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The documentation of Rama: a very endangered language of Nicaragua


Language Rama
Depositor Colette Grinevald
Affiliation Institut des Sciences de l’Homme (ISH)
Location Nicaragua
Collection ID 0210
Grant ID MDP0086
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Rama, known locally as “the Tiger Language”, is a moribund language spoken on the island of Rama Cay in Nicaragua, between the town of Bluefields and the Costa Rican border. It belongs to the Chibchan language family. The Ramas are the smallest ethnic group in the region and have the lowest status in the multiethnic social hierarchy of the region. Many Ramas shifted to Rama Cay Creole as a result of the influence of Scandinavian and German missionaries who spoke English to them; very few Ramas speak Spanish, however that is now changing with the introduction of Spanish-speaking schools in the area. The name “Tiger Language” comes from the myth that the Ramas, and especially shamans, were able to speak with tigers in the jungle; however there were also stories that the Rama were actually half tiger half human. (Austin 2005).

This collection aimed to contain a dictionary, a digitized collection of taped texts, videotaped samples of language use, and a DVD documentary for class use. The main output is a trilingual Rama – English – Spanish dictionary incorporating linguistic and cultural information as well as visual, audio and video illustrations, produced as a paper publication and as a database to be potentially expanded and used for the production of pedagogical material by interested parties.


Group represented

There are six ethnic groups living on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, each associated with a different ethnic language, with the Rama people by far the smallest indigenous group of the region. The groups in the area in 1982 (CIDCA 1982) were

  • Mestizos (Spanish, Indo-European; 182,377 speakers)
  • Miskitus (Miskitu, Misumalpan; 66,994 speakers)
  • Creoles (English Creole, Indo-European; 25,723 speakers)
  • Sumus (Sumu, Misumalpan; 4,851 speakers)
  • Caribes (Garifuna, Arawakan; 1,487 speakers)
  • Ramas (Rama, Chibchan; 649 speakers)

The assessment of the Rama population was never very high. It was estimated at 500 by 1827 and 285 in 1909, with a lowest citation of 164 by 1865. The total Rama population today is said to be around 1,300.

The Ramas may have been relatively late comers to Nicaragua. The name Rama did not appear in the colonial documents until the eighteenth century. The Ramas are considered descendants of the Votos, who at the time of the conquest occupied a territory extending from the Rio Escondido north of Bluefields lagoon to the Rio San Juan which forms today the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Traditionally the Ramas lived in small scattered settlements, moving about and hiding from intruders in the tropical forest. At the turn of the 17th century, the Miskitus granted the Ramas a small island in the lagoon of Bluefields in recognition of their help in fighting off Terraba Indians from the south. An estimated 200 Ramas from the coastal area of Punta Gorda moved to the island which became known from then on as Rama Cay. The island is thirteen kilometres south of Bluefields. The trip from Rama Cay to the market town of Bluefields takes about four hours on average by dug-out canoe (`dory’ in Creole), and from an hour and a half to thirty minutes by motor boat depending on power and weather conditions.

The demise of the Rama language came by the usual series of causes of language death of Amerindian languages. To start with the first threat to the Rama language came by way of the death of much of its speaker population. Documents concur in estimating that the population was decimated in part by diseases introduced by colonizers, and in part by conflicts which arose from the Miskitu-run slave trade and by internal strife. A further cause of the decline of the Rama language was a major language shift on the island of Rama Cay, from Rama to a form of English Creole. It was encouraged by the Moravian missionaries, whose religious teaching was carried out in English. They arrived to the island by the middle of the 19th century. The most interesting aspect of the shift away from Rama is the nature of the language to which the Rama speakers shifted. Although identified as Creole, it is a creole language distinct from that spoken in Bluefields. According to Holm (1978, 1983) and Assadi (1983), Rama Cay Creole shows variations of pronunciation (flap or trilled r) and prosody, vocabulary, and morphosyntax when compared to Bluefields Creole. Rama Cay Creole is itself today a seriously endangered language that would actually deserve attention and documentation although it is being ignored as the potential marker of identity it could be for a large part of the population of Rama Cay.

It is among the population that remained on the mainland and pursued a traditional way of life that the Rama language has survived as a spoken language until today. Well into the 1970’s, the largest settlements of Rama speakers were on the southern part of the Atlantic coast in places named Wiring Cay, Monkey Point, Cane Creek, Diamantes and Petaste up the Punta Gorda river, with smaller scattered settlements along the Kukra river.

