In search of Andoa

Tomorrow morning I travel from Lima to Iquitos, en route to the Río Pastaza. My reason for this brief trip is to follow up on information I have received that there are two elderly speakers of Andoa in the community of Andoas Viejo, which is located on the Río Pastaza, not far from the border with Ecuador.

Andoa is a member of the Zaparoan family of languages, which includes Iquito, a language with which I have worked a great deal over the last six years. In recent years I have become interested in the historical linguistics of the family, but there is something of a dearth of information on the other languages of the family. There is quite a good dictionary of Arabela, which includes an adequate description of the language’s morphology (Rich 1999), and a grammatical sketch of Záparo (Peeke 1991), but otherwise the data available on the other languages is very spare. In this context, even basic lexical and morphological data on Andoa would be a tremendous boon.

Andoa, however, is widely believed to be extinct — Ethnologue, for example, reports that that last speaker of Andoa died in 1993. However, in late 2006 I met an anthropologist in Iquitos who had recently made some recordings with two elderly Andoa speakers. I listened to them briefly, and my superficial impression was that the speakers displayed significant fluency. So, the report of the demise of Andoa may have been premature — and that is what I would like to ascertain on this trip.

(Incidentially, Nick Evans has a nice chapter entitled ” The last speaker is dead — long live the last speaker”, in Linguistic Fieldwork, edited by Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff, which discusses the phenomenon through which who counts as the “last speaker” of a language is frequently a moving target, as much tied to issues of local identity community politics as linguistic ability.)

On this particular trip I don’t anticipate doing a great deal of actual linguistic documentation. If I in fact locate any individuals who identify themselves as speakers, I hope to talk with them about a small-scale documentation project and see if they — and the community more generally — are interested. If I can, I would like to do enough work with the speakers to roughly gauge their level of fluency. Can they remember only core vocabulary, or can they easily construct relative clauses?

Interestingly, there are signs that the ethnically Andoa communities on the Ecuadorean side of the border have recently become interested in language documentation and revitalization. See, for example, a newspaper article here, and a UN report here. These reports indicate that there are several speakers on the Ecuadorean side, which leads me to hope that Ecuadorean linguists will be taking up the challenge to document the language on that side of the border.


Rich, Rolland G., compiler. 1999. Diccionario Arabela—Castellano.‭ Lima: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Peeke, M. Catherine. 1991. Bosquejo gramatical del záparo.‭ Quito: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

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