This grant supports the fieldwork and research for Thiago Chacon's doctoral dissertation on the grammar of Kubeo (Cubeo), a Tukanoan language spoken on the Uaupes (Vaupés) River and its tributaries along the border of Brazil and Colombia. Despite having approximately 4,000 speakers, Kubeo is in critical condition. The degree of language vitality varies by location: in smaller villages, the language is transmitted to children; in larger villages, the children "refuse" to speak Kubeo, shifting to either Portuguese or Spanish.

The goal of this dissertation research is to provide an in-depth description of the grammar of Kubeo, with particular emphasis on the analysis of the unusual and unique linguistic traits found in this language, such as nasal harmony, unusual properties of tone, a complex system of evidentials, serial verbs, and the noun classifier system. The analysis will contribute to central issues in linguistic typology, increasing understanding of what is possible in human languages and what the limitations with regard to these linguistic features are. The dissertation also will expand knowledge of historical linguistics (language change) and language contact in this region of the Amazon, which has been of particular scientific interest. The dissertation research benefits from and contributes to the commitment of Kubeo people to document and preserve their language and cultural heritage.

Project Report

Linguistic fieldwork research was undertaken on the Kubeo language by Thiago Chacon, and the major result is his dissertation, The phonology and morphology of Kubeo: the documentation, theory, and description of an Amazonian language. This work provides a detailed explanation of the phonology, interaction of phonology and morphology, and major elements of the morphosyntax of Kubeo, an Eastern Tukanoan language spoken by about 4,000 people in the Northwest Amazon, in both Brazil and Colombia. Kubeo is endangered; its vitality varies by location: in smaller villages, the language is being transmitted to children; in larger villages the children are no longer willing to speak Kubeo and are shifting to Portuguese or Spanish – and the larger communities heavily influence on the smaller communities, speeding the shift and making this research urgent. The research combined professional linguist language documentation and skills transfer to the native-speaker community, where the two combined to produce more significant results than either could alone. Adequate description of Kubeo is important, because the language has a significant number of linguistic traits that are unusual cross-linguistically and thus are of significant theoretical interest in linguistics. These include: nasal harmony, a complex system of interaction of tones and stress, noun classes and noun classifiers, an extremely rich evidentiality system, among others explicated in this work. The dissertation, together with other papers and publications resulting from the project, fulfill the objectives of the research which were to describe and explain these important traits of the language. The goal included analysis and description of the data with as much detail and transparency as possible, explaining the complex aspects of the language, with attention to insights from different theoretical approaches and to the typological generalizations possible, also using historical linguistic investigation and acoustic analysis to explain critical aspects of the phonology of the language. The results of this research also expand historical linguistic knowledge of the classification of the Tukanoan languages and of language contact in this region of the Amazon, which has been of particular scientific interest due to extensive multilingualism and linguistic exogamy among most Tukanoan groups (and formerly among Kubeo). The research results have also benefitted Kubeo people in their commitment to having their language documented, to preserving their language and cultural heritage, and to their efforts to strengthen, maintain, and revitalize the language.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Shobhana Chelliah
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University of Hawaii
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