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Maleku documentation project

Deposit page image for the collection "Maleku Dictionary Project"

Deposit page image for the collection “Maleku Dictionary Project”. Click on image to access collection.

Language Maleku
Depositor Roberto Herrera Miranda
Affiliation University of Leipzig
Location Costa Rica
Deposit ID 0405, 0576
Grant ID SG0372, IGS0345
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the deposit

The Maleku Documentation Project will deliver a detailed account of the morphosyntax of the Maleku language as well as the internal variation among the three Palenques (Margarita, Tonjibe and El Sol), while documenting the rich oral traditions of these communities.

It is meant as a continuation of the previous 1-year Small Grant project (SG372), in which some cultural and linguistic aspects yet to be described and documented were identified. In this pilot project a first oral corpus was collected from different kinds of speakers in different linguistic settings, which was further translated and transcribed. The current IGS project will pay special consideration to traditions and places which the Maleku community has explicitly requested to be documented.

The data will be collected by PhD student Roberto Herrera and by the speakers themselves. This project aims at making a large percentage of translated and transcribed materials available while further extending the existing lexical database.


Group represented

Most members of the Maleku community live in three small villages along the Toji River in a small territory allotted to them by the Costa Rican government in the Northern Plains of the country. The number of native speakers is estimated at around 300 (close to 50% of ethnic members), none of which are monolingual. This project aims at gathering data from a wider range of speakers from the three main communities and at developing materials to be used in the local schools.


Language information

Maleku, also known as Guatuso, is spoken in the northern plains of Costa Rica, in a territory much smaller than what has been allotted to them by the government since the second half of 20th century. It is presently spoken by approximately 300 speakers, none monolingual, in three small villages stretching along 6 KM of gravel road from the highway connecting the towns of Guatuso and La Fortuna, a tourist center that lures many of the younger community members to learn English and work in the industry. The historical Maleku territory encompassed 1100 KM2 in which approximately 23 settlements were documented during the 19th century. In the present, at least two varieties of the language spoken subsist in the indigenous reservation.

Maleku is one of the only extant members of the Votic branch of the Chibchan family, together with the almost extinct Rama of Nicaragua. The language family extends from western Honduras (where the also endangered Pech is spoken) to Northern South America with the highest linguistic density found at the Costa Rica-Panama border.


Special characteristics

The main products of the 18-month Small Grant project include an electronic dictionary, with approximately 1,000 entries, a Master’s thesis on the marked and unmarked valency operations in the language and how they pattern across a set of 128 verbs, and a school poster on locative expressions (designed by Simone Fass and based on data gathered using stimulus material from the MPI Nijmegen BowPed Project Bowerman, Melissa and Eric Pederson. 1992. Topological relations picture series. In Stephen C. Levinson (ed.), Space stimuli kit 1.2: November 1992, 51. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics).

Until now the project has focused on the Margarita dialect. Future work on Maleku will attempt to collect substantial data on speakers from Tonjibe and El Sol, the smallest of the communities. Further, the project also envisions the creation of the first local library at the partner NGO (‘Toina Fueja: Asociación Cultural para el Rescate de Nuestra Identidad Cultural’). To this end, legacy materials acquired during the project have been donated to the partner organization and made accessible to the rest of the community.


Deposit contents

The deposit currently contains over 60 hours of video and 50 hours of audio recordings available to registered users. 19 speakers from the three communities, both male and females, 25-67 years of age have participated in the SG and IGS projects.

A corpus of over 20,000 words of natural discourse, which has been translated (into Spanish) and transcribed in ELAN is already available in the archive for registered users. The genre and topics here are varied and include narratives, interviews and demonstrations. Also transcribed were songs composed by one of the speakers. During the second half of the initial project, stimulus sessions were also recorded with three speakers, using materials from the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen.


Deposit history

As of late 2019, the existing ELAR deposit includes approximately 60 hours of video recording (19 speakers of different varieties), as well as close to 50 hours of audio-only recordings collected between September 2015 and September 2019. Over 80% of the video recordings have been translated into Spanish and transcribed with help of two native speakers. These include botanical sessions, demonstrations of traditional handicrafts and dishes, interviews, traditional stories as well as sessions using stimulus materials (for example, the ‘cut and break clips’ in the study of valency alternations. Bohnemeyer, Jürgen, Melissa Bowerman and Penelope Brown. 2001. Cut and break clips. In Stephen C. Levinson and N.J. Enfield (eds.), Manual for the field season 2001, 90-96. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Materials available at

Most of the audio-only recordings are elicitation sessions, such as word lists gained by means of the Intercontinental Dictionary Series (Key and Comrie, 2016), but also elicitations on verbal inflection, word order, argument marking, etc.

An important aspect in the interviews carried out with the speakers has been the bio-cultural relevance of Torolhami (the Caño Negro wildlife refuge), a traditionally sacred site, to which access by the Ucuriqui (Rio Frio) has been restricted in the last few years. Much of the IGS project is devoted to the documentation and description of these boat trips and the activities which used place during and after these trips, both from the travellers’ perspective as well as from their families’.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Herrera Miranda, Roberto. 2019. Maleku Documentation Project. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

I would like to specially thank Alfredo Acosta and Carlos ‘Poto’ López for their invaluable dedication to this endeavor, as well as to everyone who kindly opened their doors at one time or another and guided me, making these projects possible. ¡Afepaquian ni marama naracarrayeca. Poi marama micua colonhafa ni malainheca macorroca malecuco!

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