In the context of work that I’ve been carrying out on 17th and 18th century Omagua society, I’ve come to be interested in the etymology of the names of Omagua communities mentioned in the Jesuit records of the period, including those found on Samuel Fritz‘ map (a not awful copy is available here). A brief inspection of these names as given in these sources (e.g. Zuruité, Iviraté, Yoaivaté, and Aruparaté) reveal that most of them appear to consist of a nominal root (e.g. zurui = /surui/ ‘catfish sp.’ or ivira = /ɨwɨra/ ‘tree’) and a suffix -té. What, though, is the suffix in question?

An obvious first guess for a Tupí-Guaraní (TG) specialist would be the suffix -eté, found in most TG languages, which expresses meanings like ‘true’ or ‘real’. This suffix surfaces, for example, in Paraguayan Guaraní word yawareté ‘jaguar’ (lit. ‘true jaguar’, to distinguish it from yawar which now means ‘dog’, due to semantic shift). And indeed one finds cognates to this suffix in Omagua, as in the word Omaguayete ‘true Omaguas’, recorded in Jesuit sources, which was apparently the autonym for the Omagua group that lived on the Upper Napo (see here for details). But for two reasons, it seems unlikely that the -te found in the toponyms in question is the same suffix. In the first place, meaning of the form that would be derived seems implausible and unmotived: why would the Omaguas wanted to have called their communities ‘True Catfish’ or ‘True Tree’? Second, the form of the suffix in Omaguayete doesn’t quite seem to match that of the toponyms in question, since in the former it appears to be -yete, but in the toponyms, -te. Even if one argued, as one might want to (see below), that the form of the suffix in the toponyms is underlyingly -ete, it is unclear why vowel hiatus would have been resolved by vowel deletion in the toponyms, but not in the name of the Omagua subgroup autonym.

By chance, however, I recently noticed that in at least one TG language, Parintintín, a suspiciously similar suffix, -ete, is used to derive derive river names (Betts 1981). One possibility, then, is that -te did the same thing in Old Omagua (it no longer does), and that the 17th and 18th century community names were ultimately river names. Nothing would be more natural, in fact: indigenous Amazonian communities very frequently take as their names the names of nearby small tributaries. On this view, then, -te was an endocentric derivational suffix that derived hydronyms. Whether -te derived forms that denoted rivers in general or small rivers is unclear at this point. Although every Amazonian language I’ve done substantial work with exhibits hydronymic derivational morphology like this, some languages exhibit two (or more) morphemes that distinguish the size of the river, while others don’t. For example, Máíhɨ̃ki distinguishes two sizes of river (-ya ‘river’ and -gaya ‘creek’), but Iquito exhibits only a single hydronymic derivational suffix (-mu).

There are two things that would need to be done to properly evaluate the hypothesis sketched out above. First, it would be good to see if there are tributaries in former Omagua territory that actually bear names with the -te suffix. Of course, there has been a lot of toponymic turnover since the 18th century, when the Omaguas were decimated by disease and Portuguese slave raids, and largely abandoned their former territories. Names of Quechua origin have probably replaced most of the older Omagua names, but some traces may remain. I don’t have maps on hand of the necessary detail, but my big 3,300,000:1 scale map of the Amazon basin reveals one such tributary, Puruté, suggesting that some progress could be made here.

The second issue to examine would be to see if other TG languages exhibit a hydronym-deriving suffix cognate to Parintintín -ete. This would help reassure us that the resemblance between the Omagua and Parintintín suffixes is not a chance similarity.


Betts, L. V. 1981. Dicionário Parintintin-Portugues Portugues-Parintintin. Cuiabá: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

A new volume in the occasional Survey (of Californian and Other Indian Languages) Reports series was just published, and is available online here. The volume, entitled Structure and contact in languages of the Americas, was edited by John Sylak-Glassman and Justin Spence, and includes a number of very interesting articles on South and Central American languages, as evident in the table of contents, reproduced below:
  • Subgrouping in the Tupí-Guaraní family: A phylogenetic approach by Natalia Chousou-Polydouri and Vivian Wauters
  • A ‘perfect’ evidential: The functions of -shka in Imbabura Quichua by Jessica Cleary-Kemp
  • Hierarchies, subjects, and the lack thereof in Imbabura Quichua subordinate clauses by Clara Cohen
  • One -mi: An evidential, epistemic modal, and focus marker in Imbabura Quechua by Iksoo Kwon
  • The stops of Tlingit by Ian Maddieson and Caroline L. Smith
  • The plank canoe of southern California: Not a Polynesian import, but a local innovation by Yoram Meroz
  • Variable affix ordering in Kuna by Lindsey Newbold
  • Passive constructions in Kʷak̓ʷala by Daisy Rosenblum
  • Dialect contact, convergence, and maintenance in Oregon Athabaskan by Justin Spence
  • Affix ordering in Imbabura Quichua by John Sylak-Glassman

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]


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