Omagua en La Region

September 28, 2013

An article on the Omagua Project that appeared this summer in La Region, an Iquitos daily newspaper, is available on-line here. Based on an interview with Zachary O’Hagan, UC Berkeley graduate student and Omagua Project team member, the article summarizes the goals of the Omagua Project and even provides a brief list of Omagua words.

The Omagua Project is part of a broader NSF-funded collaborative effort involving a group of us based at UC Berkeley and a group led by Rosa Vallejos to better understand the genesis of Proto-Omagua-Kokama, the ancestor of the modern Omagua and Kokama languages. These languages present a historical puzzle, as their lexicons are clearly derived from a Tupí-Guaraní language, but their grammars are highly atypical for languages of that family, showing the signs of massive contact-induced language change. I have recently argued (here) that this language contact took place in the Pre-Columbian period, which has intriguing consequences for our understanding of Pre-Columbian Amazonian social history, since the Kokamas, and especially the Omaguas, were among the largest and most powerful indigenous groups in lowland Amazonia when Europeans arrived.

Rosa Vallejos is the leading expert on Kokama, and the Berkeley group has been conducting fieldwork with the small number of remaining speakers of Omagua in order to obtain comparable data for reconstructing Proto-Omagua-Kokama. By reconstructing this ancestral language we hope to better understand the contact-induced changes that the Tupí-Guaraní precursor language underwent, and possibly infer which non-Tupí-Guaraní languages were involved.

Christine Beier recently completed the English-subtitled version of this year’s movie from the Máíhɨ̃ki Project, which is now available on YouTube, below. This short movie follows Liberato Mosoline Mogica, his brother Alberto Mosoline Mogica, and several members of their extended family, as they prepare yáhé, or as it is better known in Peru, ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drink used by many Amazonian peoples in ritual and shamanic contexts, made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves of Psychotria viridis. Most Amazonian peoples prepare ayahuasca by cooking the Banisteriopsis and Psychotria together, but Máíhunas do not, instead pounding the two ingredients into a fine meal which is then soaked in water.

Máíhunas are understandably proud of this distinctive way of preparing ayahuasca, but the older men who know how to prepare it are concerned that younger men are not carrying on the tradition, and that they are not planting the yáhé (Banisteriopsis) or yáhéoko (Psychotria) necessary to do so. Liberato, who is also the leader of Nueva Vida, the community in which the Máíhɨ̃ki Project is based, decided that it would be good to document the Máíhuna way of preparing ayahuasca, both so that non-Máíhunas are made aware of the unique Máíhuna technique, and so that young Máíhuna men will be interested in carrying on this Máíhuna tradition.

The movie is available with Máíhɨ̃ki and English subtitles  here, and with Máíhɨ̃ki and Spanish subtitles here.

The movie was filmed, edited, and subtitled in Máíhɨ̃ki and Spanish by Christine Beier, in the community of Nueva Vida in July and August of this year. The content in the voiceovers was the result of collaborative work between Chris and Liberato, with the voice being Liberato’s.

Those interested in seeing last year’s Máíhɨ̃ki Project movie, which documents the preparation of manioc beer, can find it here.

A fun language contact fact to close with: ayahuasca is more commonly known in Colombia and some other parts of the hispanophone world as yajé.  This word was presumably borrowed into Colombian Spanish from a Tukanoan language (Máíhɨ̃ki is a Tukanoan language), which is not entirely surprising, since there are many Tukanoan peoples in Colombia. It is, however the only word Tukanoan origin that I know to have both been borrowed into an Indo-European language and then widely diffused beyond the original areas in which it was used, as a quick consultation of your favorite search engine will reveal.

The most recent issue of the Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (Ciências Humanas 8 (2)) is now available,  and it includes a nice set of articles on Brazilian Amazonian languages. It is available online here. To whet your appetites, I list the articles below:

  • Aspectos do sistema fonológico de Arara (Karib) (Ana Carolina Ferreira Alves)
  • Similaridades fonéticas e fonológicas: exemplos de três línguas Tupí (Gessiane Picanço, Fabiola Azevedo Baraúna, and Alessandra Janaú de Brito)
  • Traços laringais en Latundê (Nambikwára do Norte) (Stella Telles)
  • Arte Verbal e música na língua Gavião de Rondônia: metodologia para estudar e documentar a fala tocada com instrumentos muscais (Julien Meyer and Denny Moore)
  • Descrição e análise do prefixo {e-} INTR da língua Wayoro (Ayuru, tronco Tupí) (Antonia Fernanda de Souza Nogueira)
  • Aspectos da modalidade epistêmica em Tapirapé (Walkiria Neiva Praça)
  • Fala fictícia fossilizada: o tempo futuro em Aikanã (Hein van der Voort)

