This project will produce a comprehensive grammar of Huambisa, an endangered Jivaroan language of Peru, located in a region rich in natural resources. Known as fierce warriors with a strong sense of freedom, the Huambisa, their language and culture have so far managed to survive despite past and current external pressures that seek to exploit their resource-rich territory. Despite the fact that the Jivaroan peoples are located in an important geographical and ecological niche between the Andes and the Amazonian regions, the Huambisa language has received little prior documentation.

The research is based on linguistic analysis of interviews and authentic interactions among Huambisa speakers. The information on which the grammar is based will be organized into databases, professionally archived and made available to the general public and the communities where the fieldwork takes place. The documentary material includes a trilingual Huambisa-Spanish-English vocabulary, analyzed texts and elicited data, audio and video recordings, and still photographs. The grammar is informed by current linguistic theory, taking into account typological, diachronic and language contact perspectives. A primary question addressed on the basis of the grammatical description is whether Huambisa is more like Andean or Amazonian languages, and how contact with other languages has affected its historical development. As the first detailed grammar of Huambisa, this project contributes both to research on Jivaroan languages and to Andean and Amazonian studies. As the grammar sheds light on linguistic and cultural practices of the Huambisa (oratory strategies, greeting and unusual formal salutation rituals, and other traditional genres), as well as on their detailed traditional knowledge of the rivers and forest, and their history of interactions with other groups, it is of scientific interest to anthropology, biology, ecology, ethnolinguistics and history, among other fields.

The project will train native speakers in recording and transcribing. It will be carried out collaboratively with members of Boca Chinganaza, a Huambisa village, and it will help meet their expressed needs to develop and promote their language. In particular, the text and lexicographic materials will provide a basis for developing teaching and literacy materials for local intercultural schools in the future.

Project Report

The aim of this project is to document and write a grammar of the Wampis language. Wampis is a Jivaroan language, with sister languages Aguaruna, Shuar, Achuar and Shiwiar. Wampis remains the only member whose grammar has not been described so far. The Wampis people live in the lowland forest in Northeast Peru, near the border with Ecuador. Their territory is rich in gold, gas and oil. The Wampis have an outstanding history of resistance and fighting for their freedom. They were part of the Jivaroan coalition that was the only party in South America capable of defeating the powerful Inca army in the 1500s and the Spanish army during the 1600s and 1700s. A European traveler in the 1880's described them as having "an extraordinary love for their independence and freedom". Modernly, they have been fighting for rights to their lands as different governments have attempted to colonize them and exploit the resources available in their territory. During this project, the investigators gathered data through fieldwork in several Wampis communities. Then, they transcribed and translated all the material to create four interacting databases: 1) a collection of audio-recorded and analyzed texts; 2) a Wampis vocabulary with translations in Spanish and English; 3) a collection of pictures; 4) a small collection of videos. The collection is extensive and includes varied types of texts: myths, ethnohistory, descriptions of material culture (e.g., how to make thread from palm trunks), descriptions of economic/subsistence activities (e.g., how Wampis people hunt), explanations of cultural concepts and beliefs, songs, etc. Finally, the data in the interconnected databases was used to analyze the Wampis language. The 10-chapter grammar includes an introduction to the language and people, sounds, prosody and accent, verb classes, verb morphology, nouns, possession, equative and descriptive clauses as well as other basic clause constructions, and clause combining. The project has led to new findings for Jivaroan languages which are important for enriching our knowledge of human language structure and therefore to human cognition. For instance, the Wampis sound system has a richly complex prosody. The placement of accent for one subset of words can be defined strictly by metrical rules; yet another subset of words and word elements have their own accent that cannot be predicted by rules. Thus there are two different types of interacting accent systems in Wampis: one predictable and one unpredictable that the speakers must memorize. In terms of word structure, Wampis word elements are rich in number and combinatorial patterns. Many words in Wampis correspond to entire sentences in English (for instance, the Wampis word esa-tu-cha-ti-pa-sha means "Please, let it not bite me!"). Wampis has a very rich tense system, with five temporal distinctions in the past and three in future. The number of tense distinctions is remarkable, as few languages around the world make such a large number of grammatical distinctions. In terms of syntax, we have found new structures not reported before for Jivaroan languages, such as a verb "to be" that never changes its form regardless of the grammatical person (I, You, She/He/It). Wampis possesses also a sophisticated "switch reference" system that distinguishes same from different doer of the action. This allows Wampis speakers to create a long sentence (which would be the equivalent of several sentences in English) without losing track of who is doing the action of the verbs. Thus the equivalent of an English paragraph like: "He sat, he eat, he stood up and ran. After doing that, he went to fish" is obtained in Wampis with a structure like this (which in the language is only one sentence): "(he) sitting, (he) eating, (he) standing up, running, he went to fish". Since this project will result in the first extensive written grammar of the Wampis language, the research informs Jivaroan linguistics, and, by extension, enriches our scientific linguistic knowledge of the Amazon and Andean language areas. In addition, as the project sheds light on language and other aspects of Wampis culture which are studied in the Co-PI's dissertation, the results will be relevant for fields such as Anthropology, Ethnology, Education and History. An important part of this project has been the training of Wampis speakers to help describe their own language and engage in scientific research. This contributes to their own and their communities' development. As the grammar and associated language information increase understanding of the Wampis culture and traditional practices, they may have a positive effect in facilitating intercultural communication between dominant and minority cultures in Peru. The vocabulary and grammar can support better translation of laws and consultation on legal issues (e.g. regarding land rights and oil/mineral exploration). The information produced is also a primary and essential foundation for developing satisfactory pedagogical materials for the Wampis communities and schools.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Shobhana Chelliah
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Oregon Eugene
United States
Zip Code