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Land of winds > The people > Language | Issue 02. Sep.-Oct.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Chipaya language

Chipaya language (chipaj taqo) is currently spoken by an ethnic minority settled in Bolivia known as the Chipaya (see), which are remnants of the ancient “Uru people”. However, the other two groups, the Muratos who live near Poopó Lake, and the Iruitos who are still located on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, speak Aymara for their original languages disappeared during the first half of the 20th century.
There are some two thousand Chipaya speakers spread in rural areas of Carangas and Atahuallpa provinces, in the Oruro Department. These people, concentrated in villages like Santa Ana (north of the Salar de Coipasa), use their own language within their community and have also learnt Spanish and Aymara for social proposes, what enables them to communicate with their neighbours.
A number of linguists assume that there is some sort of link between Chipaya language and ancient Puquina, declared “official language” during the colony period in Alto Peru (though it was never used as such). However, this theory fails to explain the differences observed when comparing both vocabularies. Other scholars have proposed connections to extinct uru or uruquilla (chhiw lusñchi chhun). In the second case, it is believed that both languages would be part of the uru-chipaya linguistic family, though the disappearance of uruquilla prevents researchers from making any comparative study that proves their theory.
All explanations considered, Chipaya would be the only remnant of a numerous and vital group of ancient languages spoken along the basin of Lakes Titicaca-Poopó, which would have included Murato and Iruito.
Chipaya was firstly influenced by Aymara and more recently by Spanish. Linguists estimate that only 67% of its vocabulary is genuinely pure Chipayan, the rest being foreign borrowings.
Early approaches to the language and the people who spoke it took place during the colony period, though the first academic studies were conducted by modern scholars such as Métraux, Vellard and Olson during the last century. Figures like Olson carried out studies on morphology and syntax and produced the first graphemic system. However, he and his successors were expelled from indigenous communities for using the language in a dishonest way for the wrong purpose, that is, favouring evangelization and altering traditional Chipayan customs.
According to recent studies, the language vitality is listed as “vigorous”, though its 1200 speakers may seem a small number. At this point it is important to mention that those speakers are fully aware of the main role played by the language in transmitting their traditions and, at the same time, know that they are the owners of one of the most ancient languages in the Peruvian-Bolivian altiplano. Eminent linguist Rodolfo Cerrón Palomino states in his work “El Chipaya” that the language remains alive “thanks to its speakers’ zeal, whose linguistic loyalty cannot be compared with other Andean peoples through history”.
Chipaya is an agglutinating language with extremely complex sounds: it has thirty-seven consonants, many of which are aspirated, palatal, glottal and fricative, what gives the language a “gloomy”, “profound” and “whistling-like” nuance that was early highlighted by European chroniclers and missionaries.
Its grammatical structure, though having borrowed a number of features from Aymara, still maintains its original organization, which is no less complicated than its pronunciation.
Following there are a number of examples excerpted from Cerrón Palomino’s work:

Wertra amkiztanaki huk’anti thuptki
I (and no other) am stronger than you

Amtrukzti ana wetkiz kriyimtruktra
And you do not believe me

Nuzhullaqam amki am qhuya chertra
You just found your home the same as ever

Niikhu chhizwimi t’antami zheltra
Over there, there is even meat and bread

Qhazhtikiztan zurapan mattatay?
How is it that you were born profoundly deaf?

Chipay taqu zizz pekutra
I want to learn Chipaya language

In the last decades, the Chipayan young people have become professionals in many different fields, and many of them chose Education as a career. In 2000, the first Chipaya language teachers graduated from the Instituto Normal Superior Intercultural Bilingüe “René Barrientos Ortuño”, in Caracollo (Oruro), a number of them with some knowledge in linguistics. Step by step they got a deeper understanding of their ancestors’ language and soon after made the decision to recover their oral tradition and provide the language with a proper alphabet.
This way, they established the Consejo de Implementación de la Lengua Nativa Uru Chipaya (CILNUCH, Uru Native Language Implementation Council) and went to visit the indigenous ayllus (“ayllu” is a Quechua word that refers to a community, tribe or clan) looking for the best Chipayan speakers in order to improve the elaboration of its alphabet. Taking advantage of video cameras and tape recorders, they collected words and expressions that were of much use to deepen their understanding of Chipaya distinctive phonology, morphology, syntax and lexis.
Chipaya was declared official language of Bolivia according to Decreto Supremo 25894 (11-IX-2000) and the Education Ministry is committed to setting language standards and supporting its normalization.
Once the official alphabet have been elaborated, it will be validated by a mixed commission formed by native and specialists, who will be guided through procedural matters by the technical team of the Dirección de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe (DIEB, Bilingual Intercultural Education Office) belonging to the Education Ministry of Bolivia.
Undoubtedly, the young people are the most enthusiastic advocates of chipaj taqo: they expect the language to be spoken at schools as soon as possible and that their work contributes to the preservation and revitalization of oral tradition. With this horizon to aim for and young blood running through the different steps of project, it is possible that Chipaya language maintains its vitality as “vigorous” as today, after centuries of cultural pressure and conspiratorial silence.

Chipaya language, in Wikipedia.
Uru language, in Wikipedia.
El chipaya o la lengua de los hombres del agua. Book by Rodolfo Cerrón Palomino.
Uru Chipayas (La Paz. La Razón) [es].
Bibliography on the Chipaya language. Alain Fabre [es].
The Andean Uru-Chipaya Language (State of Research 2005). Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz.

Video 01. Interview to Rodolfo Cerrón Palomino, introducing the book “El chipaya” [es].
Video 02. Song in Chipaya language.
Video 03. Trailer of a religious movie in Chipaya language.
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