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Documentation and description of Nasa Yuwe, the vernacular language of the Nasa people of the Colombian Andes


Language Nasa Yuwe
Depositor Esteban Diaz Montenegro
Affiliation Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage (DDL) – CNRS/Université Lyon 2
Location Colombia
Collection ID 0381
Grant ID IGS0265
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Blog post

Two Project Highlights on Community Collaboration 




Summary of the collection

El principal objetivo de este proyecto es la documentación de la lengua nasa yuwe (antes conocida como páez), lengua vernácula de una importante proporción de la población (100.000) del pueblo nasa (aproximadamente 150.000), quienes habitan en el los andes del suroccidente de Colombia. Los estudios más recientes han demostrado un rápido deterioro de la transmisión intergeneracional de la lengua nasa. Las grabaciones de audio y video de este proyecto se harán con la activa participación de los jóvenes de la comunidad, lo cual contribuirá en la creación de un corpus susceptible de ser utilizado en la producción de materiales educativos para la comunidad nasa involucrada.

This project’s primary goal is the documentation of the Nasa Yuwe language (formerly Páez), the vernacular language of an important proportion (ca. 100,000 speakers) of the indigenous Nasa (aka Páez) people (ca. 150,000 ethnic members) in the Southwestern Andes of Colombia. Recent studies demonstrate the rapid decline of the intergenerational transmission and use of Nasa Yuwe in the youngest generations. The audio and video recordings to be collected in this project with the active participation of young community members will result in an important corpus of data susceptible to be used for the production of a description of the language and educational materials for the Nasa community.


Group represented

The people who recognize themselves as part of the Nasa people and recognize Nasa Yuwe as their traditional language live in both sides of the central mountain range and in the Eastern side of the west mountain range of Cauca Andes, as well as in the valley between these ranges. Their language Nasa Yuwe has a deep importance to the Nasa people as an ethnic symbol and historical reminder of the millenary presence of the Amerindians in the territory today known as Colombia.


Language information

Nasa Yuwe (lit. ‘People’s speech’) is a language isolate spoken in the Andes in the Department of Cauca, Southwest of Colombia. In the past, Nasa Yuwe has been classified as part of the Chibchan Macro-phylum, sometimes within the Barbacoan family and sometimes within the Paezan family. Nonetheless Constenla Umaña (1981) (cited in Adelaar 2004:37) “found that the Barbacoan, Paezan, Andaquí, Kamsá, Betoi, Jirajaran and Misumalpa languages are not Chibchan”. At the present the most accepted classification of Nasa Yuwe is being a language isolate (Landaburu 2000). As an isolate, Nasa Yuwe has linguistic features that are unattested in the other languages of the region or in the other languages of the world (like its 32 vowels system featuring glottal, aspirated, length and nasal subsystems).

The vitality of Nasa Yuwe can’t be defined for the Nasa people as a whole. Academic studies and speakers’ perceptions indicate that there is a large variety of sociolinguistic situations between Nasa people, from communities with a 90% of Nasa Yuwe speaking population to communities where this estimated number is only 2% of the total population.

The north of the department of Cauca is perhaps where de Nasa Yuwe language is most endangered; the sociolinguistic survey conducted by the CRIC and the University of Cauca in 2007 showed that in this region only 22% of the population states that they can communicate very well in Nasa Yuwe (Díaz Montenegro 2013:72). The 2007 population census issued from the local authority of the Munchique-Los Tigres community shows that 67% of the population is still bilingual whereas the other 33% is now monolingual in Spanish (Ibid.:71). For instance, in the community of La Paila – Naya, the depositor has first-hand knowledge of the existence of a maximum of 20 speakers over a total population of 1,200 members.

Today the young generations of Nasa people are surrounded by the Colombian mass media which are nearly exclusively in Spanish, especially the visual media, like television and internet. At the same time, the rural-urban market network which supports part of the Nasa people’s economy is conduced nearly exclusively in Spanish. This omnipresence of Spanish is detrimental to the vitality of Nasa Yuwe among the young people. The social inequality between the rural and the urban people in Colombia very often results in Nasa people migrating to the cities in order to engage in non-qualified and under-paid labour. These migrations disintegrate families, otherwise the preferred context for the Nasa Yuwe transmission, and considerably reduce the possibility of use of Nasa Yuwe in everyday situations.

Nasa Yuwe has had a unified alphabet since 2001. The alphabet is the product of a 10 years discussion between different political and educative Nasa authorities with the academic advise of Tulio Rojas Curieux. Before this unification, three alphabet proposals had being used, one by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a second one by the CRIC and a third one by the apostolic prefecture of Tierradentro (Cauca).

Nowadays, Nasa Yuwe is recognized by the Colombian State as an official language within the Nasa territory, and the teaching of Nasa Yuwe is permitted and promoted in local schools. The first attempts to academically describe Nasa Yuwe took place in the second half of the twentieth century, first by the SIL missionaries in the late 1960s and secondly by the researchers of the CCELA (Colombian Center Aboriginal Languages Studies) in the 1980s.

The research conducted by the CCELA linguists on the phonological system are compiled in the volume Estudios fonológicos de la lengua páez (Nasa Yuwe) (Nieves, Rojas, & Yule, 1991) and those on some elements of the syntax in the volume Estudios gramaticales de la lengua páez (Nasa Yuwe) (Rojas, Nieves, & Yule, 1991). In 1998, Tulio Rojas Curieux published the book La lengua páez: Una visión de su gramática (Rojas, 1998), where he discusses in a serious and very detailed way a vast number of Nasa Yuwe morpho-syntactic phenomena. This first reference grammar of Nasa Yuwe was the PhD dissertation of Rojas Curieux at the University of Paris 7. In this study the author noticed an important number of interesting phenomena which still remain understudied to the present day.


Collection contents

When complete, this collection will include

  • 30 hours of audio and six hours of video of spontaneous and free Nasa Yuwe speech and elicitation sessions recorded with young and old fluent speakers
  • recordings of a diverse range of language uses, including traditional and non-traditional story-telling, everyday use like conversations and bilingual school classes, traditional celebrations, traditional and non-traditional songs and sport events
  • six hours of the materials with transcriptions, translations into Spanish and linguistic analysis (segmented and glossed) for six hours (20%) of the materials
  • educational materials
  • PhD thesis in linguistics (a typologically informed study of Nasa Yuwe grammar)
  • relevant metadata on speakers, sessions, researcher’s commentary and relevant authorizations

At this point, the collection contains

  • 15.5 hours of video recordings, made up of one elicitation session (74min) as well as language use in natural spontaneous contexts, including personal narratives, story telling, conversations, formal speech and procedural events
  • 34 time-aligned annotation files
  • metadata for the materials (in Spanish)


Other Information

Community materials developed during the project include a website of the project with a series of subtitled video clips, and a web-based multimedia book with video recordings organized in different categories (authority, women, traditional medicine, traditional stories, history, music, land recovery, and dreams).


Collection history

The materials were collected during the researcher’s PhD fieldwork.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Diaz Montenegro, Esteban. 2015. Documentation and description of Nasa Yuwe, the vernacular language of the Nasa people of the Colombian Andes. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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