On the classification of Taushiro

When in Lima I spent quite a bit of time in taxis, where I inevitably fall into discussions about what I am doing in Peru. When I explain that I am a linguist working on Peruvian Amazonian indigenous languages, the driver normally responds with a either puzzled silence or just assumes that I talking about Quechua. Either way, this gives me an opportunity to talk about the linguistic diversity of Peruvian Amazonia — which truly is impressive — the scale of which many a taxi driver has seemed to find quite amazing.

But when I was in Lima a few weeks ago, things went quite differently: I was in a taxi, and for the umpteenth time I was explaining what I was doing in Peru, and the taxi driver responded, without dropping a beat, “Oh, you mean like Taushiro” (except, of course, in Spanish). “Well, er, yes, exactly,” I fumbled, as I tried to assimilate the fact that the driver had just named one of the most obscure Peruvian Amazonian languages there is. I think the driver was somewhat alarmed at my disconcerted response and helpfully explained that there had recently been a television program that focused on the last speaker of Taushiro, a linguistic isolate spoken in Loreto. Now, for the benefit of all of us that missed the original program, Nila Vigil, over at Instituto Lingüístico de Invierno has made it available here. Check it out.

In relation to her post, Nila made a pair of comments here on Greater Blogazonia about the classification of Taushiro (here), which I now want to take up. Specifically, Nila remarks that the apparently incorrect classification of Taushiro as a Zaparoan language continues to be propagated in many linguistic and anthropological works. In fact, if one takes a closer look at how Taushiro has been treated by classifiers of Amazonian languages, as we shall do now, we find an excellent illustration of the kind of confusion and borderline linguistic malpractice that bedeviled Amazonian comparative linguistics until relatively recently.

As Nila notes, we can probably trace the modern-day prevalence of the incorrect classification of Taushiro as Zaparoan to Beuchat and Rivet’s (1908) influential article delimiting the Zaparoan family (available here via the amazing Persee site). For the most part, this article does an excellent job with the Herculean task of sorting through the truly vast number of colonial era ethnonyms and then delimiting the Zaparoan family. Their achievement is all the more impressive for the fact that they only had access to very scanty linguistic data, most of it of low quality. In fact, the only significant error in their classification, as far as I am aware, is their inclusion of Taushiro in the family.

A close reading of the article suggests that Beuchat and Rivet had no data on Taushiro, but instead based their classification on the word of colonial era writers who claimed that ‘Pinche’ (a colonial era name for Taushiro) is related to Andoa, which is quite unambiguously a Zaparoan language. In particular, Beuchat and Rivet seem to be indebted to Hervas (1800), a Spanish translation of Hervas (1784). Lorenzo Hervas’ Wikipedia biography here suggests that his linguistic methodology mainly consisted in working with Jesuits who had been ejected from the Americas after the 1767 order of Carlos III, and who were personally familiar with the languages of particular groups. An examination of Hervas’ classifications suggests that they were based at least as much on geographical proximity as on properly linguistic grounds.

In particular, Hervas (1784 : p. 61) ( the whole work is available here) enumerates the following languages as ‘dialects’ of Andoa: Arafo, Chudaviño, Gae, Murato, Pavo/Pabo, Pinche, Simigae, and Bobonazo. Of these, Andoa, Gae, Simigae and Bobonazo are clearly names for Zaparoan languages (as is evident by looking at Beuchat and Rivet (1908)), Murato is colonial era name for Candoshi, and Pinche is, of course, Taushiro. Hervas thus treats languages from three distinct language families as dialects of Andoa, thereby seeding, I believe, the belief that Taushiro is a Zaparoan language. The only obvious thing that these languages have in common is that all these languages were spoken on the Río Pastaza, or on the nearby Río Tigre. In other words, the languages appear to have been grouped together on the basis of geographical proximity.

