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Taruma Corpus

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Language Taruma
Depositor Konrad Arkadiusz Rybka, Anna Katharina Serke
Affiliation Leiden University
Location Guyana
Collection ID 0708
Collection Status Collection online
Landing page handle


Summary of the collection

This deposit is the result of the first documentation efforts centred on the Taruma language (isolate) via Wapishana (Arawakan), with a focus on the names and uses of plants, the preparation of food, the manufacture of traditional tools. Oral traditions and lexical and grammatical elicitation sessions are also included. The collection is the result of a collaborative documentation project of the Taruma language, culture and plant knowledge. This project took place in 2021 and was a collaborative effort of the same Taruma speakers, but also Taruma learners, linguists, and botanists, as specified below.

Tasks of the on-site team members:

Vincent Louis: identifying Taruma taxa in the field and describing their uses
Irene Suttie: cross-checking Taruma taxa from photos and describing their uses
Elizabeth Louis: creating photo vouchers, recording plant uses, translating
Nita Louis: creating photo vouchers, recording plant uses, translating
Adrian Gomes: coordinating activities in Maruranau, budget-keeping
Konaukii Gomes: sending data via WhatsApp, facilitating communication

Tasks of the off-site team members:

Robin Bredero: processing data, species identification, linguistic comparison
Anna Serke: transcribing Taruma and Wapishana recordings
Anne-Marie Holt: evaluating the remote research methodology
Tinde van Andel: supervising ethnobotanical research
Konrad Rybka: supervising linguistic research, coordinating the project

The bulk of the data were collected using a remote method, whereby the on-site participants used a smartphone to document the names and uses of plants and shared the data with the off-site researchers using the WhatsApp messaging application. One-month fieldwork took place at the end of the project; at this stage the Taruma learners, who are Wapishana speakers as well, helped transcribe and translate the recordings. The data contain the names and uses of a number of plants as well as tools and objects made from these plants, documented in Taruma, Wapishana and English; detailed photographs of the plants are included as well.


Group represented

The people whose speech is represented in this deposit are the Taruma. Taruma is an exonym of unclear origin; the speakers use Taruma when speaking in Wapishana, but call themselves Hodjase when speaking Taruma. They refer to their language as Kwase Dzuzu, “the language of the people”. Taruma is a language isolate. The Taruma lived near the Essequibo River since at least the mid-18th century, but in the first half of the 20th century, most of them were absorbed into the Wapishana and Waiwai communities. Today, there remains at least one family of Taruma speakers. They live in Turunau, a part of the village Maruranau, a Wapishana community located in the Upper Takutu Upper Essequibo region in Guyana, South America. The speakers belong to the older generation and are bilingual in Wapishana. The younger generation includes heritage speakers, actively learning the language; their principal languages are Wapishana and English.

Previous language documentation and description.
The first Taruma wordlist, containing 18 words, was collected by Robert Schomburgk (1848:59–60), a German explorer for Great Britain, during his expeditions into the interior of British Guyana in 1837 and 1843. The wordlist was reprinted by Latham (1862:493–94), and soon after by Martius (1867b:313). Schomburgk’s comparison of Taruma words with those of other Indigenous languages led him to suggest that Taruma is unrelated to other languages of the Essequibo area. Subsequently, on three occasions between 1919 and 1923, Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes, an English Jesuit and founder of the Rupununi Mission, visited the Taruma and mixed Taruma–Waiwai villages on the Guyanese–Brazilian border. His notes, containing words, sentences, and evangelical texts in Taruma, are housed by the Jesuits in Britain Archives in London. This larger set of data, however, has remained unknown to researchers until recently Butt Colson (2011) brough it to the attention of academics. Between 1913 and 1916, William Farabee, a curator at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, travelled through the region to record its cultural diversity and collect objects for the museum. He published a list of over 200 Taruma words (Farabee 1918), which remained the main published Taruma source until the 21th century. Noticing lexical similarities between Taruma and Wapishana, Farabee (1917:72) concluded that Taruma is an Arawakan language, a conclusion endorsed by Rivet (1924:650). Gillin (1948:803) listed Taruma as Arawakan, but also mentioned the alternative isolate account. Loukotka (1949, 1968:150) proposed several, at times dubious, lateral relationships, but found no evidence of a genetic relationship with any other language. Although Kaufman (2007:73; quoted in Campbell 2012:136) suggested a genetic relationship with the extinct Katembri, but today there is general consensus that Taruma is an isolate in line with Schomburgk’s intuitions (e.g. Eberhard et al. 2022). By the end of the 20th century, new lexical material included only a handful of plant names recorded by Nicholas Guppy and Jens Yde among the Taruma living with the WaiWai (Yde 1965). This deposit includes the first audiovisual material in Taruma so far.

