Production of a lexicon (Spanish-Pisamira) and audio files of oral tradition stories in Pisamira:

an endangered language of the Eastern Tukanoan subfamily


Iveth Rodríguez

Universidad del Valle / Cali-Colombia


Pisamira language, a member of the Eastern Tukanoan subfamily, is spoken by a reduced group settled in Yacayacá, a small village located along the Vaupés River in Colombia. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, this language is critically endangered having only 25 speakers. Nevertheless, recent ethnographic information collected during my last field trip reveals that the number of speakers reported by the UNESCO is currently much more reduced. I report a number of 58 Pisamira members whereas there are barely 12 active speakers living in Yacayacá ?a single family consisting on seven adults and five kids? who use the language in all contexts and situations.


Historically, this group (as has been the case for many groups in the Colombian Amazon region) has faced many socio-cultural changes due to a large extent of evangelical missions, rubber and mining exploitation, drug traffic, guerrillas? invasion, among others.


Undoubtedly, this reality has meant a devastating reduction on the number of groups and group members ?as the case of Pisamira? as well as the loss of their language, their ancestral knowledge and an enormous change in their sociocultural practices. For example, they no longer live in malokas or the ancestral communal longhouses. Instead of that, they have built small houses where they live only with the nuclear family which has produced the loss of the traditional practices that used to take place in the maloka. 


In fact, the elders remember have lived in the last maloka of Pisamiras ?located in their ancestral land called ɰãˈʧĩnãˌbuɾo? between the basins of caño Pindaíba and caño Pacú.  They recall that the longhouse was the core of some traditional collective rituals such as story-telling, festivals and ceremonies; all of those activities have been disappearing over the years due to the dispersal of the group. 


Regarding the sociolinguistic context, Pisamiras live in the multilingual area of Vaupés and they participate in the marriage system of linguistic exogamy. Before moving to Yacayacá, they used to live closer to Yurutí people and both of them used to intermarry; as a result, they would speak Pisamira, Yurutí, Siriano and other languages of the closer groups. Nowadays, this has enormously changed considering that they live surrounded mainly by Cubeos with whom they have established new marriage relationships. Since Cubeo language is dominant on the region, most of Pisamira families have neglected their own language and they only use Cubeo in the everyday life; this is understandable taking into account that they constitute a minority group. Still, they acknowledge understanding Pisamira but not speaking it or teaching it to their children. Therefore, the critical endangerment of Pisamira language, as well as the lack of effectiveness of the speakers to transmit it to the new generations  raise the need for an urgent documentation work before this language ?the only means to transmit their culture? goes silent.


Ancient longhouses used to be the dwelling of the groups in the Vaupés. 

Maloka Ipanoré ?Mitú.

Small houses have replaced the traditional maloka being the home only for the nuclear family. Félix Londoño?s house-Yacayacá.  




Pisamira is a poorly documented language; there is neither a grammar nor a dictionary and the only available study attempting to describe it is definitely sketchy.  With this in mind, in August 2011 I began fieldwork in the community of Yacayacá, the only home of the Pisamira people, as a part of the research for my BA project whose main objective is to describe the nominal morphology of the language. During my fieldwork, I had the good fortune of interacting with all Pisamiras living in Yacayacá.  The consultants I worked with were very skilled due to their earlier experience working with linguists. 


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Elicitation session with Martín Londoño, one of the most skilled consultants living in Yacayacá.


Alexander and Martín Londoño describing objects in their language.

On the one hand, Martín Londoño worked with a linguist from Instituto Caro y Cuervo and from his work resulted the only study about Pisamira language published in 2000: Bases para el estudio de la lengua Pisamira.  On the other hand, Félix Londoño as a teacher has a lot of experience, and he has also worked with some linguists of the Summer Institute of Linguistics when the missionaries have tried to develop didactic materials to teach languages in the indigenous schools of the Vaupés. Finally, the elder Gabriel Madero is an authority on the language and he is the bearer of all the traditional stories and tales about the group. His family is recognized for having more children than any other Pisamira family and for being the only ?out of the four Pisamira families? that uses the language every day. 


While conducting my research, I noticed the active participation of the speakers in the sessions of elicitation, as well as a great interest in keeping the recordings and the transcriptions in order to share them with other Pisamiras who do not speak the language. Both Martín and Félix Londoño remarked that they never received neither feedback nor the final results from the earlier projects they had participated with SIL and Instituto Caro y Cuervo. Thus, they wanted to have copies of the materials I was gathering about their language and culture. Pisamira active speakers constantly expressed the need to stimulate language learning and use among those who do not speak, especially children who only use Cubeo or Tucano as their first language. 


