In the lands of the Yawalapiti indigenous people, in the Upper Xingu, Kalapalo, kamaiurá and kuikuro are spoken. Yawalapiti itself, the original language of the ethnic group, survives today in the voice of only three men, all of them around 70 years old.
The oldest, Aritana, 76, is the chief of the tribe. Who works to revitalize the language is his son, Tapí Yawalapiti, 43, master's student in linguistics at the University of Brasília (UnB).
He now has at his disposal the most complete descriptive study ever published on the language, done more than 40 years ago and recovered by the National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro.
It is the first extensive work to rescue and publish an indigenous linguistic archive of the institution after the September 2018 fire, which destroyed almost all of its collection, then the fifth largest in the world in number of pieces. It is estimated that the museum kept 20 million items, among several areas.
Written between 1976 and 1977, the field notebooks, now digitized, bring the original calligraphy of the time, photographed and colored. There are 2,762 entries, with vocabularies and Yawalapiti expressions, transcribed in a phonetic system, covering topics such as body, clothing, animals, home environments, parties and rituals.
The lexicon translates expressions that Portuguese does not know, like haka, the smell of food being made. The contact with the whites caused new expressions to appear in the vocabulary of the language. Glasses are the "defense of the eye". The linguist's tool, the recorder is called "word catcher".
Other names are untranslatable and are at the root of the Yawalapiti cosmogony. In the ethnic tradition, the sun (Kami) and the moon (Küri) are twin brothers. For the Xinguans, they are the archetypes and creators of humanity. There is no way to call them in another language without loss of meaning.
"When the transmission of language breaks, you also break the transmission of knowledge", says linguist Ana Suelly Arruda Câmara Cabral, Tapí's supervisor in the master's degree at UnB. "The loss of a language is the loss of that link with history, with identity."
The history of the Yawalapiti people is made up of crises and survivals. Affected by epidemics in the 1940s, the ethnic group reached 25 individuals in 1954. With the arrival of the Villas-Bôas brothers - Orlando, Cláudio and Leonardo, sertanistas who idealized the Xingu Indigenous Park, created in 1961 -, interethnic marriages were encouraged as a strategy for the preservation of the group.
Speakers of the original language disappeared as neighboring languages were incorporated into village life. When Tapí was born in 1977, there were 20 Yawalapiti speakers.
"It is my responsibility to revitalize the native language of my people. If it disappears, we lose part of the culture. The language is the identity of the people", says the linguist, who still did not know the notebooks kept in the National Museum, written in the year of your birth.
He writes down and studies language records daily with his father. His research points to processes of change that the language adopted to survive, pressured by contact with other languages.
The yawalapiti restructured the forms of negation, the subordinate clauses, the gender agreement, the length of the words. But, in addition to grammar studies, it is the daily practice of the language that Tapí wants to stimulate in the village, today with about 120 people in the main area.
With Tapí's instruction, a high school teacher already teaches teenagers simple words in yawalapiti, such as names of animals, fish and trees. "They are already asking me for a grammar", says the researcher, who has the project of creating textbooks and audiovisual material in the language.
"My father and I want to see the boys speak the language. Young people are interested. They just need grammar," says Tapí, who, in addition to yawalapiti, speaks Portuguese, Kalapalo, kamaiurá and kuikuro.
The leadership role in the tribe is not free: he was chosen by his father, Aritana, and chief Raoni Metuktire as the next leader of the Xingu peoples.
According to UNESCO's Atlas of Languages in Danger, Brazil is the country with the most languages at risk of extinction in the world: 178 languages are threatened and 12 have disappeared. In the country, 45 languages are in a critical situation, at imminent risk of being extinct.
This condition occurs when the few speakers of the language are already old and interact only partially in the language with the other members of the community.
This is the case with yawalapiti. "If these three people die, and we don't register, the language will end, it will disappear," says Tapí. Studies indicate that, since colonization, Brazil may have lost at least a thousand indigenous languages.
The safeguarding of the notebooks of the 1970s was due to a coincidence: at the time of the fire, the originals were out of the archive, in the process of cleaning with other items.
The documents had been donated by linguist Charlotte Emmerich, a retired professor at UFRJ who guided the studies at the time and coordinated the recovery work.
Before the tragedy, the archives of the National Museum kept, cataloged, about 11 thousand documents related to more than 190 indigenous languages in Brazil, some of which are now extinct. In addition to those not indexed, it is estimated that there were more than 16 thousand items, including letters, vocabularies, notebooks and field diaries, notes, telegrams and other papers, in addition to sound files with speeches, myths and ritual songs.
"Compared to what was lost, it is a minimal part", says Marília Facó, director of the Indigenous Language Documentation Center (Celin), linked to the museum and responsible for the storage and cataloging of these materials. The fire consumed extensive historical archives, such as that of the Parkatêjê people of Pará, whose language, Timbira Oriental, is now spoken only among the elders.
With a fixed team of three people (in addition to Marília, a librarian and an archivist), Celin works to index the recovered material and the donations that reach the archive, today in number of 208 cataloged pieces, in addition to 6,000 books.
Another rescue strategy is what is called digital recovery by user circuit, when researchers keep copies and photographs of the material consulted in their own files.
