with its wings extended to dry. A more pleasant, innocuous creature could hardly be wished for.

An anhinga sunning its wings (Wikimedia Commons)

I was therefore surprised when I clicked on a recent NYT story about a “devil bird” that had recently been sighted in New York state, and learned that the creature so maligned was none other than the blameless anhinga. The story correctly notes that the name comes from the Tupi word anhinga, or which the author of the story provided the translation (or etymology?) “devil bird”, but without any citation. Wikipedia (bless it) is more informative, citing p. 123 of the second edition of Aurélio Ferreira’s (1986) Novo Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa and remarking that:

The word anhinga comes from a’ñinga in the Brazilian Tupi language and means “devil bird” or “snake bird”.

Here in Iquitos I am only able to access the first edition online, which provides no etymology at all, let alone one involving devils or snakes. Regardless of whether the second edition does in fact provide these etymologies, I strongly suspect they are incorrect.

First some basic information by way of Lemos Barbosa’s (1951) Vocabulario Tupí-Português (my phonological best guess in slashes; phonetic form in square brackets; see below for some caveats that do not materially affect matters):

  • bird: güyrá /wɨra/ (p. 66)
  • snake: mboia /moi/ [mboi] (p. 87)
  • devil: anhanga /aɲaŋ/ (p. 29; given as meaning ‘name of a forest spirit, demon’)
  • anhinga: anhinga /aɲiŋa/ (p.29)

As Lemos Barbosa’s (1956:35) Curso de Tupi Antigo indicates, Tupí compounds are right-headed, and he even provides a very relevant example: /jawaʔ-wɨra/ ‘jaguar bird’, from /jawaɾ(a)/ ‘jaguar’ and /wɨra/ ‘bird’. So if we were to construct ‘devil bird’ and ‘snake bird’ compounds on this model, we would get something like:

  • /aɲaŋg-wɨra/ ‘devil bird’
  • /mboi-wɨra/ ‘snake bird

These are not very like /aɲiŋa/ at all. So, where do the suppored “devil bird” and “snake bird’ meanings come from? What I suspect is going on here is a bit of folk etymology based on the similarity of /aɲaŋ(a)/ ‘devil’ and /aɲiŋa/ ‘anhinga’. In short, the name of the poor defenseless anhinga is sufficiently to similar to that of the forest spirit in question that at some point someone could not resist the temptation to connect the former with the latter, yielding the fanciful ‘devil bird’. The rationale for the supposed “snake bird” meaning is quite mysterious to me.

I’d be very interested if anyone can either substantiate the “devil bird’ or “snake bird” meanings/etymologies or can identify who first suggested them.

Caveats: Lemos-Barbosa often lists nouns with the so-called “nuclear case” suffix -a attached. I have removed them, based on comparative evidence with other Tupi-Guarani languages. There may be glottal stops missing from the forms from Lemos-Barbosa, who does not include them. In particular, some online sources give the Tupi name of the bird with a glottal stop preceding the leftmost nasal consonant. Finally, in the compounds I construct, I am not 100% sure about phonology at the compound boundary, in particular, the partial oralization of the rightmost nasal consonant of /aɲaŋ/ ‘devil’.


Lexicography course at PUCP

Last week Chris Beier and I had the pleasure to give a brief course on lexicography for little-documented languages at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, where we are currently affiliated researchers. The slides are available here (Day 1 and Day 2) for anyone who is interested.

We were invited by Roberto Zariquiey as part of the Simposio Internacional Permanente de Lingüística Amerindia (SIPLA) of the MA program at PUCP, and the drew event a large group of students and faculty, not only from PUCP, but from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, and other universities in Lima. There was lots of stimulating discussion, and many interesting contributions by Peruvian colleagues and students who are themselves in the midst of project focused on the lexical documentation of Peruvian Indigenous languages.

