The Yurakaré language is spoken by the people of the same name (also Yuracaré, Yurucare, Yurujure) who form a small indigenous group that lives in the foothill area of the Andes in central Bolivia (see Geography). There are no reliable figures to date for the number of speakers (claims by different authors range from 200 to over 3,000), but most estimates revolve around 2,500 speakers. The Yurakaré have sometimes been considered to be divided in two “sub-groups” (D’Orbigny 1839, Métraux 1942), which are now viewed by some as dialect groups (Gordon, ed. 2005, see also www.ethnologue.com) but this is an error that needs to be revised. Ethnohistorical research shows that the Yurakaré people are a homogenous group culturally and linguistically (see People and Culture). Even though there are slight local variations between the communities of speakers, these differences do not permit an internal dialectal classification.


Most scholars that have studied the area have classified Yurakaré as a separate isolated language (Chamberlain 1931, Rivet & Loukotka 1952, McQuown 1955, Loukotka 1968). There have been other authors, however, who have claimed that Yurakaré belongs to a larger family. Swadesh (1959, 1962) considered Yurakaré to be part of the Macro-Quechuan network, including inter alia neighboring languages such as Quechua, Itonama, Mosetén, and Cayuvava. Greenberg (1987) and Key (1979) classify Yurakaré as an equatorial language, in the Andean-Equatorial stock, along with, among others, Cayuvava, Arawak, and Tupi languages. Suárez (1974) links Yurakaré to Mosetén (something which had been suggested by Métraux in a personal comment to Mason 1950:275) and Chon languages, as well as to Pano-Tacanan in a stock he calls Macro-Pano-Tacanan. None of the attempts to link Yurakaré to other languages have been convincing so far.
Yurakaré is spoken in between two large linguistic and cultural areas generally recognized as the Andean area and the Amazonian area. Recently, two linguistic survey books of these areas have been published: Dixon & Aikhenvald, eds. (1999) on Amazonian languages and Adelaar, with Muysken (2004) on Andean languages. For Dixon & Aikhenvald, Yurakaré falls outside of the boundaries of what they consider to be the Amazonian area; Adelaar and Muysken give some attention to Yurakaré precisely because Dixon & Aikhenvald do not. Nevertheless, they consider Yurakaré to fall outside the Andean area proper as well. This position in between these two large areas, as well as the close proximity of Yurakaré to the Chaco languages (Guaycurú, Zamuco) towards Paraguay and a number of (nearly) isolate languages (Mosetén/Chimane, Movima, Cayubaba, Canichana, Itonama, and others extinct since more than three centuries like Gorgotoqui and Rache) makes it all the more pertinent to study the language in detail, since it might shed light on the complicated linguistic and historical situation of the area.