Taruma history.
Little is known about Taruma history (Rivière 1966). The first mention of the Taruma dates back to 1657, but it does not come from Guyana. The name was recorded by Portuguese Jesuits on the Negro in Brazil. In subsequent decades, the Negro Taruma dwindled in numbers due to Portuguese slave raids, and by 1770, they were deemed extinct. In 1764, however, “a numerous and powerful tribe” called Tarouma was met for the first time on the Upper Essequibo in what is now Guyana (van’s Gravensande and Villiers 1920:245). But by mid 20th century, the Essequibo Taruma, likely decimated by epidemies, ceased to exist as a separate nation. Given the disappearance of the Negro Taruma and the simultaneous appearance of the Essequibo Tarouma, it has been assumed that the latter hail from the Negro (Martius 1867a:568–69). The assumption is questionable, however, as Taruma is an exonym, and exonyms can refer to various, even unrelated, nations. Saluma, likely a reflex of the same word, for example, was a nation of Suriname, perhaps a cohort of the Taruma, while Salumã, perhaps an unrelated word, is an Arawakan language of Brazil (Hoff 1955; Ramirez 2001). In one, we cannot be sure that the Negro Taruma and Essequibo Taruma refer to the same nation, nor in fact if they are the same word. Moreover, the language of the Negro Taruma is not documented and cannot be compared with that of the Essequibo Taruma to determine whether they represent the same language, and by extension related people. An alternative hypothesis is that the Essequibo Taruma are native to Guyana and their relationship to the Negro Taruma is limited to a similar name, perhaps the same exonym. Complementing the external accounts, this deposit includes recordings of the oral history of the Taruma speakers.

Taruma culture.
Little is known about Taruma culture. About the Negro Taruma, we know little more than that, like the Manao, they had commercial relations the Portuguese, to whom they supplied enslaved people, obtained by raiding Indigenous nations living further upriver. But as these sources of enslaved people became exhausted, the Taruma themselves became the victims of the Portuguese slave raids (Wright 1999:364). When it comes to the Essequibo Taruma, Farabee (1918) published several oral traditions and ethnographic notes. Ogilvie, a colonial prospector born in Scotland who lived in the Rupununi and assisted Farabee on his expedition, published an article on Wapishana and Taruma creation stories (Ogilvie 1940). His manuscript notes, housed by the Penn Museum Archives, offer additional commentary on the Taruma myths, lifeways, history, and interactions with other Indigenous nations (Ogilvie 1913). Roth met the Taruma in the early 1920s, and a number of ethnographic details about the Taruma, based on previous literature and his own fieldwork, appear in his ethnography (see Roth 1924, 1929). Yde’s (1965:70-93) ethnography of the Waiwai people of Brazil also mentions a few Taruma plant names and their uses. Besides the published sources, there are several museum collections that house Taruma materials. The National Museum of American Indian has a small collection of objects and photographs collected around 1918 by Verrill Hyatt, an American author and explorer. Another collection of similar size is housed by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, which also includes a number of Taruma Phase pottery sherds.
The Taruma are known in archaeology from the research conducted in the Essequibo and Rupununi basin by Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans between 1952 and 1953. Meggers and Evans (1960:245–46) found several archaeological sites of what they dubbed the Taruma Phase, because the location of some of the sites coincides with the villages where the Taruma were met in historic times by Farabee and Schomburgk. As such, it was linked to the Taruma people and offer some insights into their past. The villages sites were typically surrounded by garden sites, both sufficiently elevated to escape flooding in the rainy season. The villages were occupied for relatively short time, but there is evidence that a number of the sites were occupied more than once. This may be the due to the small amount of high land bordering the Essequibo, but it is also possible that the Taruma “were restricted to movement within a specified area either by choice or by the presence of inhibiting conditions farther downstream.” In any case, the villages define what we could call the Taruma territory. Villages varied considerably in area, with a slight tendency for the later ones to be smaller, suggesting the community was shrinking. Generally, smaller villages also had shallower refuse accumulations, suggesting they were occupied for shorter periods of time. Finally, only five sites produced European trade materials, suggesting that their inhabitants had limited contact with Europeans. Pot sherds formed the bulk of the finds and were characterized by highly unique style. Boomert (1977:16) also adds that the work by Geijskes and Bubberman extends the Taruma Phase further east into Suriname, where pottery with similar features has been found.