These articles were originally presented at the 3rd Congresso Internacional de Estudos Linguísticos e Literários da Amazônia (CIELLA III), held at the Universidade Federal do Pará in 2011, and they were compiled and edited by Gessiane Picanço, Marília Ferreira, and Hein van der Voort.

One of the major goals of the Máíhɨ̃ki Project (see here and here for other posts related to the MP) is to develop materials for use by community members in revalorizing and revitalizing the Máíhɨ̃ki language. Realizing many years ago that most youngsters in Amazonian communities are more engaged by video than print (as in much of the world), we decided to work with speakers and community members to create short movies about aspects of local life that community members saw as especially important to document.

Below is our first effort in this regard. Shot and edited from beginning to end by Christine Beier while in the field in 2012, this movie documents how manioc beer, a beverage consumed by most Amazonian indigenous peoples, is made. The movie begins with a trip to the gardens, shows the harvesting of the manioc tubers and the preparation of the mash, which is left to ferment, and goes on to the end, when neighbors and family are invited over to drink the resulting mildly alcoholic beverage. We were quite happy with the results — we are not professional videographers — and folks in the communities in which Máíhɨ̃ki is spoken also enjoyed it.

For a version with subtitles in Máíhɨ̃ki and English click here; for subtitles in Máíhɨ̃ki and Spanish click  here.

Iquito linguistics

September 6, 2013

I recently needed to share some resources on Iquito, a Peruvian Zaparoan language that some colleagues and I have worked with, and I realized that the materials that we have produced on this language are scattered across the web, and that there is really no single place to send anyone to download the digital materials available on this language.  As a stopgap measure, this post lists major publications produced by participants in the Iquito Language Documentation Project, by year, with download links.


Beier, Christine, Cynthia Hansen, I-Wen Lai, and Lev Michael. Exploiting word order to express an inflectional category: Reality status in Iquito. Linguistic Typology 15(1): 65-99. [pdf]

Hansen, Cynthia. Expressing reality status through word order : Iquito irrealis constructions in typological perspective. PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin. [pdf]

Michael, Lev. Tone and stress in the prosodic system of Iquito (Zaparoan, Peru). Amerindia 35: 53-74. [pdf]


Lai, I-Wen. Time in the Iquito language. PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin. [pdf]

Michael, Lev. Clause linking in Iquito (Zaparoan). In R.M.W. Dixon and Alexandra Aikhenvald (Eds.), The Semantics of Clause Linking, pp. 145-166. Oxford University Press. [pdf]


Michael, Lev, Christine Beier, and Karina Sullón Acosta. Diccionario bilingüe iquito-castellano and castellano-iquito. Iquito Language Documentation Project internal report. [webpage with download links]

Beier, Christine (compiler). Iquíituhuaaca saaquɨ́ɨnica Cuentos, relatos e historias del pueblo iquito. [webpage with download links]

Nanti earworms

September 6, 2013

I was briefly excited by the title of a recent Language Log post, Earworms and White Bears, thinking it might have something to say about, well, worms that people put in their ears. However, we immediately learn that the earworms in question are simply catchy tunes that get caught in people’s minds.

My excitement, though, stems from the fact that the Nantis of southeastern Peruvian Amazonia, with whom I have worked a bit (see here and here), actually do sometimes put worms — or more precisely, larvae — in their ears. I’ve never heard or read about any other group that makes use of larvae in this way, though, so I was momentarily hoping that Language Log would change that

The Nantis call the larvae in question magempiri, and they are one of a number of larvae that Nantis help flourish by means of a form of low-intensity animal husbandry where they puncture the trunks of the palm species in which the relevant species of beetle must lay their eggs. When the magempiri are the right size, a portion of the trunk is split open and some larvae removed, together with some of the pulp on which the larvae are feeding. The pulp and larvae are then wrapped up in Heliconia leaves, in which the larvae can live for several days.