Situation of the language

The Yurakaré language is in danger of becoming extinct (cf. www.tooyoo.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp). Even though no definitive statement with regard to the degree of endangerment can be made with reference to the number of speakers only, it is generally recognized that it is “an immediate index for [the] endangered situation [of a language]” (Yamamoto 1997, cited in Crystal 2000:14). If one takes into account the ‘threshold number’ of 100.000 speakers or more for a language to be safe suggested by Michael Krauss (cf. Nettle & Romaine 2000:8), it is clear that the estimated 2,500 speakers of Yurakaré suggest an endangered situation. However, number of speakers is only one of the criteria to establish the level of endangerment and should be combined with a review of other factors of influence on the endangerment status of a language.
An important criterion is the language use across generations within a speech community. This is in fact the most important criterion used by Wurm (1991:192) in his five-level distinction of endangered languages. Seen from this perspective, the situation of Yurakaré is particularly worrying: in almost all parts where Yurakaré is spoken one can observe a dramatic break in transmission which took place about 15 to 20 years ago. The youngest generation has a (mostly weak) passive knowledge of the language, but they no longer speak it. Parents usually converse with them in Spanish. Furthermore, even within the group of 20-30 year olds, speakers have a tendency to use Spanish rather than Yurakaré, also within groups of Yurakaré speakers. In all age groups there is a clear tendency to shift to another language if the situation requires it, i.e. when a non-Yurakaré speaker is present, thus reducing the use of Yurakaré more and more to intimate and family-related contexts. The Yurakaré often share their settlements with people from other ethnic and social groups, such as the Andean “campesinos”, who are Quechua- and Spanish-speaking, and the “Mojeños”, often speakers of Trinitario (Arawak), but more and more monolingual Spanish-speakers. Due to these facts, the situations where Yurakaré is not used in interaction become increasingly dominant, and the role of Spanish as a lingua franca of the area grows. If necessary, Yurakaré speakers will learn other indigenous languages as well, as is the case with those who have close contacts with the Chimane (in the National Park TIPNIS and along the Maniqui rivier), where Yurakaré people often learn the tongue of their indigenous neighbors.
The break in transmission, as well as the tendency to use the language in fewer domains probably has to do with a further important criterion with regard to language loss: self esteem, language attitude and identity (cf. Grenoble & Whaley 1998: ix). The self esteem of the Yurakaré Indians in is very low. Several reasons can be suggested to account for this situation. One of them is the long-term and overtly expressed contempt by the mestizo-criollo population of Bolivia of the marginal Yurakaré culture, including their language. The Yurakaré were often designated, together with their neighbors the Yuqui, with terms such as “savages” or “barbarians”. Thankfully, the use of such terminology is currently diminishing. But the wish, especially of younger Yurakaré, to escape from the negative stereotypes associated with their ethnic identity, can surely to a large extent explain the fact that they decide to break with an overt marker of that identity: the use of their language.

Previous studies of the language.

The collection of studies of the Yurakaré language to date are, as is often the case in Latin America, mostly due to the efforts of missionary workers, Catholic first, then also Protestant. The pioneer of the linguistic studies on Yurakaré is Franciscan Father Lacueva (also La Cueva) who spent almost two decades living among the Yurakaré Indians, between the end of the 18th century and the 1820s. He collected a large amount of material, mostly lexicographic, which the naturalist Alcide D’Orbigny picked up during his travels in Bolivia. Lacueva’s manuscripts remained unpublished for a long time, until they were ‘rediscovered’ by Brinton (1891), after which French publisher Adam (1893) decided to publish them. Today, this publication still serves as a valuable reference work, not only because of its amplitude but also because of the precision of Lacueva’s work, especially considering the fact that Lacueva did not have any linguistic training. Another missionary worker that participated in the last Franciscan attempt to convert the Yurakaré Indians (1904-1920) produced a short grammatical sketch of the Yurakaré language, very much based on the grammar of Latin (Lasinger 1915). During the second half of the 20th century, the missionary workers of the New Tribes Mission, headed by Marge Day, took up an interest for the Yurakaré language. They managed to translate portions of the Bible into Yurakaré, produced a manual for future missionaries to learn Yurakaré (New Tribes Mission, n.d.) and made an excellent bilingual Yurakaré-Spanish, Spanish-Yurakaré dictionary (New Tribes Mission 1991). Both these latter products are mainly meant for internal use, and have had, up to now, a limited distribution.
Outside the religious sphere, there have been very few publications with relevant language data for the study of the Yurakaré language. Among the wordlists collected, the most important are the ones compiled long ago by the naturalist Haenke at the end of the 18th century (Gicklhorn 1962-1963), von Holten (1877), and Bolivian traveller and naturalist Del Castillo (1929), and finally recently by Querejazu (2005). The dictionary produced by Julio Ribera, together with native speakers Walter Rivero and Asencio Rocha (Ribera, Rivero & Rocha 1991) is the only lexicographic work not produced in a context of religious conversion, that can approximate to the quality of the work done by the missionaries. In the modern academic context, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that first-hand data of the Yurakaré language were published: Van Gijn (2004, 2005, 2006).
In the near future, more publications about the language, or with a strong linguistic influence can be expected: Hirtzel (in prep.) will be a detailed ethnographic account of identity construction among the Yurakaré, with a central place for the language and its use. Van Gijn & Hirtzel (forthc.) is a usage-based dictionary, which will contain many example sentences as well as anthropological and grammatical information. Apart from these foreseen publications, a number of papers are planned by the members of the team about specific aspects of the language.


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