The Race to Save Iskonawa.

Simeon Tegel has a good Washington Post story (archived) about a linguist and his informant:

It’s a ritual that Roberto Zariquiey and Nelita Campos have engaged in for more than a decade. The odd couple — Zariquiey, a university linguist conducting postdoctoral research at Harvard; Campos, the last lucid speaker of her Indigenous language — sit at the roughhewn kitchen table of her raised cabin, overlooking a muddy stream in the village of Callería, deep in the Peruvian Amazon.

“You complain a lot,” Zariquiey teases Campos.

“No, you’re the one that never stops complaining,” cracks back Campos, barefoot, with long jet-black hair that defies her 75 or so years.

Zariquiey, a 44-year-old professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, is slowly extracting the Iskonawa language from Campos. He fires off questions, listens attentively to the answers and meticulously writes down all the details Campos can share: The vocabulary, grammar and syntax of one of the world’s most endangered languages. Throughout, the pair, who have built an unlikely mother-son relationship, joke incessantly.

Over time, Campos, who communicates with Zariquiey in both Iskonawa and Spanish, has managed to share much of this frequently onomatopoeic tongue from the Panoan family of languages of the Western Amazon. It’s heavy with polysemy — words with multiple meanings — and notable for allowing users to stack multiple verbs one atop the other. […]

Campos’s story, and that of Iskonawa, is a complex one. At the tribe’s demographic peak, it might have numbered a few thousand. The population is thought to have plummeted during the 19th and 20th centuries as members retreated deeper into the rainforest to escape the rubber boom and the enslavers who drove it. By 1959, when American missionaries convinced the Iskonawa to settle in a village where they could be evangelized, there were around 100 left.

For Campos, who was around 10 at the time, that seismic change marked the end of a childhood lived “naked” and “happy.” She was made to give up her Iskonawa name, Nawa Niká, and her native tongue. With her children and grandchildren, she speaks Spanish.

That was until six decades later, at the other end of her life, when this white stranger showed up. Instead of sneering at her language, Zariquiey told her it was beautiful and valuable. And more: He asked if she would work with him to preserve it.

“When he offered, and said he would write it down, I almost didn’t accept,” Campos says. “But now it gives me such happiness when I hear the recordings of my voice and see that the children want to learn.” […]

“What’s messed up is that most of the claims about human cognition, the psychology of Homo sapiens, are based on a very homogenous sample of human beings,” Zariquiey says. “There is this very big bias toward languages with similar characteristics, because all European languages, except Basque, come from the same common ancestor, and have generated similar patterns, which we think of as being universal but which aren’t, or at least haven’t really been proven to be so.”

That view challenges the prevailing thinking in modern linguistics, promoted most notably by MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky, whose universal grammar theory posits that our hardware — the human brain — strictly limits the parameters of any possible language. Others hold that the software — the language itself — is far more malleable and responds to the environment.

Underlying that abstract debate are some fundamental questions about human nature. How do we acquire and process language? Does the language you speak determine how you think? And do we really know all that the human brain is capable of?

Field linguists, such as Zariquiey, argue that we have barely scratched the surface of these profound puzzles. One example that appears to support that view is some Australian Aborigines’s instinctive knowledge of the cardinal points without need of a compass. […]

Zariquiey has created several Iskonawa vocabulary apps using Campos’s voice. They’ve become hugely popular in Callería. He has also launched a language school, where during his monthly visits, he teaches spellbound youngsters basic phrases from their ancestral tongue. “Everyone thinks this language is obsolete, primitive or irrelevant, but when you see it on your cellphone, it changes that perception,” Zariquiey says.

Much more at the link; I always enjoy this kind of story, and this is a particularly well-written one. Thanks, Eric and Bonnie!


  1. I have a linguistic comment, albeit one not related to the endangered Iskonawa in any way. Instead, it’s about academic terminology. Someone who is a “professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru” is not doing “postdoctoral” research. Either he is not really a professor in the relevant sense (which may be the case; I know nothing about the possible adjunctification of Catholic universities in South America), or he is not at the postdoctoral career stage. (In my own case, the research I did after my Ph. D. could only be called “postdoctoral” until I started my faculty position in 2007.)

  2. John Cowan says

    all European languages, except Basque, come from the same common ancestor

    Well, no.

    Someone who is a “professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru” is not doing “postdoctoral” research.

    I think he began his work as a Harvard postdoc but is now officially a “Faculty Member” (in English) at his Spanish-language page at PUCP. Another source gives his title as “senior lecturer”.