The fact that colonial-era writers made an error about the classification of Taushiro is not surprising, but this error has proven to be quite resilient, as Nila remarked. Solís (2003: 200), for example, remarks:

La lengua taushiro … debe ser considerada como una rama divergente dentro de las lenguas que conforman el grupo Záparo.

[The Taushiro language … should be considered a divergent branch among the languages that form the Zaparoan group.]

And Wise (1999: 312) remarks

Taushiro is possibly a Zaparo language, but its classification has not been confirmed.

And Pozzi-Escot (1998) simply classifies Taushiro as Zaparoan without any further comment. What I find remarkable about these classificatory claims is that they are not accompanied by any evidence to support them, nor do they cite anyone else who provides such evidence. In fact, I suspect that what has happened is that the idea of Taushiro as Zaparoan has simply gained legitimacy by having been repeated for so long, by so many people. How anyone who has actually looked at lexical and grammatical data on Taushiro could consider this language to be Zaparoan is beyond me. Here, do it yourself: thanks to the excellent SIL Peru site, you can download a Taushiro grammatical sketch (here) and a Taushiro vocabulary (here). Please write me if you find any plausible evidence of a Taushiro-Zaparoan connection. All the solidly Zaparoan languages exhibit numerous grammatical similarities and connections, and Taushiro doesn’t even come close. Of course, it may ultimately be the case that Taushiro is a Zaparoan language — it is certainly possible that there is a very distant relationship here — my point is simply that no one who has judged this hypothesis favorably has presented any evidence in its favor. In fact, according to Fabre (here (pdf)), Alicea (1976), who carried out fieldwork on the language, found no evidence to support a Zaparoan connection.

Well, so much for the Zaparoan classification of Taushiro — but the story does not end there! A common fate for Amazonian isolates is that they end up being included in a number of different language families by different classifiers, and Taushiro is no exception. Tovar (1961: 151) groups Pinche with Omurano, another unclassified language, and Loukotka (1968:156) groups Pinche with Candoshi, which is generally believed to be an isolate. Interestingly, if one looks at Loukotka (1968), the author is quite upfront that he has no sources or data on Pinche (Taushiro) at all! How Loukotka manages to classify Taushiro with Candoshi on the basis of no data at all is a mystery — but it’s certainly a nice trick. It’s also pretty clear that Tovar’s (1961) is also an immaculate classification. Note, by the way, that Hervás original classification groups Taushiro and ‘Murato’ (a colonial era name for Candoshi) together, so the ultimate responsibility for this classification may also be laid at Hervás’ feet.

Interestingly, Kaufman (1994) tentatively proposes that Taushiro belongs to a grouping that includes Candoshi and Omurano, in effect combining Tovar’s and Loukotka’s proposals. To his credit, Kaufman identifies one phonological correspondence between the three languages, lending at least a measure of credibility to the proposal. In my opinion, it will probably never be possible to arrive at any solid conclusion regarding the position of Omurano in this grouping, as the only data on this extinct language, of which I am aware, are modest wordlists in Tessman (1999 [1930]) and Villarejo (1959), both of which are of dubious quality. However, the question of the genetic relationship between Candoshi and Taushiro seems fairly straightforward to settle, as Candoshi is a vital language, and obtaining substantial lexical and grammatical data should pose no insurmountable difficulties. In fact, trying to evaluate the Candoshi-Taushiro hypothesis with the available lexical materials (here) might even make a nice term paper or undergraduate thesis project.

To summarize, then, classifiers have grouped Taushiro with the Zaparoan family, with Candoshi, and with Omurano, the latter two of which are otherwise considered isolates in their own right by most present-day Amazonianists. The evidence for a Zaparoan connection is non-existent, and the evidence for either a Candoshi or an Omurano connection is thin, but in the case of Candoshi, may ultimately prove viable.


Alicea Ortiz, Neftalí. 1976. Apuntes sobre la cultura taushiro. DEL 56. ILV.

Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian Languages. OUP.

Hervas, Lorenzo. 1800. Catálogo de las lenguas de las naciones conocidas, y numeración división y clase de éstas según la diversitad de sus idiomas y dialectos. Madrid: Librería de Ranz.

Hervas, Lorenzo. 1784. Catalogo Delle Lingue Conosciute E Notizia Della Loro Affinita’, E Diversita’. Cesena: Gregorio Biasini.

Kaufman, Terrence. 1994. The native languages of South America. In C. Mosley and R.E. Asher (Eds.), Atlas of the world’s languages. New York: Routledge: pp. 46-76.

Loukotka, Cestmir. 1968. Classification of South American Indian Languages. Los Angeles : Latin American Center, University of California

Pozzi-Escot. 1998. El Multilingüismo en el Perú. Cusco: Centro de Estudios Regionales Andinos “Bartolome de Las Casas.

Solís, Gustavo. 2003. Lenguas en la Amazonía Peruana. Lima:. Visual Service S.R.L.

Tovar, Antonio. 1961. Catálogo de las lenguas de América del Sur. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana.

Tessman, Gunther. 1999 [1930]. Los indígenas del Perú Nororiental. Quito: Abya Yala.

Villarejo, Avencio. 1959. La selva y el hombre. Lima: Ausonia.


Ethics and IRBs

During the past week my wife Chris and I have been in transit from Peru, to Austin, and finally to Berkeley, and we are now setting up our new home. Much neglect of this blog has ensued. I did, however, want to pass on two interesting links. The first, brought to my attention by Jane Simpson over at Transient Languages and Cultures, is a link to the draft of the LSA’s ethics statement. The statement itself is available here. The draft statement is cleverly set up as a series of blog posts, with each major section getting its own post, with its own comments section. (The front page of the blog is here.) This seems like a nice way to get discussion going among linguists, and there have already been some interesting comments posted. Also included are links to ethics statements by other professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association.

On a related note, Claire Bowern over at Angarrgoon (who also mentions the LSA ethics statement blog) provided a link some time ago to Institutional Review Blog, which is maintained by Zachary M. Schrag, an Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University. According to its subheader, the blog is dedicated to providing “[n]ews and commentary about Institutional Review Board oversight of the humanities and social sciences.” Schrag is apparently preparing a book and he posts frequently. His perspective seems like a valuable complement to discussions going on at places like Savage Minds (e.g. here, here, and many others).

I must admit that my personal experience with IRBs at the University of Texas was not that bad. Certainly there were lots of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, but at the end of the day, the members of the IRB seemed sane and did not engage in the over-reaching that I’ve heard about in some of the worse horror stories from my colleagues. I will be very interested to see how the IRB is at Berkeley. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed.)

Abstract deadline approaching: Structure of Amazonian Languages II conference

The deadline for abstract submissions for this exciting-sounding conference is drawing nigh. Abstracts are due August 15, and the CFP makes it sound like open spots are scarce. The full announcement and CFP are available via Linguistlist (here), and I’ve also included the Announcement and CFP below:

The Structure of the Amazonian Languages II

Location: Recife, Brazil
Start Date: 24-Nov-2008 – 28-Nov-2008
Contact: Stella Telles

Meeting Description: This conference is the second of a series of three meetings, as part of a cooperation initiative between the CELIA Paris, UFAM Manaus, Leiden University, and the VU University Amsterdam research centers. The themes to be discussed at the second meeting are ‘nominalization’ and ‘word-prosodic systems’. Although the nature of the meeting is that of a seminar for which part of the contributors are individually invited, there is space in the program for non-invited speakers, which we wish to encourage submitting a paper through this call. In addition, the meeting is open for students and scholars that are interested in assisting without presenting a paper.

