Kakua and Nukak: Genetic and areal relationships

I returned yesterday from the CILLA IV conference held at the University of Texas at Austin, where I had a great time. Perhaps my favorite paper was one presented by Katherine Bolaños and Pattie Epps, that examined the presumed genetic relationship between the Nadahup languages (Hup, Yuhup, Dâw, and Nadëb), on the one hand, and Kakua and Nukak, on the other. The basic point of their paper is that although the Nadahup languages and Kakua & Nukak have been grouped together as forming the ‘Makuan’ family (e.g. Martins and Martins 1999) since at least Koch-Grünberg (1906), this grouping is not supported by linguistic evidence, and seems to represent a socio-cultural categorization more than a linguistic one.

Based on Kakua data that Bolaños collected this past summer, Bolaños and Epps showed that there were no regular sound correspondences identifiable from Swadesh lists for the languages, although there were a number of forms that were identical, which strongly suggests that these items were borrowed. As Bolaños and Epps remarked, Koch-Grünberg’s original classification was not based on a very substantial body of data, but that through sheer repetition, the classification gained the weight of authority. They also observed that the speakers of Kakua & Nukak and the Nadahup languages are socially marginal hunter-gatherers in the context of the linguistic exogamy system in which the agricultural groups of the Vaupés region participate, and Koch-Grünberg’s classification thus essentially constitutes a linguistic reification of a regionally-relevant social categorization.

Bolaños and Epps then compared Kakua & Nukak, the Nadahup languages, and Tukano for a set of typological features, such as the presence of an evidential system, the number of terms in the tense system, and so on. What they found was that Kakua & Nukak, and the members of the Nadahup languages in the Vaupés area share a significant number of typological features with Tukano. This suggests that Kakua & Nukak, although they are now relatively distant from the Vaupés region, formerly participated more centrally in the Vaupés multilingual area.

Bolaños and Epps’ presentation represented a very solid contribution to our understanding of genetic and areal relationships in northwestern Amazonia, and I very much look forward to the paper stemming from this work.


Koch-Grünberg, Theodor. 1906. Die Indianer-Stämme am oberen Rio Negro und Yapurá uns ihre Sprachliche Zuhörigkeit. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 38: 167-205.

Martins, Silvana and Valteir Martins. 1999. Makú. In R.W.W. Dixon and Alexandra Aihkenvald (eds.), The Amazonian Languages, pp. 251-268. Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s