  3. It’s nicely meant in some ways, cringey in others. “Extract” suggests teeth, or gold-mining. I would ignore that cringe as oversensitivity of mine, but then the writer goes on to say “As these ways of speaking disappear, some linguists say, so, too, do ways of thinking. At risk are vital clues to unlock mysteries of human evolution, neurology, even medical science.” In other words, the foremost bad thing about linguistic extinction is the loss of data to Western scientists (and to the Westerners who read about their work in places like the Post.) That is cultural extraction! Only then the writer goes on to talk about the extractee—the speaker herself—and how she feels about her language. Then, back to a talking head, the head of the Endangered Languages Archive in Berlin, and back to the Western comfort zone: “Intriguingly, many of these Indigenous languages offer linguists, whose discipline bleeds into fields from anthropology and paleoarchaeology to neuroscience and philosophy, potentially far more promising lines of inquiry than the major Indo-European tongues”, and onwards to the tenuous connection with drug discovery based on ethnographic knowledge. Finally, a little bit about the speaker’s family, for a spot of dessert.

    Feh. The 19th century is so over.

    I find this recent blog entry much more interesting and pleasant to read: a field linguist writing about learning how another Amazonian language uses ideophones. The video and audio are especially fun.

  4. Well, Senior Lecturer is a faculty title, equivalent to the US’s Assistant Professor (source: it me).

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    If I’m understanding it correctly, he’s on a year-long Harvard research fellowship at the moment, so I don’t know exactly what that makes him. I can see potential similarities to post-doctoral research posts, although it’s presumably not exactly the same.

  6. David Eddyshaw says


    Well, there’s nothing wrong with looking at “exotic” languages in the hope of gaining insights into the nature of Language, or indeed into human nature in general, and presumably the main point of all this stuff in the context of a WaPo story is to head off the question “what’s the point of studying a language spoken by just one person?” – a perfectly sensible question which is also asked by speakers of small languages themselves, who often see no point in teaching them to their own children.

    I was more annoyed at all this sub-Sapir-Whorf “as these ways of speaking disappear, some linguists say, so, too, do ways of thinking. At risk are vital clues to unlock mysteries of human evolution, neurology, even medical science.” To be fair, this sort of thing seems to be required by the genre (“explaining the value of studying obscure languages to lay people”), and there’s a grain of truth in it, but it’s grotesquely overstated.

    What is really damaging to the effort to understand People is the loss of “exotic” cultures. I would be the first to insist that culture and language are intimately linked, but this linkage is really at the level of pragmatics, semantics and to some extent lexicon, and not really at all syntax, still less morphology or phonology. And the interest to linguists qua linguists of exotic languages is in their possibly unusual syntax etc. Efforts to show that such low-level grammatical features correlate with culture at all are uniformly ludicrous. Think of the pitiful nonsense about whether your language has a “future tense” and how it correlates with your capacity for foresight, saving strategies etc … (Sapir himself skewers such misconceptions mercilessly in his Language.)

    For example, with the non-exotic* language Kusaal, I have been spurred to think more deeply about Eurocentric ideas like “soul” by the fact that the language has (or had, prior to Christian missionary activity) no word meaning anything much like “soul” at all, reflecting a radically different traditional cultural view of what constitutes a human being.

    On the other hand, the fact that Kusaal has six different clitics realised as zero has not caused me to revise my essential worldview particularly deeply at all.

    Nor is the fact that Hixkaryana does too have OVS default word order in main clauses of any profound philosophical significance (apart from being yet another demonstration of the folly of overgeneralising from inadequate evidence.)

    * More speakers than Welsh (even.)

  7. @Jen in Edinburgh: Harvard employs a large number of people with short-term research appointments, all known as “fellows.” The junior fellows are post-docs, mostly. However, Harvard being Harvard, it attracts a lot of senior academics on sabbatical and illustrious people from outside academia as well, who form a very different class of senior fellows.

    @David Eddyshaw: My favorite quote on preserving a variety of cultures comes from Terrt Pratchett’s best novel, Strata:

    People had always dreamed of a unified world. We thought it would be a richer one. It wasn’t. It meant that the Eskimo got educated and learned cost accountancy, but it didn’t mean that the German learned to hunt whales with a spear. It meant everyone learned how to press buttons, and no one remembered how to dive for pearls.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Grauniad article on this theme just today:

    Distinctly more sensible than most, in fact, and Riehl’s linked article on makes the perfectly valid point that language loss correlates extremely well with cultural loss, and that a deliberate assault on a minority language by a state is often part and parcel of an attempt to eradicate its culture, which is what the State really wants to destroy.

    Though I think it gets cause and effect confused:

    Lulamogi speakers in Uganda, for example, worry that as people forget the dozens of terms that describe methods of trapping and eating white ants—such as okukunia, okutegerera, and okubuutira—they will forget this important cultural practice.

    I doubt whether it is forgetting the words which causes the forgetting of the practice. This is essentially a superstitious view of language.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    On the other hand, the fact that Kusaal has six different clitics realised as zero has not caused me to revise my essential worldview particularly deeply at all.

    You are right to be sceptical about zeroes. It just occurs to me: could it be that they are hiding “hidden parameters” ? The outward and cognitive signs of inward and cognitive non-zeroes ?

