Resurrecting Chaná.

I know I’ve posted a lot about efforts to keep moribund languages alive, but Natalie Alcoba’s NY Times story (archived) is special. For one thing, it’s set in Argentina, where I went to high school and whose soccer team I still root for. More importantly, it’s a rare case of a language that was long thought extinct but that turned out to have a speaker:

As a boy, Blas Omar Jaime spent many afternoons learning about his ancestors. Over yerba mate and torta fritas, his mother, Ederlinda Miguelina Yelón, passed along the knowledge she had stored in Chaná, a throaty language spoken by barely moving the lips or tongue.

The Chaná are an Indigenous people in Argentina and Uruguay whose lives were intertwined with the mighty Paraná River, the second longest in South America. They revered silence, considered birds their guardians and sang their babies lullabies: Utalá tapey-’é, uá utalá dioi — sleep little one, the sun has gone to sleep.

Ms. Miguelina Yelón urged her son to protect their stories by keeping them secret. So it was not until decades later, recently retired and seeking out people with whom he could chat, that he made a startling discovery: No one else seemed to speak Chaná. Scholars had long considered the language extinct.

“I said: ‘I exist. I am here,’” said Mr. Jaime, now 89, sitting in his sparse kitchen on the outskirts of Paraná, a midsize city in the Argentine province of Entre Ríos. Those words kicked off a journey for Mr. Jaime, who has spent nearly two decades resurrecting Chaná and, in many ways, placing the Indigenous group back on the map. For UNESCO, whose mission includes the preservation of languages, he is a crucial vault of knowledge.

His painstaking work with a linguist has produced a dictionary of roughly 1,000 Chaná words. For people of Indigenous ancestry in Argentina, he is a beacon that has inspired many to connect with their history. And for Argentina, he is part of an important, if still fraught, reckoning over its history of colonization and Indigenous erasure. […] Now, a passing of the guard is underway, to his daughter Evangelina Jaime, who has learned Chaná from her father and is teaching it to others. (How many Chaná remain in Argentina is unclear.) […]

Archaeologists trace the presence of Chaná people back roughly 2,000 years in what is now the Argentine provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Entre Rios, as well as parts of present-day Uruguay. The first European record of the Chaná was made in the 16th century by Spanish explorers. They fished, lived a nomadic life and were skilled clay artisans. With colonization, the Chaná were displaced, their territory shrunk and their numbers dwindled as they assimilated into newly established Argentina, which launched military campaigns to eradicate Indigenous communities and open land for settlement.

Before Mr. Jaime revealed his knowledge of Chaná, the last known record of the language was in 1815, when Dámaso A. Larrañaga, a priest, met three older Chaná men in Uruguay and documented what he learned about the language in two notebooks. Only one of those books survived, containing 70 words.

The trove of information that Mr. Jaime obtained from his mother was far more expansive. Ms. Miguelina Yelón was an adá oyendén — a “woman memory keeper” — someone who traditionally preserved the community’s knowledge. According to Mr. Jaime, only women were Chaná memory keepers. “This was a matriarchy,” said Ms. Jaime. “Women were the ones who guided the Chaná people. But something happened — we’re not sure what — that made men take control again. And women agreed to cede that power in exchange for them being the only guardians of that history.”

Ms. Miguelina Yelón did not have any daughters to whom she could pass along her knowledge. (Her three daughters all died as children.) So she turned to Mr. Jaime. That is how he came to spend his afternoons soaking up stories of the Chaná, learning words that described their world: “atamá” means “river”; “vanatí beáda” is “tree”; “tijuinem” means “god”; “yogüin” is “fire.” […]

After reading Mr. Fiorotto’s article, Pedro Viegas Barros, a linguist, also met with Mr. Jaime and found a man who clearly had fragments of a language, even if it had eroded with the lack of use. The meeting marked the start of a yearslong collaboration. Mr. Viegas Barros wrote several papers on the process of trying to recover the language, and he and Mr. Jaime published a dictionary that included legends and Chaná rituals. […]

Referring to Mr. Jaime, Serena Heckler, a program specialist at the UNESCO regional office in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, said, “We are very aware of the importance of what he’s doing.” While his work preserving Chaná is not the only case of a language once thought dead suddenly reappearing, it is exceptionally rare, Ms. Heckler said. […]

[Jaime’s daughter] plans to teach the language to her grown son so he can continue their family’s work.

