Fieldwork on Vacacocha
August 3, 2008
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.
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.