By the mid-eighties, the Ramas found themselves in the midst of discussions for the autonomy of their region, which included claims by all ethnic groups of the region to the use and development of their ethnic languages. This is how a delegation of Ramas from Rama Cay approached the Sandinista authorities of Bluefields in 1984 to ask for help in saving their Rama language. A “Rama Language Project” (RLP) originally aimed at the revitalization of the Rama language was initiated in the mideighties. It was sponsored by CIDCA (Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Costa Atlántica), the institution in charge of research in the region, including all language programs. From 1985 to 1993 Colette (Grinevald) Craig coordinated all aspects of the project. The academic part of the project was financed in part by the National Science Foundation, in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Wenner-Grenn Foundation, while the language community work was by the Council for Human Rights in Latin America and Linguists for Nicaragua (a voluntary linguists organization founded by K. Hale). The case of the Rama Language Project and its institutional context was described in Craig 1992

The Rama community finds itself increasingly under threat of cultural and even physical extinction. The Rama community has become acutely aware of the fact that the acculturation of Rama people into the linguistic community of Bluefields is suddenly accelerating, as more families come to take refuge or settle there, some of them in hopes of providing secondary education to their children.

Most importantly, however, the only remaining community of speakers is now being directly threatened by the advance of the agricultural frontier and infrastructural projects. A plan to build a railway line (called the ‘dry canal’ for its being a potential substitute for the Panama Canal) across the traditional Rama land threatens to cut off the last speakers to the south from the more numerous Rama community of Rama Cay. Land speculations on Rama territory has already resulted in physical attacks on the Rama population whose basic safety is not assured.


Language information

Rama is a moribund language of the Chibchan family, also known as “the Tiger Language”, spoken by around 650 people on the island of Rama Cay, Nicaragua.

The current genetic classification of Rama still relies, as it has for decades, on the pioneer studies of Lehmann (1914; 1920) and Conzemius (1927; 1929). There is general agreement that Rama is Chibchan. The most interesting hypothesis is that Rama, one of the northernmost true Chibchan languages of Central America, would be closer to the Central subgroup of Chibchan languages of Colombia than to the Western or Pacific subgroup of Chibchan languages of Costa Rica and Panama. Clarifying the relation of Rama to the Chibchan languages of Colombia to the south and to Paya to the north potentially holds the key to a clearer understanding of the precolonial migration patterns of the region.

Kaufman (1989) reassessed the classification of the Chibchan family, with geographic locations and estimates of number of speakers. Today six languages of the family have disappeared and Rama is now by far the most endangered of the Chibchan family.

The Rama language is at an advanced stage of endangerment: it has all but disappeared from the main settlement of Ramas (of over a thousand people) on the island of Rama Cay. It is only spoken by no more than two dozen speakers, many of them marginalized mainland jungle dwellers. The last community of speakers, from the mainland down the coast, is now being threatened by the advance of the agricultural frontier from inland, and by plans for building a dry canal (train line to replace the Panama canal) that would cut right through the traditional Rama land.


Special characteristics

From a linguistic point of view, Rama is interesting for being one of the northern most languages (with Paya in Honduras) of the large Chibchan family of South America. It constitutes by itself a branch of an otherwise very diversified family, showing few similarities with the neighbouring Chibchan languages of Costa Rica. No comprehensive language documentation is being produced of any Chibchan language of Central America or Colombia. From a socio-political point of view, the Rama people and the Rama language benefit in Nicaragua from a special status for being the most endangered ethnic group with the most endangered language. Rama leaders presented demands for a project of recuperation of the language in early revolutionary times, and twenty years later a new generation of better skilled leaders is following up on the demands, with a renewed sense of urgency.


Collection contents

 When complete, the collection will include

  • a trilingual Rama-English-Spanish dictionary, incorporating linguistic and cultural information as well as visual, audio and video illustrations, produced as an electronic database for archiving and as a paper publication for distribution
  • a digitalized collection of taped texts
  • video recordings of language use
  • a DVD documentary for class use


Collection history

A socio-linguistic survey led by Assadi in the winter of 1986 revealed the existence of more speakers than expected (Craig 1988; Craig, Tibbitts, Rigby 1987). There were more relatively younger speakers than expected, although many were single men with no children. Practically all the good speakers were mainland Ramas, with a number of them over in Costa Rica because of raging war (the project developed in the midst of the “Contra(revolutionary) War”). In the end no more than three speakers became available for the linguistic study itself (Grinevald 2002).