Call for Papers

Call Deadline: 15-Aug-2008
Call for Papers

The conference themes are:

Nominalization and Subordination

Since deverbal nouns have the ability to recover the arguments of their finite counterpart, nominalization is one of the procedures that languages make use of to put a verbal predicate in a position of dependence with regard to another predicate. The link between nominalization and subordination is more or less tight cross-linguistically. Very visible in Turkish, Tzeltal, or Arabic, it is pervasive in the Amazonian languages.

Several typological issues must be addressed in considering the relation between subordination and nominalization. First, the way in which the recovery of arguments is achieved, since the case assigner is a noun. When the nominalization concerns a transitive verb, one observes a relatively general tendency for ergative alignment, which has a direct incidence on the way syntactic pivots are established between the main clause and the subordinate clause. Second, the loss of the finiteness properties of the verb and the acquirement of typical nominal categories (gender-classes, quantification, definiteness) can reveal a continuum the landmarks of which have to be stated language particularly. Since the deverbal construct generates a noun phrase, the subordination markers will often be recovered from the inventory of adposition type relational markers. With respect to relativization, the designation ”headless relative” sometimes obscures the necessary distinction between a clause in a modifier position in a noun dominated phrase and a deverbal noun in the same syntactic dependent position. Moreover, in languages that allow a certain degree of choice in discourse between a finite dependent clause and a deverbal modifier, the semantic and pragmatic correlates of each option must be highlighted. The diachronic recovery of finiteness properties by deverbal forms, often accomplished through a reanalysis of the nominal morphology, may cause changes in the alignment patterns. More specifically, the study of the relations between nominalization and subordination, if taking into account the so-called masdar form in the Arabic grammatical tradition, is very well-suited to shed a new light on that hybrid form known from many Tupi and Jê languages, which the tradition of Tupi-Guarani studies calls ”indicative 2”.

Word-Prosodic Systems

An assessment of any typological feature in South American indigenous linguistics is premature. Although for certain families (e.g. Tupi-Guarani) available descriptions are sufficiently good and numerous to allow for interesting family-wide observations, for many others there is almost nothing. This is especially true regarding the characteristics of the word-prosodic systems (stress or tone based) that exist in the Amazonian languages. Even among the ‘well-documented’ languages, very few have had their word-prosodies analyzed in a meaningful way. The descriptions are mostly sketchy, sometimes no more than a generic statement and contain few, if any, examples. A systematic consideration of word-level stress and/ or tonal patterns including detailed accounts of morphological or lexical conditioning is rarely encountered. Terms such as ‘pitch accent’ are used often with a vague definition and are employed to refer to systems that are very dissimilar. For this conference we wish to invite papers that present detailed analyses of word-prosodic systems in the Amazonian languages, preferentially based on laboratory evidence.

The abstract should be no longer than 2 pages including examples and bibliography, single spaced, Times New Roman, pitch 12. The abstract should be send in both Word/W and PdF formats to the local organizers.

Fieldwork on Vacacocha

In an earlier post I outlined my plans to do some exploratory work this summer on Andoa, a minimally documented Zaparoan language spoken on the Rio Pastaza, near the Peru-Ecuador border region. As I was preparing for my trip to the Rio Pastaza, however, some of my travel arrangements fell through, and it became apparent that I would not be able to make it to the Andoa community in the time I had available. Fieldwork on Andoa would have to wait until next year.

I thus found myself in the lovely city of Iquitos with a free week on my hands. Perfect, I though, this would be an opportunity for me to see if I could find any speakers of Vacacocha. Now, if you haven’t ever heard of Vacacocha (also known as Aushiri), you are not alone. It is among the most poorly documented of Peruvian Amazonian languages, and the language is known only from a few short word lists, none of them collected by trained linguists (a bibliography of Vacacocha references is available here (pdf)). Based on this limited information, the language is considered by most classifiers to be a linguistic isolate, but for the most part, so little is known about the language that it tends to elude linguists’ attention. The one clue about where to locate speakers of Vacacocha, repeated in many sources, is that in the early 20th century, there were several families of Vacacochas in a place on the Rio Napo known as Puerto Elvira.