Indeed, Pisamira elders fear the possibility that all their knowledge, including the language, may be lost when they are gone. For that reason they were very motivated by the fact that their language was being written down and they even tried to write some anecdotes using the Spanish alphabet and adapting it to the sounds of their own language.  The data I have collected during my fieldtrips represent the largest existing amount of recordings of the Pisamira language and culture with linguistic and ethnohistorical purposes. In addition to the linguistic aspects of my research I was also interested in collecting cultural, historical and ethnographic information about the group.  I have collected information about every Pisamira family, their marriage relationships with other Tukanoan groups, their degree of multilingualism and their educational level.


After my first fieldtrip, I made copies of some of the audio recordings and I personally handed them to the leaders from the Pisamira community.  With the GBS support, I have planned to prepare a selected compilation in audio and video with Pisamira?s stories and, at the same time, a booklet with an organized lexicon that has resulted from my fieldtrips. These materials will be put in the elementary school of the community and will be distributed to each Pisamira family. 

The GBS-funded project

The main goal of this proposal was to produce a lexicon Spanish-Pisamira and to create an archive of audio and video with a compilation of traditional stories to be available for Pisamira people in their community.  In order to do so, I needed to carry out a 4th fieldtrip that was initially planned for early January 2013, but due to an unexpected situation it was delayed so I could finally travel to Yacayacá in March 2013 where I worked for a month with Pisamiras; translating some of the stories and gathering additional linguistic, ethnographic and sociolinguistic data. 


Pisamira speakers were very enthusiastic about the idea of creating the lexicon and gave me some ideas of how they would like the booklet to be organized. The elders suggested that it should contain some pictures and illustrations in order to show the way their reality is represented and I agreed that I was a good idea. I took some pictures of their traditional crafts and foods, elements of subsistence and daily life activities.  Currently, the lexicon is being prepared, the audio and video files are being put on edited DVDs; so by the beginning of May 2013 the booklet will be printed and sent ?along with the DVDs? to the community.


The materials produced with the support of the GBS are intended mainly to fulfill the needs and interests of the speakers to have access to the data collected and it is a personal hope that this materials will serve to stimulate language learning and use among Pisamira members who are not active speakers.


The GBS grant provided fieldwork funding including all the expenses for compensating the consultants who worked with me during the month I stayed in the community, the costs of producing the materials and distribution fees. The funds considered by the grant have been spent as follows: 


Fieldwork Expenses

  • Transportation (Round trip)


? 510

  • Consultants? Compensation - Translators? (other consultants) compensation

? 400

Subtotal: ? 910

Materials Production Fees (In preparation)

  • Materials production (booklet, CDs and DVDs- around 50 copies)

? 450

  • Distribution fees

? 80

Subtotal: ? 530

TOTAL: ? 1.440


I am grateful to the Pisamira people from whom I have learnt not only their language but many of their ancestral traditions, stories about their origins and material culture.  Working with them has meant a great opportunity for me to enrich my academic experience in documenting an endangered language and it will eventually contribute to further studies on Eastern Tukanoan languages and culture. On behalf of the Pisamira people I want to thank the invaluable support of the Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Sprachen because without this grant such important project would not have been possible.



Ardila, O. (1989). Diversidad Lingüística y multilingüísmo en los grupos Tucano del Vaupés. Forma y Función, N° 4, p. 23-34. Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Departamento de Lingüística.

González, M. (1997). ¿Se extingue ?la gente de red?, su lengua y su cultura? Condiciones sociales de la lengua Pisamira. En Pachón, X. & Correa, F. Lenguas Amerindias: Condiciones Socio-lingüísticas en Colombia. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

_____________ (2000). Bases para el estudio de la lengua Pisamira. En M. S. González de Pérez & M. L. Rodríguez de Montes (eds.). Lenguas Indígenas de Colombia. Una visión descriptiva.  Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

Pineda, R. (2000). El Derecho a la Lengua. Una historia de la política lingüística en Colombia. Estudios Antropológicos N° 4. Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes.

Sorensen, A. P. (1967). Multilingualism in the Northwest Amazon. American Anthropologist, 69: 670?684. American Anthropological Association.

UNESCO. Atlas of the World?s Languages in Danger. (2012, Febrero 13)                                                                                                                      



Additional Photographs




Dabucurí festival is the celebration of the abundance of food.



Traditionally body/face painting is used for the festivals






Pisamira dancer preparing the instruments for the festival


Carrizo dancing in the ?dabucurí? festival 




Martín Londoño taught me the techniques for making the traditional strainers

Pisamiras still preserve the ancestral knowledge of making some crafts and elements of subsistence





Some of the instructions and techniques for making elements of their material culture were videotaped and will be included in the DVD


The name of the group comes from this fishing net called ?pisá? in lingua Geral