The magempiri are used to clean one’s ears: tilting one’s head, one drops a larva into the ear canal and the magempiri then starts munching away on what it finds there, creating an incredible racket (for the temporary host), and producing a funny if somewhat gratifying ticklish feeling. When the magempiri gets full, it becomes inactive, and simply falls out of the ear canal when the user tilts his or her head the opposite way. Repeat until satisfied. All in all, this is one of the most fascinating uses of an insect species that I have come across in the Amazon Basin.

And there is even an interesting story to be told about the name of the larva. The word is a derived from the root magempi ‘be deaf’ with the agentive nominalizer -ri, so that the name might be rendered literally as ‘deafener’ — presumably a reference to the noise the user hears while the larva is doing its work. Interestingly, it turns out that this verb root is important because it is one of the few places in Nanti where a remnant of the Proto-Arawak privative ma- survives (for a brief discussion, see here). In many Arawak languages, ma- still functions as a privative, deriving a denominal stative verb (for a comparative discussion, see here). In Nanti, however, the only evidence that the privative was once productive in the relevant branch of the Arawak family are these frozen traces of the privative. For the Nanti word in question, the gempi of ma-gempi is obviously related to modern gempita ‘ear’, so that magempi would presumably have meant ‘be lacking ears’.

I’d be really interested to know if any other Amazonianists have encountered real earworms, and not the metaphorical ones discussed on Language Log (discussion continues here).

Muniche phonology article

September 4, 2013

While I was in the field this summer, an article that the team members of the Muniche Rapid Documentation Project wrote came out in the International Journal of American Linguistics. This article focuses on the segmental and prosodic phonology of Muniche, a remarkable linguistic isolate spoken in the Huallaga River basin of Peru,  just where the foothills of the Andes start to become noticeable. This article (available here) has a somewhat methodologically interesting backstory.

Briefly, the project was organized around working with three rememberers of the language (no fully fluent speakers remain, alas) over the course of a single summer field season to document as much as we could. The most fluent rememberer, Alejandrina Chanchari, was probably in her early 90s at the time, and in very poor health, lending urgency to this work. As part of the project, we planned to create a number of works for interested community members, including an audio CD with recordings of all the headwords of the (modest) dictionary we prepared. With this community-oriented goal in mind, two of the team members, UC Berkeley graduate students Stephanie Farmer and Greg Finley, systematically obtained relatively clean recordings of each of the headwords, which they eventually used to make the planned CD.

Now, back to the article: it began as a quite modest paper that focused on the segmental phonology of the language, and the differences between what we had discovered and phonology as described in the previous major publication on Muniche. Given the language attrition with which we were faced, I initially held out little hope that we could do work on the prosodic system of the language, but we found ourselves willy-nilly having to deal with stress and other metrical phenomena in order to adequately discuss the segmental phonology. In particular, it turns out that glottal stops are associated with stress, and we needed to distinguish those glottal stops that could attributed to stress and weight requirements, from those that were attributable to the underlying segmental representation. To my pleasant surprise, it turned out that between the systematic dictionary recordings and the other tokens that the team had recorded, we were actually able to say a great deal about Muniche prosody: the recordings were sufficiently clear, and the rememberers speech exhibited great regularity in its stress patterns. And it was really the recordings that we had made for the community-oriented materials that provided the crucial empirical basis for our prosodic analysis.

I’ve worked on the prosodic systems of a number of languages, like that of Nanti (here) and Iquito (here), and based on this work, I had come to believe that work on stress systems of any reasonable complexity requires real-time face-to-face work with linguistic consultants to be able to explore analytical options sufficiently quickly and flexibly. But the Muniche case showed that this is not necessarily the case. You can do good work on prosodic systems with nothing more than a set of audio recordings: you just need a lot of them — like, say, 500-1,000 tokens. Of course, such work is a lot slower, and there is always the risk that you’ll be missing key data — my surprise was that the latter problem proved not to be anywhere near as great as I had expected (but we did have something like 1,000 recorded tokens).

In any case, this experience was a nice validation of the claim that community-oriented work and scientific work need not be in competition, and that the former can indeed support the latter. This work also suggested to me that recording a large number word tokens clearly, systematically, and where appropriate, in stress or tone frames,  can be a valuable component of language documentation. Given the emphasis on texts in much language documentation work, the latter point might be worth keeping in mind.