Tape Ayvu, a Paĩ Tavyterã Guaraní website

The spread of internet access successively further from urban centers in South America to more rural areas, and to an increasing number of indigenous communities in particular (as in this case), presents a potentially very promising solution to a major challenge faced by collaborating groups of linguists and speakers of Indigenous languages, namely, how to make the products of these collaborations available to Indigenous communities. My collaborators and I have, for example, mainly sharing such products by printing and delivering paper copies of works like dictionaries and teaching materials. This is certainly much better than nothing, but such materials tend not to have a very long lifespan in the rainforest communities in which we work, and exclude certain kinds of things that are of interest to community members, such as audio or video recordings.

The moment is clearly ripe for innovation and experimentation, from models based on local and regional linguistic archives (like this one), to more specifically community-oriented websites. I recently learned of one such recently launched website that I want to share here: Tape Ayvu, a site dedicated to sharing materials in and about Paĩ Tavyterã Guaraní, a variety belonging to Guaranian subgroup of the Tupi-Guarani family.

This website is the product of a collaboration led by Celeste Escobar, currently a professor at the Universidad Nacional de Itapúa (UNI) in Paraguay, involving elders from the elders from over 10 Paī communities, co-authors of various texts presented on the site, and colleagues from CIESAS, UNAM, and UT Austin, with the support of UNI and the Paraguayan government at different stages. The site is in the midst of being developed further, but already includes one extensive oral text, that is accessible in both video and pdf format, a general Paĩ Tavyterã vocabulary, and photos and videos of Paĩ Tavyterã practices. In addition, the website makes available several of Celeste Escobar’s academic publications on Paĩ Tavyterã. Finally, the entire site is available in both Spanish and Guaraní versions.

I look forward to seeing how the site develops and learning about how members of the Paĩ Tavyterã communities make use of it.

Print and digital versions of dictionaries of Zaparoan languages available

Those who are interested in obtaining a hardcopy version (click here) of the new Diccionario Iquito-Castellano can now do so via the publisher, Abya Yala. This is the same edition that was delivered to the Iquito community of San Antonio earlier this year . Those who are happy with a pdf version of this dictionary can obtain it here.

Abya Yala also kindly published the English-Iquito Dictionary, but it does not appear in their catalog because it is in English. If you would like a hardcopy please email me. Otherwise, you can obtain a pdf copy here. An online version of this dictionary was published here via Dictionaria, an online journal for digital dictionaries.

Finally, Abya Yala also published the Diccionario Záparo Trilingüe back in 2014, but it is currently out of stock, although it still appears in the Abya Yala catalog (here). One can obtain a pdf copy here.

A basic solar power system for linguistic fieldwork: the components

Research with speakers of the world’s under-documented and under-described languages frequently requires that linguists work in places without a regular supply of electricity. Almost all the fieldwork that I have carried out, for example, has been in places where I have had to supply my own electricity to run laptops, recharge batteries for recorders and flashlights, and other electrical needs.

In many cases, a solar power system is the best option for generating and storing electrical power, and this post is intended to provide information about the components of basic solar power system that will supply electricity for typical linguistic fieldwork needs.

The basic solar system I describe here has five major components: 1) a solar panel and cable; 2) a switch; 3) a charge controller; 4) a battery; and 5) an inverter. Note that the recommendations that I make below are based on the assumption that you will be making your purchases in an a decent-sized, but not super-large, urban center relatively close to your field site. In the case of fieldwork in Peruvian Amazonia I have in mind cities like Pucallpa, Iquitos, and Yurimaguas. And let me add that if you’re buying your solar panel equipment in a place like this, there will be businesses dedicated to solar power systems. If you are new to setting up solar systems, I recommend explaining your needs (and experience) to the people you buy your equipment from, so that they can help you make good choices and help you learn the details of how to set your system up. My experience is that folks in solar power businesses like these are generally very helpful.

In this post I describe the basic component; in the next I describe how the set them up.

Solar panels

A solar panel generates a voltage when exposed to sufficiently strong light, and if hooked up to a battery correctly, will charge the battery. In the basic system I describe here I recommend and assume a rigid glass panel (a.k.a., a monocrystalline solar panel), which has the advantage of being more efficient, cheaper (per Watt of power), and more easily available in most parts of the world than flexible (a.k.a. polycrystalline) panels. (In the kind of places where I have bought panels in Peruvian Amazonia, only monocrystalline panels are sold, so it really might not be an issue at all.)

