The last of the Mawayana: How things may not really be what they seem

by on June 2, 2015

Once upon a time, a man was killed by a jaguar somewhere in the Amazon forest while he was out hunting. His two brothers decided to seek revenge and went out to look for the jaguar. One night they found him. One of the brothers managed to wound its paw with a club, but the jaguar escaped by climbing up a tree and the brothers had to go home again. The following day an old man was found missing from the village; he had gone out hunting and not returned. When night fell again and he still had not appeared, people started to worry that he too might have fallen prey to the jaguar. Then finally he arrived, walking with a stick, with his leg completely swollen; it turned out that he had been the jaguar all along.

That is part of a legend among the Mawayana, an indigenous people that once lived in the jungle on the border of Brazil and Southern Guyana. They practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting, and spoke Mawayana – a language from the Arawakan language family. The Mawayana firmly believed that appearances may deceive. The jaguar from the legend was actually a human being in the form of a jaguar – what looks like a human may actually be an animal or a spirit that the Mawayana would have said has put on ‘human clothes’. They share this belief with many other peoples in the region, such as the neighbouring Trio who even have a special suffix for this: -me. In Trio a human being is called wïtoto, while something that looks like a human but is really something else is called wïtotome. And since a jaguar is called kaikui, the old man from the story would be said to be kaikuime.

Unfortunately, the biggest danger for the Mawayana turned out not to be something that looked like something else, but something that was not visible to them at all: bacteria. Like all indigenous people from the Americas, the Mawayana were not resistant to many diseases that were brought from across the ocean. As they lived in a relatively isolated place, disease reached them quite late. But once it did, the death toll was so high that there were not enough Mawayana left to form a viable population. Faced with extinction, the survivors eventually opted to join a larger group, the Waiwai. In this they were not unique; in the disease-ravaged Amazon forest many peoples simply joined with others once their numbers had become too small – the Waiwai themselves actually resulted from the merging of several indigenous groups. Now the Mawayana became part of the Waiwai as well. They started living between the Waiwai, identifying as Waiwai, speaking the Waiwai language. Nowadays the Mawayana are barely distinguishable from the rest of the Waiwai, and their language was almost completely forgotten by the time linguists reached the area.

To understand what this means, think of your own native language. Consider the way it sounds, the rhythm, the intonation, the complex system of sounds in which even a small difference in pronunciation can hold a great deal of information about someone’s geographical and social background. Keep in mind all the words and phrases that all too often convey such subtle meanings that they can barely be translated in other languages. And look at the way the language strings together words in its own unique way that has since enabled the creation of countless stories and songs. Now imagine that this wonderful product of human creativity, this immeasurable cultural heritage, might one day be lost forever to mankind. That is what happened to Mawayana.

Or at least, that is what linguists believed. But as always, appearances may deceive, and indeed it turned out that there are a few native speakers of Mawayana left. These people, however, do not live among the Waiwai, but across the border in Southern Suriname, between the Trio. To understand how they ended up there, we need to go back to the 1960s, when a Protestant missionary began the work of converting the Trio. To help him in this task, he brought with him some of the Waiwai, who had previously been converted. These Waiwai have since lived in one of the Trio villages that grew around the mission posts. The Waiwai involved though, were just like the jaguar – not what they first seemed. Instead of ‘real’ Waiwai, the missionary had brought with him people from groups who had only shortly before joined the Waiwai, some of them Mawayana. Four of these people were still alive when they were discovered, and they helped salvage much knowledge about the Mawayana and their language. One of them was recorded telling many stories in Mawayana, such as the story of the old man in jaguar clothes.

Much can be learned from these stories about what the Mawayana language sounded like. For example, we can observe that Mawayana makes extensive use of what are called ideophones. These are words that imitate the concept they express, such as ‘meow’ or ‘beep’ in English. In Mawayana, a sentence may consist just of a string of these words. In one story a group of otters attacks a snake. The fight is described in Mawayana as follows: “Kuuu tok tok tok tara ku ku ku.” This means something like ‘the otters went through the water and grabbed the snake’. The frequent use of ideophones makes Mawayana stories very lively and evocative.

Another interesting aspect of Mawayana is the way it uses prepositions, or rather postpositions, since they do not occur in front of words but are rather added to the end. So while in English one would say ‘into the water’, in a language with postpositions this would be expressed as ‘the water-into’. Postpositions in Mawayana are often preceded by another suffix that says something about the word that the postposition is attached to. So the word for ‘water’ is unï. If you want to use the postposition –ke or -ki ‘into’ to say ‘into the water’, you also have to add the suffix -sï: ‘into the water’ becomes unïsïke. The -sï simply says that the preceding word refers to a body of water and it is also used with for example the word kiti, which means ‘creek’. But if you want to say ‘into the village’ you cannot use -sï, but you rather have to say ɓaïrɖiki with the word ɓaïr ‘village’ supplemented by the suffix –ɖi for living places. While such suffixes are found in many languages, it is quite rare for them to be used in combination with pre- or postpositions.

Our knowledge of Mawayana is still very patchy; a few stories are only a small archive for any language. Many words are not in it, and many grammatical processes cannot be properly understood because they occur only a few times. More research ought to be done but time is short; the language will soon go extinct, and this time for real. The Mawayana who escaped becoming Waiwai are now turning into Trio instead – their numbers are just too small. Only the first generation, most of whom are deceased already, continued speaking Mawayana, and even they are heavily influenced by the Trio language. They have adopted many elements from Trio into their form of Mawayana, even a literal translation of the ‘in-clothes-of’ suffix -me. There are now only two native speakers left, two elderly ladies who will probably pass away before too long. Their children and grandchildren have already stopped using the language. It seems that now the time has finally arrived for Mawayana to vanish, and this time for real.

Appearances may deceive and dead languages may turn out to still be spoken, but unfortunately Mawayana remains the exception; throughout the world languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, and with them our cultural wealth as a species. The in-clothes-of suffix in Trio or the extensive use of ideophones in Mawayana show us that each language has its own devices for interpreting the world, which is intimately tied to the culture and worldview of its speakers. With each language that disappears we lose a unique interpretation of the world around us. And as it is now, we are rapidly running out of languages. Some estimates say that we may lose as many as 90% of the 7,000 languages spoken today before the end of the century. Just as the loss of animal and plant species threatens the natural richness and diversity of our planet, so does the extinction of languages endanger the wondrous and varied cultural heritage of humanity. For Mawayana and many other languages it is already too late, but many other languages still have a chance. Being able to turn the tide for those languages, and create an environment in which they can stably coexist with bigger languages, will define our world’s appearance a hundred years from now.

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