Back at Mr. Jaime’s kitchen table, the older man wrote his name out in the language he is trying to keep alive. It was a name that he says reflects the way he has lived. “Agó Acoé Inó,” which means “dog without an owner.” His daughter leaned in to make sure he spelled it correctly. “She knows more than me now,” he said, laughing. “We won’t lose Chaná.”

Thanks, Eduardo!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    a throaty language

    The sounds is all guttural do you understand.

  2. Always good to hear from the Plain People of Ireland!

  3. I was hoping to read that through efforts to publicize the situation, they’d stumbled onto another speaker, even someone who only remembered a few words. Revival will be tough, but best of luck to them.

  4. For what it’s worth, Misia jalaná: Una frase Charrúa a la luz de los nuevos datos de la lengua Chaná, is a brief, interesting paper presenting a hypothesis linking Chaná and Charrúa, which you can find linked here.

  5. @ David Eddyshaw,

    That line made me irrationally angry after a friend sent me the article. Initially I figured there was some interesting phonological system that the author had mangledly described, but no, here I copy the phonology listing of its Wikipedia page:

    Consonant phonemes
    Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
    Nasal m n ɲ
    Stop p b t d tʃ k g ʔ
    Fricative s ʃ ʒ (x) h
    Glide w j
    Lateral l
    Trill r
    Flap ɾ

    Monophthong vowel phonemes
    Front Central Back
    Close i u
    Mid e o
    Open a

    You can apparently say anything you want about languages in the NYT and no editor will do even basic fact checking

  6. The article goes so far as to have an audio recording of a song in the language that makes it clear the claim isn’t even impressionistically true.

  7. The following is one of many interesting things found in J. Pedro Viegas Barros (2016) ‘El desarrollo de una metodología para la validación de datos de lenguas en estado crítico: el caso Chaná’ (available here):

    2.7. Posibles préstamos al castellano rural entrerriano

    Hasta el momento, hay un único caso de una palabra del castellano rural enterriano que puede ser un préstamo del chaná:

    (61) castellano rural entrerriano (Muñoz, 2010: 110) manatí ‘un arbusto, Grabowskia duplicata’ : chaná (B) banatí ug beádaʔó — frecuentemente abreviado a banatí — ‘árbol, arbusto’.

    El término manatí, como dendrónimo, no parece encontrarse en ningún otro dialecto del castellano. Dado que una de las lenguas indígenas entrerrianas es el chaná, nada obsta para que el origen de forma pueda encontrarse — eventualmente — en una lengua indígena, más precisamente del como esta forma es similar a una registrada en el chaná de don Blas, sería de origen chaná.

    La documentación, en la variedad vernácula del castellano, de una palabra de aparente origen chaná sólo registrada en los datos proporcionados por don Blas es un indicio más acerca de la confiabilidad general del material lingüístico proporcionado por este consultante.

  8. a throaty language spoken by barely moving the lips or tongue
    The only charitable explanation for this I can think of is that this is somehow linked to Don Blas’s mother teaching him the language in secret, mostly in whispers…

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal really is “a throaty language”, in the sense that it has contrastive vowel glottalisation. I can’t say that it actually gives any particular acoustic impression of throatiness, though. But then, I’m used to hearing RP English, so I might not notice …

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    There is actual variation among languages in how much of a role the lips play in pronunciation; Japanese, for example, has less of this than English in both vowels and consonants, and there are some Iroquois languages which lack labial consonants altogether. There are even languages which lack any rounded vowels.

    I suppose a language involves relatively less tongue movement if it has a preponderance of /a/ vowels.

    However, none of these things actually appears to be true of Chaná, as far as I can see.

  11. If you want to hear a bit of what this language sounds like:

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Chaná lan “tongue” fits the pattern of “tongue” words beginning with alveolars nicely.