From 1985 to 1993, a Rama Language Rescue Project developed at the request of the community and sponsored by the Center for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CIDCA). The linguistic part of the project received US funding, from NSF principally. Data were gathered at CIDCA-Bluefields from three speakers, one fluent semi-speaker and two native speakers. The outputs of this part of the project are: a text collection (audio-taped and glossed), a draft of a grammatical description, a draft of a critical review of Lehmann vocabulary (1914), and data collection for a major dictionary. Much material for the language revitalization project was also produced (elementary grammar in Spanish, elementary Rama English dictionary (word list of about 300 words), small thematic illustrated dictionaries, flash cards, calendars and phrase book).

In 2004, Colette Grinevald was able to return to the linguistic documentation of the language, in a collaboration between the Universidad de las Regiones Autonomas de la Costa Atlantica de Nicaragua (URACCAN) and the University of Tromsø, with funding from the Norwegian NUFU for community development and ELDP for language documentation.

A major aim of returning to the Rama Language Project was to continue the documentation and to complete the dictionary, which was a promise made by the linguist Grinevald, two years before, to the leader of the Rama Language Project, Miss Nora Rigby, on her death bed.

It was obvious upon return to the field after a ten year absence, how much the community has made this project its own, and how much the teaching of Rama in the school by Miss Nora has contributed to a change of attitude towards the language. The children to whom Miss Nora taught basic Rama vocabulary over a decade in kindergarten were now young adults, whose discourse was very interesting to listen to and should be documented. It was clear that the language would not be revitalized as a spoken family language, but it was also just as clear that it had become for this community a heritage ethnic language.

the ambivalence and the contradictory attitudes of earlier times, Rama is now at the heart of community concerns for cultural identity and survival. Interestingly the community has persevered over the years in its vision of some language revitalization, seeking and accepting help from various international organizations, and the efforts of the older generation of the RLP of the Sandinista times are being backed now by younger voices, making returning to this field particularly enticing.

Language data were collected first from Eleonora Rigby (Miss Nora) an old fluent semi-speaker resident of Rama Cay, then from her daughter-in-law Cristina Benjamins, a younger native speaker still living in Cane Creek then, and finally from Walter Ortiz, once he had returned from Costa Rica at the end of the war. The text collection and the grammatical work relied on the speech of Rigby and Benjamins, while the dictionary work was done almost exclusively with Ortiz.


Other information

From earlier documentation of the Rama language, the main linguistic references on the language were Lehmann (1914, 1920) and Conzemius (1927). Lehmann contained a large word list which has been the main source of data for comparative purposes. Lehmann (1920:9-17) and Conzemius (1927:329-339) gave some grammatical information. There was no text material available in either source. Nietschmann (1969, 1974) and Loveland (1975) were more recent sources of information on the Ramas and their culture, but they contained little to no information on the language itself, other than some thematic word lists (names of fauna etc…). Barbara Assadi (field notes) had conducted fieldwork among the Ramas in the 1970s as part of Lyle Campbell’s survey of endangered languages of Central America stayed and lived for several years among the Ramas of the mainland, most of them speakers of the language. She shared field notes – mostly vocabulary items – as well as un-transcribed tape recordings which included recordings of a number of speakers deceased since then. Unfortunately, most of these recordings were inaudible by then. A dictionary of Rama (Rigby and Schneider 1989) was published in the course of the RLP and created some confusion in the field. Craig (1989) is a critical review of it that addressed its serious academic deficiencies and its objectionable publication.

Earlier phases of the documentation project took place under extremely complex and often stressful circumstances. First, the project developed in a region that was embattled in a contra-revolutionary war, with the Rama community at the heart of the war zone and pressured from both Sandinista and contra-revolutionary sides. All the while it also articulated itself around efforts at institutionalizing a status of autonomy for the region, one that claimed to bestow the same rights onto the small Rama community as unto the other and much larger ethnic communities of the region. This had the concrete result in many ways of actually putting the community under the spotlight and a lot of pressure considering its very scarce human resources. The project also later had to cope with the disarray created by the fall of the Sandinistas and the radical change of government, a right leaning government that all but abandoned the Atlantic Coast to its fate, withdrawing economic support to the region, including to all educational programs. Finally the last decade has been one of extreme economic hardship for the indigenous populations of the region (for instance employment today in Bluefields runs at more than 80%). And as if the political historical context was not challenging enough, one needs to add the natural catastrophe in 1989 of the devastation caused by Hurricane Joan that flattened out the region, housing and tropical forest alike, and destroyed all the production of the Rama Language Project in Bluefields and on Rama Cay (Bluefields was destroyed at 95% and the island of Rama Cay went momentarily totally under water). At that time disappeared all the materials of the project of course, that had to be reissued and reconstituted.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Grinevald, Colette. 2014. The documentation of Rama: a very endangered language of Nicaragua. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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