This collaborative project will complete the documentation and description of two highly endangered and closely-related Amazonian languages, Omagua and Kokama-Kokamilla, and seek to determine the origin of these two historically important languages. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, Omagua was one the largest languages of the Amazon basin. The Omaguas suffered tremendously during the European invasion, however, and Omagua now has fewer than ten speakers, the youngest being 80 years old. Despite the historical importance of the language, there are no grammatical descriptions of Omagua, nor any lexical resources beyond colonial era wordlists. The area and situation is similar for Kokama-Kokamilla. The researchers will work closely with the remaining speakers of these endangered languages to develop dictionaries, a collection of oral and written texts, and grammatical descriptions of the languages. Dr. Michael will focus on the documentation of Omagua and Dr. Vallejos on the documentation of Kokama-Kokamilla to create a permanent record of the languages for use by the ethnic communities, linguists, anthropologists, and historians.

Beyond the basic scientific task of language documentation, this project aims at determining the relationship of Omagua and Kokama-Kokamilla to other Amazonian languages, and in doing so, gain insights into Pre-Columbian cultural history. Although long thought to be members of the continent-spanning Tupí-Guaraní family, recent work has demonstrated that Omagua and Kokama-Kokamilla arose through contact between speakers of a Tupí-Guaraní language and speakers of another unknown language. The result was a language that mixes aspects of the Tupí-Guaraní lexicon and grammar with those from the unknown contact language. By systematically comparing the lexicon and grammatical features of Omagua and Kokama-Kokamilla with those of other language families across Amazonia, and with specific languages in the area in which these two languages are spoken, Dr. Michael and Dr. Vallejos will clarify the linguistic processes involved in their genesis, thereby gaining insights into the cultural circumstances in which they arose.

Project Report

This project developed linguistic documentation and analyses of grammatical structure of Kokama-Kokamilla, a highly endangered yet historically significant language now spoken by about 1500 elderly individuals in northern Peruvian Amazonia. This project aimed to create a permanent linguistic record of this language and also to clarify the historically and theoretically significant circumstances of its genesis. In documentary linguistics, this project has contributed to the development of fieldwork methodologies to work with a wide range of speakers found in endangered languages contexts. Outcomes of the project underscore the need to document the variation among speakers to serve revitalization purposes and to advance our understanding of language change accelerated by both obsolescence and revitalization efforts (Vallejos 2014b). To document Kokama-Kokamilla, we worked in collaboration with speech community members, collecting traditional stories, narratives, conversations, procedural texts, and cure songs. As a result of this work, a collection of video clips and sound files transcribed and translated into Spanish and English will be available via the ELAR archive to the members of the speech community, as well as to others who wish to learn the language and about the language. This data will be also relevant for linguists whose work requires the comparison of languages from diverse families and regions of the world. Another key outcome of the documentation component of the project is a tri-lingual dictionary ­– Kokama-Spanish-English – (Vallejos & Amías, forthcoming). The document contains a relatively large amount of lexicographic detail, ethnographic notes, and drawings. This rich encyclopedia of Kokama-Kokamilla traditional knowledge is a valuable resource for ongoing language revitalization efforts. Significant results emerging from the analyses of grammatical structures of the language include: an account of the syntactic expression of information structure (Vallejos, 2014a), a documentation of the valence changing mechanisms (Vallejos, 2014c), an evaluation of the correlations between possessive semantic relations and construction types in (Vallejos, submitted), an assessment of the structural changes accelerated by language obsolescence and revitalization efforts (Vallejos, accepted), and the functional load of stative verbs (Carrillo, in prep.). In terms of theories of languages in contact, this project clarified certain aspects of how the Kokama-Kokamilla language emerged, and how it is related to other languages in the Amazon basin. Kokama-Kokamilla was known to have emerged from the grammatical and lexical mixing of a language of the Tupí-Guaraní family with other unknown languages, but many questions remained unanswered about this process. The determination that Kokama-Kokamilla descends from a Pre-Columbian contact language—that is, that it arose not from a colonial language contact context, but from contact between indigenous groups prior to the arrival of Europeans—means that Kokama-Kokamilla presents a rare example of a well-documented pre-­Columbian contact language in the Americas. The significance of this result lies in the fact that most known examples of contact languages in the Americas arose in colonial contexts in which Native American and African populations were subordinated to European elites. The socio-historical circumstances of the genesis of Kokama-Kokamilla and its sister language Omagua were quite different, shedding light on language contact processes in the Americas outside of colonial contexts. These findings provide linguists, archeologists, and historians with important insights about the migratory movements of Tupí-Guaraní groups, and ultimately about the Pre-Columbian history of South America. Outcomes from the historical research undertaken as part of this project include the reconstruction of core areas of Proto-Omagua-Kokama (O’Hagan, Michael & Vallejos, 2013) and (O’Hagan, Michael & Vallejos, in prep.).

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