    Of course, it could be a loan from Moba lánm̂ (plural lánî) “tongue.” Long-rangers are fond of words for “tongue” …

  13. If you want to hear a bit of what this language sounds like

    Thanks! After the first couple of minutes it’s all in Spanish, but it’s great to hear that bit.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Weren’t there two comments by Xerib last night? I’m sure I saw one linking to a paper on a possible genetic relationship.

  15. There are none by him in moderation or the spam folder; are you sure you’re not thinking of another thread? Or maybe you were seeing double when you read the comment that’s there now?

  16. Trond Engen says

    No problem. WP on Charruan languages seems to compile what little is known.

    Just glancing through the list of languages and language names gives some ideas of phonological processes.

    Edit: The comment is there, and it’s by Ryan. Sorry to both.

  17. In the paper by J. Pedro Viegas Barros that I linked to above, there are some comparisons of Güenoa, Chaná, and Charrúa items that are not mentioned in the Wikipedia article. (See section 2.3. Comparación con las lenguas emparentadas.)

  18. David Marjanović says

    a throaty language spoken by barely moving the lips or tongue.

    Very guttural languages, the German, the Russian and the Chaná…

    I suspect this is about endolabial rounding and laminal instead of apical alveolars (no contrast with Spanish, but a very noticeable contrast with English).

    Before Mr. Jaime revealed his knowledge of Chaná, the last known record of the language was in 1815

    So… that’s impressive.

  19. So… that’s impressive.

    Yeah, when I saw that I said “I’ve got to post this.”

  20. John Cowan says

    Japanese, for example, has less of this than English

    Depends on which English. My mother (native German speaker from Thuringia) described American English as “the language you speak without moving your mouth”. I am not a ventriloquist, but I can speak quite fluently without moving my lips at all, using the following substitutions: /p/ > /k/, /b/ > /k/, /f/ > /h/, /v/ > /ɦ/ ), /m/ > /n/, /w/ > /j/ (any of these can be replaced by /ʔ/ or zero). Examples are “grain in a ɦat”, “caker clates”, “mooing kyickly”, “yatch yitch syitch he kulls an’ nenorize its location” (Heinlein).

  21. >I can speak quite fluently without moving my lips at all

    Perhaps, but whatever you’re speaking, it’s not American English.

  22. Allan from Iowa says

    James Blish in one of the Cities in Flight novels, not Robert Heinlein.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Fits in this thread only loosely but does involve endangered (tho’ not believed-extinct) language and South America. Last night I saw a performance by the Brazilian jazz singer Carla Berg, who is now California-based but grew up in Sao Paolo in a family of mostly Sephardim who had immigrated to Brazil from the Middle East. During the pandemic she suddenly felt the urge for whatever motives to start writing songs with lyrics in Ladino, which was not a language she actually knew with any competence. (I think it was the common pattern of at least some grandparents were fluent, but her parents knew scattered words and phrases but couldn’t actually carry a conversation in it.) But thanks to the internet she found some nice diasporic Ladino-revivalist lady somewhere in Texas who sort of walked her through it (maybe she did a first draft in some mix of Spanish and Portuguese and the lady helped her turn it into idiomatic Ladino?). Here’s one such song, for which she did a (shot in San Diego) video: I’m not sure that she did this particular song and most of the set was jazzy numbers with lyrics in either Portuguese or occasional English, with the Ladino as a little variation toward the end.

  24. Yes, Blish, sorry.

    I’d characterize it as “American English with a speech defect, but still quite recognizable.”

  25. My mother described American English as “the language you speak without moving your mouth”.

    From my kinda SAE L1 POV, I can see how someone would describe AmE thus, due to the lack of strongly rounded vowels.

  26. John Cowan says

    The essence of it (and I should have said as much) is not the substitutions for labial consonants, but the fact that I don’t have to make any other changes.

  27. David Marjanović says

    using the following substitutions:

    …That’s similar to how I speak when I have a toothbrush in my mouth.

  28. There’s a funny scene in the Beatles “Get Back” documentary where John and Paul sing “Two of Us” without moving their lips. (Sorry — couldn’t find a link to a video clip).

Speak Your Mind