190 W panel on a platform (barbacoa) in the community of Nueva Vida

An important question is the size (i.e., maximum wattage = power) of the panel one should get. This depends on light conditions where you are, and what your electrical needs are, but my rule of thumb in the field sites I work in is 10 Watts per hour of laptop use per day. This covers both my laptop needs and the need to recharge other smaller pieces of equipment (tablet, rechargeable AA batteries, etc.). Note that I work a couple of degrees from the equator, so keep that in mind when calculating for your own needs. I generally aim for a 90 Watt panel per researcher, assuming about 9 hours of laptop use per researcher per day. This is more than enough during good sunny weather, but also builds up enough a reserve in the battery, and generates enough electricity to keep me going during long stretches of cloudy weather. If you are planning to use other electricity-intensive devices, you will need to adjust accordingly.

Note that the price of solar panels has come down a great deal in recent years. To give you a sense, a couple of months ago I bought a 190 Watt panel in Iquitos for about $200 dollars. This included a 10 meter insulated cable that runs from the panel to the rest of the power system, to which I turn next.

You will need a cable that runs from your solar panels, set up outside, to the rest of your solar power system, which should be located under a roof, near where you will be using your laptop. I find a 10 meter cable to be more than enough in my field sites, but if your panels will need to be located further away from the rest of your power system, get a longer cable accordingly.


Next, a switch. Although not 100% strictly necessary, I recommend installing a switch between the solar panel cable and the rest of the system. There are many options, but an adequate electrical switch will cost you only a couple of dollars and can be picked in a decent hardware store. You just need to make sure that it will be easy for you to attach the two wires from the solar panel cable in one end, and two wires leading to the rest of the system at the other end.

Switch placed between solar panel cable and wires leading to charge controller

Charge Controller

Next comes the charge controller, which adjusts the voltage coming out of the panel so that it charges your battery properly. Charge controllers can be very, very inexpensive, but I recommend getting one that will tell you the voltage of your battery (see why below). Even so, the charge controller will probably only cost you about $10-15. These too have become very inexpensive.

Charge controller, located between switch and battery


Next comes the battery. There are lots of options (about which I may say more in a later post), but here I will assume a non-sealed lead-acid car battery (i.e., a standard car battery), since these can be found in most urban locations of more than a couple of thousand people. Car batteries come in different “sizes”, where the size is measured in Amp-hours (Ah), which indicates the total electrical charge a battery can hold. The more Ah a battery can hold, the more expensive it is, and the heavier it is (that’s the lead part of lead-acid). The main reason to have more, rather than less, battery storage capacity is that this is what will allow you to continue drawing electricity when the solar panel is not generating much current, e.g., during cloudy days, or at night, when panels generate no current at all. My rule of thumb is about 5Ah of battery capacity per planned hour of laptop use. Since I normally do fieldwork with another person, and plan for 9 hours of laptop use per day per person, I normally aim to get a battery in the vicinity of 90Ah.

Car battery

With the simple setup that I am recommending it is a little difficult to know exactly how much usable charge you have in your battery. When the battery is new and fully charged, the battery voltage should be 12.5V or a little more. As you use up the charge in the battery, the voltage will drop, but you should not let it drop below 12.0V. You can continue to draw current below 12.0V, but this will reduce the capacity of the battery and shorten its lifespan.


The final major component is the inverter. The inverter connects to the battery and turns the 12-ish DC volts of the battery into AC current (which is what standard wall current is). You can purchase inverters that output 110V AC or 220V AC; I get 220V AC inverters, since that is what is used in Peru. In any case, an inverter has electrical outlets into which you can plug your devices. Note that inverters have a maximum wattage rating, which indicates the maximum power they can draw, and inverters with lower wattage ratings are less expensive than those with higher ones. Laptops draw about 60W at most, and so I get pretty much to lowest wattage inverters: 300W. I get pure sine wave inverters (since this is better for electronics) and they cost me $30-$40.

