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CULTURE-VENEZUELA: New Compendium on Yanomami Language

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Nov 23 2004 (IPS) - When a Yanomami Indian dies, his or her name is not to be pronounced for some time, so as not to soil the memory of the deceased.

This may be a problem if, for example, someone is called Shoco, which is also the term for Tamanduá, an anteater that is common in the jungles of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, where the Yanomami live.

However, the difficulty can easily be resolved thanks to the linguistic wealth of this indigenous group that has existed for over 25,000 years, a living testimony to the Neolithic era, the most recent period of the Stone Age.

There are several synonyms for the names of animals, and also of some plants. Therefore, "aroto" means exactly the same as "shoco", and the community can use that word without violating the tradition that protects the deceased.

This explanation is provided by one of the 10,000 entries in the "Compendio ilustrado de lengua y cultura yanomami" ("Illustrated Compendium of the Yanomami Language and Culture"), a book by French anthropologist and linguist Marie-Claude Mattéi that has just gone to print.

It is more than a mere dictionary, instead serving as an encyclopaedic manual that can be used in Yanomami schools and for outsiders studying the Yanomami language and culture.

After 15 years of research, "we have concentrated our efforts on producing something more useful and rich in information than a simple dictionary – a book that can support the didactic measures that the Venezuelan society and state have the obligation to undertake with respect to the indigenous communities," Mattéi told IPS.

Venezuela’s new constitution, which was approved by voters in 1999, dedicates an entire chapter to the rights of indigenous peoples, including "the right to an intercultural and bilingual educational system that takes into account their special social and cultural characteristics, values and traditions."

The Yanomami or "children of the moon", who number around 15,000 in Venezuela and 12,000 in Brazil, are among the 34 indigenous peoples who mainly live along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia, Brazil and Guyana.

According to the 2001 census, 300,000 of Venezuela’s 25 million people belong to indigenous groups.

The Yanomami comprise a majority of the population in the municipality of Alto Orinoco, which nevertheless tends to be governed by members of two smaller ethnic groups, the Ye’kuana and Piaroa.

Like their other indigenous neighbours, the Yanomami sometimes incorporate the ways of mainstream society "in an anarchistic manner. They want speed boats and other technologies that make their lives more comfortable. The contact may threaten their culture and language, but that should not lead to a falsely romantic attitude, such as asking them to live in a bubble," said Mattéi.

Yanomami and Sanima are the most widely spoken languages among the indigenous people of Venezuela, according to another anthropologist, María Eugenia Villalón.

"At least seven languages – Mapoyo, Añú, Baré, Sáliva, Yabarana, Uruak and Sape – are in a critical state," Villalón, who has dedicated herself to collecting and preserving what remains of the Mapoyo tongue, told IPS.

A language, Villalón warns, "is not threatened nor does it become extinct because fewer individuals speak it, but because people stop using it and stop passing it on from parents to children. The extent to which it is at risk can be measured by the number of children who speak it." In the case of Mapoyo, that means almost none, as even adults hardly ever use the language.

Without an effort to support indigenous peoples, "their languages, which have survived more than 500 years since the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, will slowly disappear, they just won’t survive," warned another expert, Lyll Barceló, who has compiled the myths of the Guahibo ethnic group.

Having similar concerns, Mattéi divided her Compendium into five parts, the first of which is a history and description of the Yanomami people, followed by a guide to comprehend and use the dictionary. "I started with a table of references and conjugations in order to describe the verbal system of the language," she explained.

The Yanomami "use various forms of the future and past tense, and the suffixes of verbs can vary greatly depending on the meaning," she stated.

"I haven’t only used the information that I gathered myself, but also utilised that of numerous books about the Yanomami," said Mattéi. "What I added was a description of the use of each word, set in the ecosystem where these people live."

A glossary of the flora and fauna follows, which is a compendium on its own, as well as a bilingual Spanish-Yanomami mini-dictionary "aimed at providing help with the greatest difficulties. For example, there are many ways of saying ‘to tie’ or ‘to open’ in this language."

And linguists and taxonomists (the scientists who deal with the identification, naming, and classification of organisms) will be able to use a glossary of the taxonomy that the Yanomami themselves use for a number of animals, illustrated by Jacinto Serowe, a member of the ethnic group who worked closely with Mattéi.

"There are definitely threats to their language, just as there are threats anywhere," she pointed out. "But let’s stop thinking that indigenous people will remain in a bubble. Changes are inevitable and they are not the problem.

"The problem is that they are being denied opportunities, rights regarding health care and the preservation of their beliefs, and the rights they have over their own territories.

"A high-speed globalisation process is taking place in the world, but at the same time there is a revival of interest in minority groups and a vindication of traditional ways, to keep ethnic groups from being lost. In Venezuela, under the new constitution and the government of Hugo Chávez, there is a desire to do something," said Mattéi.

In 1992 and 1996, the anthropologist wrote two books about the culture of the Panare, another ethnic group from southern Venezuela.

The Compendium on the Yanomami has been published by government agencies in Venezuela in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation, and Spain’s Santander bank.

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