    How to find hidden parameters in Oracle.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Using undocumented parameters without the consent of Oracle can make your system unsupported and you may be on your own if you experience data corruption. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

    In the same way, positing zero morphs in your language description may lead to widespread language extinction and mockery on YouTube.

  11. To be fair, this sort of thing seems to be required by the genre (“explaining the value of studying obscure languages to lay people”),

    Oh yes. (not exactly “studying” though)

  12. and there’s a grain of truth in it, but it’s grotesquely overstated.

    A langauge is a lot. I think there is a more general question: the value of an individual (person or anything else) for understanding the world. When you have only one language, person, book, she/it is everything.
    But there are zillions.

    Some will say, adding one more individual changes little.

  13. @Y, but it is another article about why do we need languages. And I don’t have an answer.

    Western linguistics thinks what you said. Did not the journalist just honestly try to do her job? Even if you expect more from him, we I think shold not expect less from linguists…
    I remembered an article that I read recently.

    WP Al-Akhdam
    “The social inequality of the Al-Akhdam is also analysed by Anne Meneley from a gendered perspective. Indeed, in Yemeni society, women have a certain number of practices to respect in order to be considered pious in the eyes of society. These practices are, among others, a certain behavior to be respected such as wearing the veil or a way of socializing and maintaining relationships. Women from the elite are linked to power and contribute to reproducing the relations of dominance that are exercised towards the Akhdams. In the eyes of the elite, Akhdam women are not respectable because they do not have acceptable moral behavior. They do not wear chador but, instead, they wear colorful gowns with wide sleeves and they go to the suq to sell goods even though the suq is supposed to be a place for men only. All these inappropriate behaviors, according to the dominant class, accentuate the domination of this class by opposing the respectable and pious elite and the Akhdams women who do not wear the veil and are morally inferior.[16]”

    So I opened the article of Anne Meneley in question. And… she almost did not spoke to this community. She was hanging with the community that she describes as “elite” and… they did not want her to communicate with servants. She would have broken numerous social norms if she did.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Just on the languages-threatened-by-rising-sea-levels angle, it strikes me that we really have no good idea what languages were spoken let’s say 9,000 years BP by the humans who then lived in what we anachronistically call Doggerland, now at the bottom of the North Sea, or those who lived in whatever you call the area that was then dry land but is now under the northern Adriatic. Perhaps those folks all migrated with languages intact to higher ground that remains dry land to this day, only to have the descendants of those languages (if not their speakers’ bloodlines …) wiped out by subsequent IE-speaking invaders or some earlier wave of different language-shift-promoting invaders; perhaps not — maybe the “highlanders” spoke different languages and the surviving refugees from the flooded areas assimilated to those.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, many more than six thousand languages must have become extinct over the history of humanity.

    The fraction that survive may well be highly unrepresentative of all the human languages that have ever existed (and of course, of those that do survive, we have only really studied a smattering.)

    Fortunately, that clever fellow Chomsky has proven that all these multitudes of irretrievably lost and currently ignored languages were pretty much the same as English anyway in all important respects. (Phew!)

  16. I still believe that the desire* to see rarities (including, but not limited to click consonants) as innovations amounts to treating them (known languages) as representative – and the rest as much the same as English and other known languages in all observed “tendencies”.

    * of course we know nothing, so I’m speaking about emotions.

  17. Rose Eneri says

    Totally unrelated to the original post, my comment is about one of my pet peeves. It is the placement of a modifier far from the word intended to be modified. This can require the reader to re-read and re-analyze the sentence. Such was my case when reading the last sentence of Brett’s comment, “(In my own case, the research I did after my Ph. D. could only be called “postdoctoral” until I started my faculty position in 2007.)”

    could only be called postdoc …? or, could be called postdoc only until…? Just saying.

  18. @Rose Eneri: Honestly, I tried several different locutions, and they all sounded awkward. Eventually, I just had to pick one that seemed somewhat better than some of the others.

  19. David Marjanović says

    I much prefer putting “only” first. That way, the reader knows that the sentence isn’t over yet when it reaches “postdoctoral”.

    But then, I’m coming at this from German, where whatever appears in the second position in a sentence tells you what to expect or not to expect in the last position…

  20. John Cowan says

    In most constructions, only indeed goes next to what it modifies. From this page (so far) we have only then, only one language, for men only, only to have the descendants, only messages signed “languagehat”.

    But when only is adverbial and the focus is on something other than what it modifies, then it goes in the normal adverbial position, namely after the auxiliary verb, or between subject and main verb if there is no auxiliary, or after a form of be if it is the main verb. In Brett’s sentence, the focus is on quoted postdoctoral, so the only belongs in standard adverbial position, viz. could only be, which is exactly where Brett put it. The same is true in only really studied a smattering, which focuses smattering, and you will not only get your purchases, where your purchases is the focus.

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