DC/AC Inverter

There are also some minor components. You will need several meters of electrical wire to connect the switch to the charge controller, and the charge controller to the battery. You will also need connectors that will allow you to connect wires to the terminals of the battery (in Peru they are called bornes). I recommend inquiring about these with your local solar power expert: they will be able to tell you what is used locally.

In the next post I will discuss setting up the the solar panel system.

A novel hypothesis about the route of Francisco de Orellana’s expedition

I strongly recommend a recent post by Zachary O’Hagan on his blog, Tseenti-Waturiu, where he brings to our attention a very interesting recent-ish paper by Polish historian Jerzy Achmatowicz, which argues that the river traveled by the expedition led by Francisco de Orellana during his famous river voyage from the Andean foothills to the Amazon proper, and then on to mouth of the Amazon River, was the Putumayo River, and not the Napo River, as has been believed for some 400 years. O’Hagan not only summarizes Achmatowicz’s arguments, but provides important additional evidence for what we can call the “Putumayo hypothesis,” based on distributions of indigenous groups in the early colonial period.

Much of the importance of the “Putumayo hypothesis” lies in the fact that Gaspar de Carvajal’s account of Orellana’s expedition contains some of the earliest written observations regarding Indigenous groups of the upper Amazon region. Given the tremendous and tremendously rapid negative impact of the European invasion on the Indigenous peoples of the upper Amazon River and its major tributaries, early records like those of Carvajal are essential for understanding aspects of the social and political organization, and sheer size, of the Indigenous groups of the region on the cusp to the European invasion. However, the interpretation of many of Carvajal’s observations are likely to change if it turns out that Orellana transited the Putumayo River, and not the Napo.

Since the original “Napo hypothesis”, due to Cristobal Diatristán de Acuña according to Achmatowicz, has been assumed to be correct for over 400 years, I imagine that the revisionist Putumayo hypothesis will face some significant headwinds. Some fifteen years ago, for example, I passed through the town of Francisco de Orellana, located near the mouth of the Napo (!) River. It was a quiet and modest down of maybe a 1000 people, and for its size it had an exceptionally elaborate monument to Francisco de Orellana. I imagine that the good people of Francisco de Orellana will hardly be alone in being skeptical about the idea that their town’s namesake passed nowhere nearby. Nonetheless, I find Achmatowicsz’s, and especially O’Hagan’s, arguments quite compelling. I encourage you to evaluate them yourselves.

First two volumes of Amazonian languages: An international handbook published

The first two volumes of Amazonian languages: An international handbook are now available. Edited by Patience Epps and myself, these two volumes present grammatical descriptions of all reasonably well-attested linguistic isolates of the Greater Amazonian region. Volume I covers Aikanã to Kandozi-Shapra, and Volume II covers Kanoé to Yurakaré. (A chapter in Volume III will summarize what we know about about the more poorly-attested isolates and small language families known only from colonial-era materials.)

At this time, the freely available material is limited to the front matter and the Introduction to Volume I, written by editors.

The next volumes in the series will focus on the small language families of Greater Amazonia, and the final volumes, on the large language families of the region.

On the possible South American origins of Polynesian kumara ‘sweet potato’

A couple of months ago I read Sea People, an engaging popular survey of the scholarship on the historical orgins of the Polynesian peoples, and their subsequent exploration and settling of the Pacific islands. I recently recalled this book due to a discussion at Language Log that intersects with my South Americanist interest, touching on the long-standing question of how sweet potatoes were introduced into the Pacific. While it appears fairly clear that they must have come from South America, the question is whether humans were the vector for their introduction (i.e. Polynesians traveling to South America or South Americans to Polynesia) or whether sweet potatoes dispersed via a natural mechanism that did not involve humans.

