The Last Speaker of Resigaro – Murder of a Language
Among the six to seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, about five thousand of them are spoken by indigenous people living in North and South America, Africa, Oceania, and parts of Asia. They are also the most endangered as one indigenous language passes into oblivion about every fourteen days. This is the case with the Resigaro language which only has one remaining speaker, a 65-year-old man, after the only other speaker was murdered.
In November 2016, 67-year-old Rosa Andrade was found beheaded in her home in the Peruvian Amazon. Her killer has not been found, though her community suspects that it was an outsider. The reason for the murder is also mysterious.
Last of the Resigaro
Rosa was the last female speaker of the Resigaro language and one of the last speakers of the Ocaina language. The Resigaro and the Ocaina were two tribes which were victims of the rubber boom that took off at the end of the 19th century. This rubber boom did not go well for many native communities.
The Resigaro and the Ocaina were among the many tribes that were enslaved to extract rubber. Thousands of Amazonian natives died from exhaustion and introduced diseases to which they had no immunity.
Ocaina chief in 1924, the Ocaina and The Resigaro languages are both in danger of becoming extinct. (Ji-Elle / Public Domain)
The Resigaro population was so devastated that they ended up living among the Ocaina. The Ocaina themselves are also very small in number and only 40 speakers of the Ocaina language remain. As of 2016, Rosa Andrade and her brother Pablo Andrade were the only remaining speakers of the Resigaro language and probably the last of the Ocaina.
The Peruvian government has initiated several projects to preserve indigenous languages and they were about to start a project with Rosa and Pablo Andrade to help preserve Resigaro by revising a book on Resigaro grammar dating to the 1950s. Rosa also had the opportunity to teach children all the songs and stories that she knew in her native tongues, Resigaro and Ocaina. Now that she has been brutally murdered the project continues with only Pablo.
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Rosa, before her murder, was teaching Peruvian children the Resigaro and Ocaina languages. (theVisionaryAgency / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Nature of Resigaro
The earliest research on the Resigaro language was done in the 1950s. Among the early investigators of the language was the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). The SIL translators created a book on Resigaro grammar with the eventual goal of making a Resigaro translation of the Bible. At the time, linguists placed Resigaro in the Arawakan language family, a language family that includes the languages of the original peoples of the Caribbean islands.
In the 1970s, however, a competing theory emerged which placed the Resigaro language within the Huitotoan language family, the same language family as Ocaina. Today, it appears to be more common to place Resigaro in the Arawakan language family. The grammar of Arawakan languages is agglutinative with words that are polysynthetic, meaning they are made up of prefixes and suffixes around a stem morpheme that may or may not be a word on its own.
The goal of a recent government project is to go over these earlier resources on Resigaro grammar with Pablo Andrade so that he can help assess their accuracy and fill in any gaps in the details. The Resigaro may not be able to survive as a people, but it is hoped that the Resigaro will not be completely lost to the human story through the preservation of the Resigaro language.
Representation of Pablo Andrade – the last remaining person who knows the Resigaro language. (ruslanita / Adobe)
Resigaro and Other Arawakan Languages
Resigaro isn’t just important for the memory of the Resigaro but also the language family in which it is most commonly placed. The Arawakan language family is important as the largest language family in South America and Central America with 40 living languages and as many as 150 historical Arawakan languages. The range of the language family stretches across countries including Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Peru, and Colombia.
Because of this, the Arawakan languages and grammar are very important for understanding the cultures of South and Central America. The preservation of Resigaro, in addition to preserving the memory of the Resigaro themselves, also participates in the larger project of saving the Arawakan languages, many of which are critically endangered. Even the largest remaining groups do not have more than a few thousand speakers, though a few have as many as 50,000 to 300,000 speakers.
Because of this, the preservation of the Resigaro language is also important for the field of linguistics in general and improving our understanding of the evolution and structure of the world’s languages.
Language is important to retaining the culture of the peoples, the Resigaro language is in danger of becoming extinct. (Geraint Rowland / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Future of Resigaro
With only one remaining speaker, the future of the Resigaro tongue appears grim. The current goal of linguists is to learn as much as they can about the language from its one remaining speaker and the few academic works that have been written on the language. They may not be able to save the Resigaro culture, but it does raise awareness of the fact that Resigaro is not the only language in this predicament. Hundreds of languages are on the brink of extinction with only a few remaining speakers. If Resigaro can be saved from being lost forever, then perhaps these other languages can be saved as well.
Top image: Representation of Rosa, one of the two remaining persons who knew the Resigaro language, was murdered. Source: Crisco 1492 / CC BY-SA 2.0.
By Caleb Strom
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