Omagua: Documentation and Sociohistorical Analysis

August 9, 2013

Location of Omagua in satellite image

Lev Michael and a group of students are documenting and developing a grammatical description of Omagua, a highly endangered language of Peruvian Amazonia, and are working to understand the linguistic and social history of this remarkable language. Omagua was the language of one of the largest and most powerful pre-Colombian Amazonian societies, and was spoken along most of the upper main Amazon River. However, Omagua is now spoken by fewer than ten elderly individuals, and the Omagua research group has the privilege of working with several of them: Amelia Huanaquiri, Arnaldo Huanaquiri, Lino Huanío, and Alicia Huanío. Together they are documenting the grammar and lexicon of this language, and creating a large corpus of Omagua narratives and other texts that are useful both as a historical resource for the Omagua community and as a basis for linguistic analysis.

Intriguingly, recent work suggests that Omagua is a creole language arising from contact between speakers of some language of the large Tupí-Guaraní family and some as-yet-undetermined indigenous language. Beyond the fundamental task of analyzing and describing this historically important language, therefore, the Omagua research group is attempting to better understand the relation of Omagua to the Tupí-Guaraní family and other nearby language families. The team is making use of both linguistic analysis and historical records to develop a picture of the sociohistorical circumstances of its genesis and to evaluate the hypothesis that it is creole language. If Omagua does indeed prove to be a creole language, this would have significant consequences for work on language contact, creole linguistics, and our understanding of the social and cultural history of Pre-Colombian Amazonia.

During the Summer 2010, UC Berkeley students Zachary O'Hagan, Clare Sandy, Tammy Stark, and Vivian Wauters worked with the Omagua speakers to document the language, and Zachary O'Hagan and Clare Sandy returned for a second fieldwork period in Summer 2011.