That is how the museum rescued, for example, the vocabulary of the extinct Puri language, collected in 1885 by the engineer Alberto de Noronha Torrezão. In the last survey, in September 2019, 690 items of documentation 77 languages had already been retrieved.
In addition to the materials that escaped the fire because they were momentarily out of the archive, others were preserved by prior digitization. The National Museum kept the originals the archives of the German ethnologist Curt Nimuendajú, responsible for the largest number of expeditions in the country's villages in the first half of the 20th century.
Purchased after the scholar's death in a Ticuna village in 1945, the documents were lost in the fire. But a digitization work, done in 2016 with resources the defunct Ministry of Culture, allowed the documents to be preserved today. Now the idea, according to Marília, is to make these files accessible to everyone.
"There is no point in spending your life with the files and thinking that only specialists will look for them," says the linguist. "These materials have their full value only if disclosed. They cannot be the result of a collection that thinks it will save languages by keeping a protected file."
The creation of public archives of indigenous languages is still a minority in Brazil. Linguist and professor at the Federal University of Amapá (Unifap), Fernando Orphão de Carvalho consulted copies of the Yawalapiti notebooks in 2016, when studying the historical development of the language, one of three the Aruak family, the largest in South America in number of languages and geographic extent.
He says that only in the past two decades has the country adopted models of public documentation in which data are shared.
"The tradition in Brazil is as follows: the researcher goes to the field, collects data about the language, but he kind of 'sits' on that data. That information is his, private," says the professor, who now researches the language of the Ikpeng people, the Upper Xingu.
According to Carvalho, in the United States, the creation of extensive databases on linguistic documentation has enabled, today, remaining populations to try to revitalize already extinct languages. "Huge document files have been produced, with video and audio recordings, which have not even been analyzed yet."
It is not uncommon, according to Marília Facó, for researchers to keep their files under private custody. "Some are in the home, which is not legal, because people are paid with public money," he says. P
For Carvalho, the habit of keeping, in his own collection, material collected in the field makes it difficult to form more dense studies. "Researchers purposely boycott actions by other linguists who want to work with that language," he says.
Race for digitization
In Brazil, extensive documentation work is still timid. In 2009, the Museu do Índio launched a linguistic study project on 13 languages, with the production of reports, grammatical studies and vocabularies. Gradually, digitization is also becoming a common preservation tactic.
The Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi holds 20,000 items related to approximately 80 Amazonian indigenous languages, of which 65 have already been digitized. The high cost, however, is still a barrier. The recovery of the Yawalapiti notebooks cost about R $ 20,000, obtained through an emergency support resource the Research Support Foundation of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Faperj).
In the area of creating archival banks, there are also initiatives by institutions and consortia of international researchers, in the field of rescue linguistics, which is the documentation of languages in a critical state of existence. The German program Dobes documented, for example, the Kuikuro language, spoken in the Xingu.
The sparse documentation results in short works. According to Professor Ana Suelly, there are few indigenous dictionaries in South America, which do not go far beyond 4 thousand words. One of the most complete works remains that of the Jesuit priest Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, who documented the ancient Guarani language in the 17th century. The language of the Wajãpi people of Amapá has a description of the lexicon with 6,000 entries.
For Carvalho, compared to the state of language documentation in Europe and North America, the South American continent remains an unknown land.
"There are languages that have no more documentation than lists of isolated words, registered by individuals without language training. These are problematic data," he says.
"The documentation of languages in Brazil is very fragmentary", says Ana Suelly. "Someone does grammar and already calls it 'grammar'. You need all kinds of documentation, flora, fauna, practices, rituals, the speech of the children, the mother with the children. The language is a source of inexhaustible knowledge ", says the teacher, who works for the creation of a sound atlas with 40 indigenous languages at the Indigenous Languages and Literature Laboratory (Lalli), which she coordinates at UnB.
For her, the documentation made by the indigenous people, immersed in the culture they study, is incomparable. "Tapí knows things that no linguist will know," he says.
The indigenous role in linguistics is recent. Before, only an object of observation and analysis, the indigenous person starts to become the protagonist of his own language. At the National Museum, the Professional Master in Linguistics and Indigenous Languages has 70% of the vacancies destined for this group.
At UnB, indigenous people also occupy graduate programs and editions of academic journals are dedicated exclusively to these researchers.
A researcher of this generation, Tapí says that the work of the non-indigenous researcher is important, but interaction with the villages is necessary. "All scientific work must have a return," he says. "You have to take these written works to the chiefs, to the community. Indigenous teachers can work with the writing and registration of the mother and father language."
The recovery of the National Museum's notebooks is within this logic, says Marília Facó. "The Yawalapiti can appropriate the work to correct, to change, to comment, to discuss. It is part of the process of revitalization, of resumption."
Tapí only waterrda the return of the activities of UnB, suspended by the pandemic of the covid-19, to defend the master's thesis and to prepare for the doctorate. He is confident in the survival and revitalization of his language, which can already be heard, albeit timidly, among the youngest people in the village.
"I talk to the boys and they are very interested. I believe that I will be able to fulfill my dream of seeing young people speak their mother tongue."