Note that the latter hypothesis is not at all implausible. Darwin, for example, devotes an extensive section of the On the Origin of Species (a previous summer book of mine) to mechanisms for the geographic dispersal of plants and animals (floating on water, on natural rafts, stuck to the feet of birds, who can get blown around by storms, etc.). But there is one reason that makes some people think that humans were the vector for the transmission of sweet potatoes to the Pacific, namely, that the word used by Polynesians for this cultigen is very similar to that used by Indigenous peoples in western South America: kumara. There are, to be fair, some linguist details to be nailed down: were there actually truly coastal people who cultivated sweet potato and used this word? Is the form of the Polynesian word what one would expect of the phonological form of the word used on the west coast of South America plus the phonological adaptation processes that would have been involved in Polynesians borrowing the word?

Notwithstanding these issues, I think that the preceding lexical borrowing hypothesis is more plausible than the alternative, namely, that sweet potatoes were introduced to the Pacific via a non-human vector, and Polynesians by chance developed a word almost identical to that of the South American term. Note, crucially, that it is not just a question of the similarity of the form of the two words: as any historical linguist can tell you, surprising coincidences crop up all the time when you compare the lexicons of multiple languages. Rather, it is the similarity in question combined with nature of the lexicon innovation event. We know that sweet potatoes were introduced to the Polynesian around 1300 CE, which would have presented the Polynesians with a linguistic problem to solve, namely, what to call the new cultigen. There are basically three options: 1) they could have borrowed a word; 2) they could have extended the reference of an existing word to include the new referent; or 3) they could have coined a new word. Focusing on the latter two possibilites, the extension mechanism (plus a disambiguating strategy) is something that was employed by Indigenous peoples in the Americas when Europeans introduced new animals and plants. The word for ‘dog’ in many Amazonian languages, for example, is the word that was historically applied to jaguars and other wild cats (e.g. yawara in many Tupi-Guarani langauges). Subsequently a disambiguation strategy was employed when needing to clarify reference to jaguars versus to dogs (e.g., yawara-usu, where -usu is an augmentative suffix). I haven’t heard this extension strategy being mentioned as a possible source for Polynesian kumara, but perhaps it would be work ruling that out, if someone hasn’t already done so.

The other non-borrowing strategy is coining a new word. Here I go out on a bit of a limb and propose that in cases of coining new words for new referents, the new coined word is overwhelmingly likely to be etymologically transparent. For example when the French opted to coin a word for potato instead of borrowing from an American language via Spanish, English, or another language, they coined pomme de terre (lit. ‘earth apple’), and English itself, instead of borrowing, created the compound sweet potato. Similarly, Máíhùnà, who I have worked with, generally do not borrow words from Spanish, but instead use the vast classifier system of Máíhɨ̃̀kì, and the nominalizing properties of classifiers, to coin vast numbers of words: toya-tɨka (write-CL:stick) for pencil, aga-seu (call-CL:root) for telephone, kio-ro (metal-CL:concavity) for metal cooking pot, etc. Although I’m sure such cases exist, I’m not aware of any cases where, when faced with a new referent, speakers of the language have coined a new word that has no semantic basis (whether via extension or compounding) in extant words in their language. If it is the case, then, that kumara is etymologically non-transparent in Polynesian languages, I think this strongly suggests that it was a borrowing.

In short, the linguistic fact that Polynesians use the word kumara for a recently introduced cultigen strongly suggests, in my view, that the introduction of sweet potatoes into the Pacific involved a human vector: either a Polynesian visit to South America, or a visit by South Americans to the Pacific.

There are two reasons, however, why I have some doubts about the Polynesian visit hypothesis. First, there appears to be no oral history record of this voyage. Keep in mind that for Polynesians to have made it to South America, they would have had to gone against the prevailing winds in the Pacific for what would have been the longest of all the Polynesian voyages. In short, it would have had to have been a deliberate trip, not a question of someone getting blown off course. And at the same time, this voyage would have yielded a a set of tremendous discoveries: a new continent, new peoples, and among other things, a new cultigen which would quickly become one of the staples of the Polynesian peoples. The idea that such a deliberate and momentous voyage of discovery would have not become an important part of the oral history of the people who carried the voyage strikes me as extremely implausible. The history of Polynesian exploration makes clear that they would certainly have been capable of a voyage like this, but that same history suggests that it would be remembered in oral history — somewhat subject to processes of mythification, perhaps — but certainly not forgotten.