Special characteristics

The primary data that form this deposit constitute the first audiovisual documentation of Taruma so far. As such, the deposit includes the first audiovisual recordings of the oral history of the Taruma speakers, their plant-related knowledge, and their oral traditions. Further, the ethnobotanical data were collected by a research team consisting of the Taruma speakers, Taruma learners, as well as linguists and botanists. What makes the data from 2021 special is, firstly, that the bulk of the data were documented remotely using a smartphone. The ethnobotanical material—i.e., plants and their uses—was selected and recorded by the Taruma themselves. They chose the plants, objects, but also oral traditions that they wanted to share, recorded them themselves, provided the English translations of the Taruma and Wapishana sentences, and corrected the transcription of the Wapishana materials. Second, the language data is trilingual, namely in Taruma, Wapishana and English. Finally, the plant taxa identified by the Taruma and documented as photo vouchers have been studied by botanists to match the Taruma taxa with the Linnean classification system. The identified species are named in the relevant files on a separate tier.


Collection contents

The materials include:
– sets of detailed photographs of plants (and their parts), identified by the Taruma in the vicinity of Maruranau (known as “photo vouchers” in the field of ethnobotany).
– transcribed audio recordings of plant names in Taruma and Wapishana, sent via WhatsApp, and concatenated into longer audio files; photographs of the plants were aligned with the audio recordings and included in the ELAN flies as videos.
– transcribed audio recordings of the uses of plants, sent via WhatsApp, and concatenated into longer audio files, including the manufacture of tools and objects made from plants.
– transcribed audio (and video) recordings of narratives, including oral history and oral traditions.
– untranscribed audio recordings of the sessions in which the narratives were translated into English
– untranscribed audio recordings of elicitation of conversational phrases and grammatical features

The sessions are largely organised by date and then by genre: remote recording (rem), narrative (nar), songs (song), elicitation (eli), or translation (transl). All materials of the same genre from the same day are grouped together in a session. Only materials of the same genre and from the same day that do not belong together thematically are on the whole archived as separate sessions. The file names of the audio and video recordings and the corresponding ELAN files contain the ISO code for Taruma, the date of recording, the genre and a number representing the order in which recordings of that genre were made on that date (for instance, tdm20211002nar01). The file names of the plant pictures consist of the date on which they were taken, a number and the depicted plant part; the numbers correspond to the order in which the plants were photographed, named and described on a given day (e.g., 20210410_01_leaf.jpeg). This is also the order in which the plants appear in the ELAN files, in which there is a separate tier containing the file names of the corresponding photographs.


Collection history

The remote ethnobotanical project took place between April and November 2021. Over the course of these months, the Taruma speakers made recordings and took pictures which they sent to the rest of the research team via WhatsApp. The remaining part of the data, which includes narrative, elicitations, and translation sessions, is from December 2021, when Konrad Rybka and Anna Serke travelled to Guyana to work with the Taruma people in person.


Other Information

The orthography employed in the transcriptions is largely based on the orthographic conventions of Wapishana as defined in the Wapishana-English dictionary compiled by the Wapishana Language Project and Wapichan Wadauniinao Ati’o (2000). However, the conventions for Taruma are still subject to review by the speakers, who will make the final choices about the orthography employed to write their language.


Acknowledgement and citation

The corpus as a whole should be cited as:

Konrad Rybka, Anna Serke, Anne-Marie Holt, Robin Bredero, Irene Suttie, Vincent Louis, Elizabeth Louis, Nita Louis. 2022. Taruma corpus. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

Users of any parts of the corpus should refer to the title of the session and acknowledge by name the people who recorded the given session and the individuals appearing in the recordings whose words or images are used. The names are included in the metadata for specific sessions.

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