Two days later, then, I found myself on the Rio Napo with a theoretical destination and a general direction to head in — upriver. After two more days’ travel up the Napo I pulled into Puerto Elvira, a community of about 200 people, situated on a bluff overlooking a majestic bend in the Rio Napo. Shortly after touching down I was shuttled over to the community’s three school teachers, who politely asked me what I was doing in their community. After I explained that I was looking for speakers of Vacacocha, the teachers put their heads together and came up with some recommendations for whom I might speak to.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon shuttling back and forth between various little islands upriver of Puerto Elvira, following up on suggestions about where older individuals with some knowledge of Vacacocha might be found. Eventually I met Delia Luisa Andi Macahuachi, a slight woman of some 70 years, who explained that she spoke Vacacocha as a child, and had used it intermittently as a young adult, but had not spoken the language in several decades. She expressed willingness to work with me, however, to document anything she could remember.

Delia Luisa Andi Macahuachi with one of her granddaughters
Delia Luisa Andi Macahuachi with one of her granddaughters

It very quickly became apparent that the language is tonal — in fact, shortly after beginning the first elicitation session, Delia reprimanded me for repeating the words with a flat intonational contour, and I subsequently paid more attention to carefully reproducing the tone contour of the words. Also obvious is the fact that the language has a contrast between oral and nasal vowels. Neither the tonal nature of the language nor the oral/nasal contrast is mentioned in the available material on the language, so it became clear that even if I were only able to collect lexical data, it would be possible to significantly improve linguists’ knowledge of this isolate.

From what I was able to determine, Delia is the only remaining individual in the Puerto Elvira area with any significant knowledge of Vacacocha. During the two days I was with her, Delia worked hard to remember aspects of the language she had not used regularly in close to sixty years. Although she initially found the work frustrating, she came to find the exercise of recovering long-dormant parts of her knowledge quite gratifying. I promised to return to her at the earliest opportuniry a copy of all the words and phrases I was collecting from her, and she was especially excited about the idea of leaving the linguistic documentation as a legacy for her grandchildren.

Delia and her family members mentioned another relative who they considered to be the best and sole other remaining speaker of the language. Unfortunately, this other speaker was taken several years ago by her children to live on the Rio Momon, near Iquitos, and I did not have the opportunity to work with her. I hope to locate her next year.

After two days, I had to return back downriver, as I had other pending fieldwork obligations. I was quite excited, however, to have found at least one semi-speaker with who I could work to recover aspects of Vacacocha phonology and lexicon, and I am looking forward to returning next year to make some further progress.

Muniche documentation

I arrived back in Lima a few days ago, which means that I have been meeting with colleagues and friends in the short time that remains before I return to the US. One of more interesting meetings was with Karina Sullón, a young Peruvian linguist whom I came to know through her participation in the Iquito Language Documentation Project. Karina returned recently from an exploratory trip to the community of Munichis, near the town of Yurimaguas, where the last speakers of Muniche live.

The purpose of Karina’s visit, for which I helped obtain funding, was to determine if a project aimed at the documentation of Muniche would be feasible. The only significant documentation of the language to date is Gibson (1996) (available here), which provides a description of the phonology and morphology of the language, and a small lexicon. The last fluent speaker of the language died in the late 1990s, but Karina found several ‘rusty’ speakers who retain significant knowledge of the language. In the course of a week’s work with these speakers, Karina determined that lexical, morphological, and basic syntactic work was feasible with these speakers. Given the modest documentation available on this language, a limited documentation project seems worth the effort, and Karina will be returning soon for a month of documentation work. I am very much looking forward to seeing the results of Karina’s work.

Gibson, Michael L. 1996. El Munichi: Un idioma que se extingue.‭ Serie Lingüística Peruana, 42. Pucallpa: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.