Word similarities suggest relationship between Amazonian languages

Main Point:

Language from remote Colombian Amazon group likely related to Yurí linguistic family.

Published in:


Study Further:

The Carabayo language, spoken by a group living in voluntary isolation in the Amazon, may descend from Yurí, a likely extinct regional language, according to a study published April 16, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Frank Seifart from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Juan Alvaro Echeverri from Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Yurí, a language spoken by a group in the Amazon, was documented in the 19th century, but has been thought to have since become extinct.

With the accelerating loss of indigenous languages, it becomes increasingly difficult to study pre-colonial Amazonian languages. The Carabayo people live in isolation in the Colombian Amazon, and documentation of their language is limited to a set of only about 50 words, most without reliable translations, collected in 1969 during a brief encounter with one Carabayo family. To better understand this little-known language, scientists evaluated the relationship between the Carabayo language and 6 languages previously documented but now extinct from the region.

The comparison revealed that a number of Carabayo word forms matched corresponding Yurí word forms, but none matched forms of the other five languages. Researchers identified four Carabayo forms that match corresponding Yurí forms: a first person singular prefix, and words for ‘warm,’ ‘boy,’ and ‘father,’ in addition to a more hypothetical match of the interjection ‘well!’ The authors suggest that the Carabayo people may speak a language related to Yurí that may have directly or indirectly descended from the Yurí language that travelers encountered in the 19th century.

The authors add that the suggested corresponding elements between Carabayo and Yurí involve some speculation due to the scarcity of information on the Carabayo and Yurí people.

Dr. Seifart added, “Our meticulous study of the very scarce material on the Carabayo language contributes to putting this language back on the map, and to placing another language, Tikuna, back in a linguistic family, of which it had been presumed to be the only surviving member. We hope that this study will also contribute to awareness of the existence of groups that avoid contact and especially of their right to be left in peace”


Seifart F, Echeverri JA (2014) Evidence for the Identification of Carabayo, the Language of an Uncontacted People of the Colombian Amazon, as Belonging to the Tikuna-Yurí Linguistic Family. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94814. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094814, http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0094814

Financial Disclosure:

The authors have no support or funding to report.

Competing Interest Statement:

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Frank Seifart, frank_seifart@eva.mpg.de, Ph: ++31 6 37172346


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