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A preliminary linguistic survey of Yucuna, an endangered language of Colombia


Language Yucuna
Depositor Magdalena Lemus Serrano
Location Colombia
Collection ID 0406
Grant ID SG0358
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This project aimed at documenting Yucuna (ISO 639-3:ycn), a definitely endangered North Amazonian Arawakan language spoken in Colombia by approximately 1,800 people. A corpus of transcribed audio recordings has been produced with the help of community members living around the Miriti-Parana River. This study constitutes the basis for a more comprehensive project whose ultimate aim is to produce a grammatical description as well as a literacy handbook to be used in a community-owned education program.


Group represented

Yucuna speakers are bilingual in Spanish for the most part, but trilingualism is not rare and a lot of speakers are fluent in Tanimuca (ISO639-3:tnc, Tucanoan) due to the exogamic relationship that they maintain with the Tanimuca people, with whom they share a lot of cultural traits. For this same reason, native speakers of Tanimuca married to Yucuna speakers are often fluent in their partner’s language. Children are schooled in Spanish only, since there are no bilingual Spanish-Yucuna schools.

The Yucuna have repeatedly shown a strong interest for the development of community-owned education programs in which elders could play an important role as transmitters of traditional knowledge, and which could implement traditional learning styles, radically different from those employed in Spanish-speaking schools. To this day no sustainable education program has been successfully carried out. There have been attempts at developing sustainable education programs but they have not been successful due to a lack of financial resources. Even though the Colombian constitution acknowledges the existence of Indigenous groups and vows to respect and protect their cultural and linguistic identity, there is a discrepancy between the legal frame, Colombian’s government’s actual resources and willingness to cooperate, and the demands of each community. As a result of this complex situation, the conception of a linguistic policy remains to be done.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Amazonian region in Colombia witnessed the proliferation of projects concerning a large number of issues, motivated by the promulgation of the 1991 Constitution, but language-related programs were not the priority. In community schools, indigenous languages were only emphasised with the purpose of using them as tools for improving students and teachers’ Spanish (Robayo 1999). This situation started changing towards the end of the 1990s. In 1998, there was a “unification” workshop led by anthropology students, among them Camilo Robayo, and supported by the GAIA institution, as well as regional indigenous organisations such as ACIMA. The aim of the workshop was to revise the alphabet that had been proposed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1963, and to normalise the different writing styles that had emerged from dialectal variation, to create a more adequate and unified writing system of Yucuna. A text including a small list of words with their dialectal variants as well as a commentary on the orthographic rules was created, the text was called “Palabras corregidas y archivadas kamejeya” (‘Corrected and Archived Words of Kamejeya’). Since that first workshop, there have been several others who have followed the same guidelines, and whose main objective was to review the previous text and improve it. The last workshop to date (July 2004) focused on the creation of educational material proposed by the Indigenous organization ACIMA. This project received the support of the Colombian Education Ministry (Garzón, 2006:233). With this work on their language, However, Yucuna speakers have gradually become more concerned by the status of their language, and are now increasingly interested in preserving it.


Language information

Yucuna, also known as Matapi, is an Arawakan language from the Colombian branch of the Upper Amazon Arawakan languages (Aikhenvald 1999), considered as definitely endangered by UNESCO’s 2010 World Atlas of Languages in Danger. According to the 2001 SIL census, there are 1,800 Yucuna speakers, most of whom live along the banks of the Miriti-Parana river and in La Pedrera municipality located in the department of Caquetá (Fontaine, 2001:57).

Yucuna is an understudied language. The only few existing linguistic studies (including a dictionary, a grammatical sketch and translated texts), have been written by missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Junia and Stanley Schauer, who also worked on the alphabetization of Yucuna speakers during the 1980s and 1990s. Anthropological studies of the Yucuna community are more numerous. Laurent Fontaine (CNRS research fellow at Lacito, Paris) is particularly important for this collection since he collected an important number of texts in Yucuna during his fieldtrips and focused his research on speech. In the writing system of Yucuna, despite the efforts from both specialists from outside and inside the community to set rules, some of the rules are still vague, especially those concerning the transcription of accents and glottal stops.


Collection contents

This collection includes material provided by fluent native speakers of Yucuna and Tanimuca speakers fluent in Yucuna of different ages, genders and geographical locations/dialects and includes both spontaneous and elicited data.
When completed, the collection will include

  • five hours of audio recordings of a varied set of genres and registers, including monological storytelling of legends and traditions, everyday conversations, an elicited list of basic vocabulary based on the Spanish version of Terrance Kauffman’s wordlist
  • one hour of the recordings segmented, transcribed orthographically and in IPA, translated into Spanish, glossed, and annotated according to Leipzig Glossing Rules using FLEx
  • a literacy handbook for adult speakers of Yucuna to learn how to write and read their language
  • an MA thesis on the morphosyntax and phonology of Yucuna


Collection history

The materials in this collection were gathered between 2015 and 2016 during the fieldwork for Magdalena Lemus Serrano’s Small Grant funded by ELDP.


Other information

A full copy of all the data and its analysis will be stored at the Dynamique du Langage Laboratory at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, France.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Lemus Serrano, Magdalena. 2016. A preliminary linguistic survey of Yucuna, an endangered language of Colombia. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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