Second, it puzzles me that if Polynesians had indeed made it to the western coast of South America, that sweet potatoes would have been the only cultigen that they brought back. Why not also corn, squash, manioc, chili peppers, tobacco, or cotton, just to name a few? It strikes me as implausible that Polynesians would have made a journey of this magnitude and not brought back other cultigens that would have been at least as easy to transport as sweet potatoes, if not easier.

If the above thinking is on the right track, but we do believe that humans were the vector for the introduction of sweet potatoes into the Pacific, that leaves South Americans going to Polynesia. The historical record mentions that South Americans employed ocean-going rafts equipped with sails in coastal trade, so they would have had vessels that could have made the trip (as Thor Heyerdahl and many others have shown). And such a trip would have been in the direction of the prevailing winds, favoring the South Americans, who, as far as we know, were nowhere near as talented open ocean sailors as the Polynesians. In fact, once away from the mainland, the South Americans would probably have had no choice but to continue sailing with the prevailing winds, given the balky nature of their vessels. Whether such a trip was deliberate or accidental (imagine traders being blown out to sea), the fact that they would not have returned would have made it unlikely for others to have emulate the trip, or for South American oral history to have recorded the trip, if it had been deliberate.

As the discussion at Language Log illustrates, this is clearly an issue that inspires some strong feelings, and I suspect that for a consensus to emerge, additional findings, whether from ethnography, archaeology, or human genetics, will need to be added to the linguistic and ethnographic facts we now have at our disposal.

Community Presentation of Iquito Dictionary

Earlier today, here in the Iquito community of San Antonio de Pintuyacu, Chris Beier and I presented the recently published Diccionario Iquito-Castellano to the community and distributed copies of the dictionary to all the families present. This dictionary represents an important milestone in the community-oriented documentation of Iquito, significantly expanding and improving on previous versions of the dictionary that we have presented to the community, including a general dictionary in 2006, and a Diccionario Escolar in 2019. The dictionary we presented today is based on our 2019 Iquito-English dictionary, but is an improvement on that dictionary in a number of important ways. First, it includes an extensive section on Iquito word formation, so that users can form morphologically complex words on the basis of the roots provided in each dictionary entry. A glossary of linguistic terms used in the dictionary is provided alongside. Second, this dictionary represents the low tones of headwords and roots, as well as high tones. Low tones can almost always be correctly deduced on the basis of high tones, but this requires some knowledge of the tonal system. We decided that it would be better to be explicit about the placement of low tones to improve pronunciation (a consistent concern of the Iquito elders). And third, in the process of translating the Iquito-English dictionary to Spanish (with the crucial aid of Jaime Montoya Samamé), we caught errors that had slipped through the editing process of the earlier version, and fixed them. As such, we consider the Diccionario Iquito-Castellano to be the definitive dictionary of the Iquito language at this time.

The event this morning was a lot of fun. In the first part of the event, brief speeches were given by Marcelo Inuma, the community president and former Iquito Language Documentation Project community linguist, by the two remaining fluent Iquito-speaking elders and the principal contributors to the dictionary, Jaime Pacaya Inuma end Ema Llona Yareja, and finally by Chris Beier and myself. A major theme of the speeches was the hope that this dictionary would be useful to young people in particular in learning and passing on the Iquito language.

Community president and former community linguist Marcelo Inuma Sinchija launching the community presentation of the Diccionario Iquito-Castellano
Iquito elder Jaime Pacaya Inuma, who gave speeches in both Iquito and Spanish about the history of the dictionary project and his hopes that young Iquitos would use the dictionary to learn and pass on the language
Iquito elder Ema Llona Yareja, giving a speech in Iquito about the importance of the dictionary to future generations of Iquitos

Dictionaries were then distributed to all the families present, to the festive accompaniment of panetón and gaseosa.

