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Documentation of the Oro Win language


Language Oro Win
Depositor Joshua Birchall
Affiliation Radboud University Nijmegen
Location Brazil
Collection ID 0120
Grant ID SG0149
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle

Summary of the collection

This collection contains materials describing Oro Win (ISO-639: orw), a Chapacuran language spoken by the Oro Win (or Oro Towati’) people who live near the Pacaás Novos River. The Oro Win people were once heavily oppressed and at one point lived with the Wari’, which may explain some shared features between Oro Win and the Wari’ language. The Oro Win population totalled 73 people in 2010, and the language has been subject to revitalization projects in the form of associations and school classes taught in Oro Win. It is as of yet underdescribed.

This collection contains language materials recorded with six elders living in the Oro Win communities. There are audio and video recordings of Oro Win speech from a variety of discourse genres, which have been used to help develop practical language materials with the community.


Group represented

The Oro Win language is currently spoken by six elders who live along the upper stretches of the Pacaás Novos River in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Five of the speakers live together in the village of São Luís, forming the only active speaking community. A number of adults have a limited proficiency in the language. No children are currently learning Oro Win as their first language, but there is minor transmission to some children through regular interaction with their grandparents. Portuguese is the everyday language in all three of the Oro Win villages (São Luís, Pedreira and Cristo Reis). In 2010, these villages were home to 103 inhabitants, 73 of which identified themselves as ethnically Oro Win.

The Oro Win people practice slash and burn agriculture focused primarily on maize and root crop production. Their territory is also rich in fish, game and forest products. Traditionally, they were divided among six clans that occupied separate swidden areas yet maintained contact through intermarriage and reciprocal chicha (fermented corn drink)festivals. In 1963, they had their first sustained contact with non-indigenous culture when rubber tappers invaded their territory. This resulted in a sharp decline in the population due to attacks on their villages, exposure to foreign diseases, and subsequent enslavement. During their time in the rubber camps, they were forced to abandon use of their traditional language, as well as their clan system of naming. The majority of the current Oro Win descend from the Oro Towati’ clan, while some of the other clans were completely wiped out.Many of the Oro Win are also proficient in Wari’, a related Chapacuran language spoken downriver. This is due to the fact that the Oro Win were relocated to live with the Wari’ in the 1980’s after they were removed from bondage by the Brazilian National Indian Foundation. Only in 1991 were the rubber tappers expelled and the Oro Win able to return to their traditional territory. Many Oro Win have intermarried with Wari’ in recent years, further complicating the sociolinguistic situation in the communities. Even among the most proficient Oro Win speakers, borrowing of lexical items and idiomatic expressions from Wari’ is commonplace. The extent that contact and obsolescence have influenced Oro Win grammar is a topic of current study.


Language information

The Oro Win language is an underdescribed and severely endangered member of the Chapacuran family. It is spoken by six elders living along the headwaters of the Pacaás Novos River in the Brazilian state of Rondônia.


Special characteristics

The Oro Win language is atypical in many respects for an Amazonian language. The phonemic inventory has four front vowels and only one back vowel. The consonant system includes a very rare phoneme- an apico-dental stop followed by a bilabial trill. The morphosyntax is verb initial, isolating and highly serializing. Also interesting from a cross-linguistic perspective, the language lacks a numeral system, with notions like ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘few’ and ‘many’ expressed primarily as verbs. Little is known about many areas of the grammar, including: derivational processes, deixis, subordinate clauses, differential object marking, interrogatives and verbal number, among others.


Collection history

The researcher/depositor has been working with the Oro Win language since carrying out an exploratory trip to the city of Guajará-Mirim in 2009. After building a relationship with an Oro Win speaker and her son (the community leader), the researcher was invited by the group to spend time in the village documenting the language and preparing practical materials for their use. Two field trips were carried out between 2009 and 2010 through the project ‘Documentação das Línguas Txapakuras em Rondônia’ affiliated through the Museu Goeldi and funded by the Fulbright Commission (study grant) and the GBS (field trip grant). The project produced almost fourteen hours of recorded audio and ten hours of video, and it carried out a review of historical sources on Chapacuran languages and a sociolinguistic survey of the Oro Win villages. While pursuing his PhD in Linguistics at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the researcher worked on argument marking typology and structural phylogenetics in South American languages. During this time, he also carried out historical and comparative work on the Chapacuran family.

The field trip that gave rise to this deposit coincided with the natural cycles of Oro Win life, since the dry session (June-September) makes river travel difficult, and the maize and Brazil nut harvest season (January-March) requires that many of the project’s consultants devote considerable amounts of time to those endeavours. Previous experience with the community influenced the selection of certain consultants for specific tasks based on their natural abilities and strengths. The documentation project employed a number of different methods in order to ensure a thorough and broad record of the language. Natural speech was recorded in both audio and video from a number of different contexts and genres.

The documentation project worked with the community to meet their needs for creative input, training and practical assistance. This means involving the community as a whole in the process, and not just the full speakers of the language. The local indigenous school teachers were pivotal in this work. They were active collaborators and coauthors in the design and implementation of the language learning pamphlet. They also played significant roles in the community language and culture workshop. Younger members of the community with a passive knowledge of the language were included as aides in the transcription and glossing of texts. Beyond the training needed for these tasks, additional training in photography,audio-visual documentation and computer skills were provided to interested parties. Other member of the community were included in the project whenever possible, especially for practical assistance such as river travel, purchasing foodstuffs or cultural artifacts, and organizing the community language and culture workshop.


Other information

Documenting Oro Win, a Txapakuran language spoken in Rondônia, Brazil.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Birchall, Joshua. 2011. Documentation of the Oro Win language. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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