LIMA – When the last Taushiro speaker dies, the language will never be heard again in the Peruvian jungles.
Officials are working to prevent cultural tragedies like this from happening to other native languages and are creating alphabets of 47 of Peru’s indigenous tongues.
“The goal is to have official records of 47 native languages by 2017, since 37 others were extinguished in colonial times, prior to the republic,” said the Education Ministry’s director of language programs, Elena Burga.
Last week, the ministry made the alphabets of 24 Indian languages, most of them from the Amazon region, official, completing linguistic standards for 26 of them including Quechua and Aymara, which have had official status since 1985.
The alphabets are for the Harakbut; Ese eja; Yine; Kakataibo; Matsigenka; Jaqaru; Nomatsigenga; Yanesha; Cashinahua, Wampis; Secoya; Sharanahua; Murui-muinani; Kandozi-chapra; Kakinte, Matses; Ikitu; Shiwilu; Madija; and Kukama kukamiria languages.
Alphabets were also approved for Ashaninka; Awajun; Shawi and Shipibo-konibo.
“These languages have had alphabets, but not officially recognized ones. They were produced by some linguists and researchers and, in many cases, other institutions and linguists used different spellings,” Burga said.
The Education Ministry official said that after taking her current position in 2009, ministry experts began “to seek a consensus” on words and letters approved by the native communities.
Over time, many of the indigenous languages have disappeared “due to the lack of a national policy from the state to give these peoples a chance to develop,” Burga said.
“What is extraordinary is how the languages of so many indigenous peoples have survived until now, considering that for 500 years there was no policy for their appreciation,” the Education Ministry official said.
“The loss of languages has accelerated in the past 20 years and they are being completely overrun by the arrival of technology,” Burga said.
Among the many cases, Burga noted Taushiro, a language from the Tigre River in the Amazon region of Loreto, “now spoken by just one person.”
“That is a very peculiar case,” Burga said. “There were still two communities with a few members speaking Taushiro, and there was a hepatitis B epidemic. Now, the man lives on the Tigre River and also speaks Spanish because he doesn’t have anyone else to talk with in his native language.”
The Loreto regional government has produced a Taushiro dictionary “and there are linguists who travel to Iquitos to work with this man,” Burga said, adding that “the day this man dies, the language will perish.”
About 10 native languages in Peru are spoken by only 20 to 200 people, one is used by some 1,500 people and the most common in the Amazon is Ashaninka, with some 400,000 speakers.
Peru “is a multicultural, multilingual country and government services should reach the people in their respective languages,” Burga said.
“We believe there is the potential for the development of cultures and these languages should continue living,” the Education Ministry official said.