Iquito elder Jaime Pacaya Inuma receiving his copy of the Diccionario Iquito-Castellano
Community member Segundo Sangama receiving a copy of the Diccionary Iquito-Castellano for his family

We then had a ‘listening party’ where we played clips of recordings of songs and narratives by the four Iquito elders whose contributions have formed the base of the Iquito Language Documentation project: the late Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa and Ligia Inuma Inuma, as well as Jaime Pacaya Inuma and Ema Llona Yareja, who continue working with us. We also played recordings made in approximately 1960 by Roberto and Elizabeth Eastman, SIL/WBT missionaries who worked in San Antonio for some five years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These latter recordings include songs and narratives by fondly remembered elders whose voices have in some cases not been heard in the community for 50 years.

The listening party was motivated in part by interest that community members have recently expressed in hearing the recordings we have made, as well as in having written versions of the texts to read. And the latter, in fact, is one of the major things we have bee working towards in this and recent trips to the community. Currently we are aiming to have a first set of multilingual texts to present to the community in June of this year — so stay tuned. And I also have been thinking a great deal about making audio recordings available to the community in a useful way: I plan to share my thoughts about that some time soon.

Group photo at the end of the dictionary presentation event (L-to-R): Tambo manager Piero Saldaña Dávila, Iquito elder Ema Llona Yareja, linguist Lev Michael, Iquito elder Jaime Pacaya Inuma, linguist Christine Beier, community president Marcelo Inuma Sinchija

Archivo de la Lenguas Indígenas de la Amazonia

I recently learned from Dr. Juan Álvaro Echeverri of a new digital archive, the Archivo de la Lenguas Indígenas de la Amazonia (ARDILIA), which is based at the Leticia campus of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Dr. Echeverri, who is one of the leaders of this new initiative, is a renowned Colombian anthropologist and linguist who has worked with the People of the Center (especially Witotoan and Boran groups), and other Amazonian peoples of the region. The archive already boast an extensive collection of Murui , and Dr. Echeverri informs me that collections for Tikuna and Miraña are in the process of being added.

One of the strengths of ARDILIA is the nature of its digital institutional support, as Dr. Echeverri observes:

En efecto, una de las limitaciones de cualquier archivo de lenguas es poder disponer de una infraestructura digital que garantice permanencia y mantenimiento de los datos. Esto solo es posible con una infraestructura institucional. Me tomó varios meses convencer a la Universidad Nacional de alojar este proyecto en su Repositorio Institucional, que garantiza perdurabilidad.

And indeed, the issue of institutional infrastructural support is one of the very first things that I wonder about when I hear about a new language archive project, so it is very encouraging to see that ARDILIA has this potential problem dealt with.

The Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) uses DSpace as its institutional repository, and at this stage, the organization and metadata that ARDILIA exhibits seems to reflect the possibilities that UNAL/DSpace repository offers. I think this reflects one of the real advantages of adopting the UNAL/DSpace repository for ARDILIA’s digital infrastructure solution: the work on designing the infrastructure and interface has already been done (and crucially, will be maintained by) someone else. As a result, it was not necessary to invest significant quantities of time and money in developing database back end, storage solution, and interface. I know that some other digital language archives have sunk quite a bit of money, time, and labor into these things, with results that have not always been entirely satisfactory. I imagine that if the organizers of ARDILIA had had to do the same, this would have constituted a grave challenge to launching the archive. As such, relying on stable and maintained institutional digital repositories like UNAL’s seems like a real boon to launching regional digital language archives like ARDILIA.

I wonder if as ARDILIA grows, the team behind ARDILIA might find that structure that DSpace imposes on file organization, metadata, and search functions, in comparison to a system one can design oneself, somewhat constraining. The tradeoff seems totally worth it to me, though, and I think it will probably be very instructive and useful for others who may be inspired by ARDILIA to follow a similiar infrastructural route to see how the ARDILIA team navigates these issues.

At any rate, ARDILIA’s launch is very exciting, and I look forward to hearing about its continued growth.