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Documentation of Gavião and Suruí Languages in whistled and instrumental speech


Language Gavião (ISO639-3:gvo), Suruí (ISO639-3:sru)
Depositor Julien Meyer
Affiliation Museu Paraense Emiliano Goeldi
Location Brazil
Collection ID 0228
Grant ID IPF0136
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

All over the world, whistled and instrumental speech forms are most of the time in great danger of disappearing within one generation (Béarnais, Tepehua, Kickapu or Tukano have already lost them). They disappear before the ordinary spoken speech form disappears (Meyer, 2005; Meyer, accepted). They are of great linguistic interest because they follow the phonetic, phonologic and syntactic rules of a language. Indeed, they simply consist of emulating the sounds of the voice by transposing them either into whistles or into sounds produced via musical instruments. They are used to complement spoken and sung speech because they ease communication in certain situations in the context of vital social activities (hunting, harvesting, shepherding for whistling; courtship, story recitation and traditional ceremonies for instrumental speech…). The ethnographic information provided by these particular speech forms highlights key aspects of the cultures and the languages using them.

This collection provides a linguistic documentation and analysis of highly endangered traditional speech practices in two endangered Tupian languages of Brazilian Amazon: Gavião and Suruí. These practices consist of spoken speech emulated into whistles (for distance dialogues) or sung speech adapted into musical sounds (to perform a verbal art with musical instruments). The pioneer methodology underlying this collection includes the sound, video and text documentation of corpora in spoken, whistled, sung and instrumental forms as well as systematic gathering of sociolinguistic and ecologic data. This locally controlled work is made accessible to both scientific and indigenous communities.


Group represented

This collection represents members of the Gavião de Rondônia (Ikolééy) community and the Suruí (Paíteer) community.

The Gavião entered contact with the national community in the 1940s. They have a current population of more or less 350 persons and live in the Indigenous Territory of Igarapé Lourdes in Rondônia. They all speak their native language.

Linguistic data has been collected by Moore since 1975 and analysed by him in his dissertation (Moore 1984) and in more recent works. Moore collected lists of words in whistled and spoken form in face-to-face recording. A first unpublished analysis by Julien Meyer has shown that whistled Gavião is not influenced by vowel quality but by consonant articulation because it renders some of their supra-segmental and even segmental cues. Women do not whistle, but they hoot. Additionally, instrumental speech has been observed with a string bow instrument and with flutes in Gavião Ikolééy (Ermel 2002, Ermel 2004) and in the Cinta Larga dialect of Gavião, without being systematically documented. Probably the Zoró dialect also is similar to Cinta Larga in this respect, being in contact only 30 years.

The Suruí began to be in continuous contact with Portuguese at the end of the 1960s. The current population is of more than 700 persons living in the Indigenous Territory Sete de Setembro, in Rondônia. They all speak their native language. On the basis of the data collected by Guerra (2004) with the Museu Goeldi, a first analysis of whistled speech was performed in Meyer (2005). The Suruí have a very strong musical tradition. It is not known if instruments imitate speech, but they have flutes similar to those of the Gavião.


Language information

Gavião and Suruí are endangered Tupian languages of the Brazilian Amazon, and are part of the Mondé family.

Of the ten branches of the Tupi family, five are found in the state of Rondônia in western Brazil. These languages have only been studied in the last 30 years. The Mondé family is composed of three languages: Suruí of Rondônia, Salamãy (Mondé) and a third language composed of four dialects: Gavião de Rondônia, Zoró, Cinta Larga, and Aruá. The internal classification is based on mutual intelligibility and the sound correspondences among the dialects and languages of the family, supplemented by lexical criteria (Moore 2005). All of these show distinctive tone and syllable length.

In Gavião and Suruí, like everywhere in the world, rural practices are rapidly losing vitality because the industrial society changes the traditional culture. The ‘good whistlers’ represent less than 10% of the community, the ‘good instrumental players’ less than 5%. Moreover, these versions of speech are limited to certain situations and certain daily vital activities.


Special characteristics

The Amazon area is one of the rare places of the world where several languages are still expressed in whistled and instrumental speech with a certain vitality, in addition to spoken, shouted and sung speech.

Gavião and Suruí are representative of the linguistic and cultural richness of these uses in Amazon and of the pending threat of disappearing. There are already reports explaining that several other Amazonian languages whistle and/or play speech: Karajá and Bororo (Aytai 1986), Krahô, Juruna and Makurap (Moore 2005 p.c.), Pirahã (Everett 1983), Wayãpi (Beaudet 1997).

During the pilot project made by Julien Meyer with the Museu Goeldi in 2004, preliminary analyses confirmed that whistled speech is a good natural model to describe tonal systems of Suruí and Gavião, but also the interactions of segmental cues with prosodic parameters. Moreover, it revealed that Mondé languages bear a transposition strategy into whistles that does not exist elsewhere, according to recent typologies (Meyer 2007b). Suruí and Gavião seem to belong to an intermediate type of languages balancing the role of segmental and supra-segmental cues in their whistled strategy. The recordings in this collection will be used to test these initial findings and elaborate on them using large corpora. Such properties have a great interest to further the description of these languages and to integrate them in the tonal and rhythmic classification of the languages of the world.

Julien Meyer, the researcher and depositor of this collection, has a long and unprecedented multidisciplinary experience in documentation of both whistled and instrumental speech. He has developed a specific methodology of documentation for whistled and instrumental speech (Meyer 2007a, Meyer accepted), and this collection will expand his methodology by applying it for longer, and in a new context – in the dense forest on whistled speech.


Collection contents

The content in this collection aims to document the whole traditional corpora still practiced in Gavião and Suruí in both whistled and instrumental speech.
When completed, the collection will include

  • recordings of whistled speech of the most common sentences used by each consultant, with social and environmental context
  • for each whistled text, recordings of a corresponding spoken version of the same text, and shouted or hooted versions when they are used
  • recordings of whistled, hooted and shouted registers of both interlocutors, from a range of distances in order to observe the phonetic adaptation and the degradation of the acoustic signal
  • recordings of songs played with musical instruments
  • for each instrumental recording, recordings of a sung voice version
  • for each musical instrument, recordings of the traditional mythology (from special authorized consultants), its manufacture (from craftsmen), and the way to play it (from musicians)
  • a corpus of animal word lists
  • intelligibility tests with the animal species word lists
  • recordings of the acoustical context of the background noise in the middle of the forest by automated periodic recording of ambient noise in order to gather the sounds to identify the common animal species and actualise the word lists of their names already used by Moore (technique of vocabulary elicitation of animal names after playback of the animal calls to hunters), verified for language relevance and biologic relevance
  • bio-acoustical and meteorological parameters data for recording sessions
  • participant observation data of the social activities linked to language use to document special behaviours during hunting, ceremonies, etc.


Collection history

The origin of this project dates back to 2003, when the Gavião Indians expressed their wish to broaden the documentation engaged by the Museu Goeldi to whistled or instrumental speech that they consider important to salvage. As very little experience existed in the Brazilian research in this domain, Julien Meyer was invited to collaborate.

The materials in this collection were gathered between 2008 and 2011 during fourteen months of fieldwork as part Julien Meyer’s Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship funded by ELDP.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Meyer, Julien. 2010. Documentation of Gavião and Suruí Languages in whistled and instrumental speech. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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