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A language is about to die in the Amazon

Amazon forest

By Gustavo Frazao | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 01/02/18

Once spoken by an obscure tribe, Taushiro's future hinges on one man

No one can predict, of course, the day and the time of a person’s death. But it’s pretty safe to say that when Amadeo García García dies, a language will die with him.

Garcia is the last known native speaker of Taushiro, the language of a tribe that vanished into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru generations ago.

The tribe were among the world’s last hunter-gathers, according to the New York Times. They “wandered the swamps of the Amazon basin with blow guns called pucuna and fishing from small boats called tenete. They may have numbered in the thousands at one point, but they were no match for explorers who came to this part of South America in the 20th century, first for rubber, then for oil. Slowly, the Taushiro who didn’t flee the forced labor, died off, helped along by disease.

Garcia, who the Times says is around 70, has been living with the knowledge that his culture and language are on the edge of extinction for almost 20 years. With his brother’s death in 1999, he suddenly had no one left in the world to speak with in his native language. Tomás Villalobos, a Christian missionary who was with him when his brother died, remembers his response in broken Spanish when he asked Garcia, “How do you feel?”

“And he said to me: ‘It’s over now for us,’” Villalobos recalled

Garcia was married and had five children, but his wife left him in the 1980s, and he put the kids into an orphanage when they were still young. Now living in other parts of the Western hemisphere, they never Taushiro.

Mario Tapuy, who met Garcia as a child, has tried many times, unsuccessfully, to get his old friend to teach others the language.“I told him many times,” Tapuy said. “He listens, but it doesn’t record in his brain.”

Taushiro is not the only indigenous language at risk. The Times points out that 47 such languages are still extant in Peru, but nearly half are at risk of disappearing. At least 37 have already died in the last century, due to migration, urbanization and the pursuit of natural resources, the Times says.

“When a language like this disappears, you have lost a key data point in studying what universal properties exist in all languages,” lamented Zachary O’Hagan, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, who has done research with Garcia in Peru.

This year, Peru’s Ministry of Culture began working with Garcia to create a database of 1,500 Taushiro words, 27 stories and three songs, with plans to make recordings of Garcia available to academics and others interested in the language.

It is a race against time, the Times points out—”and against Amadeo’s own memory, which sometimes fails him after so many years of having no one to speak with in Taushiro. But linguists involved in the work say that even if Taushiro dies with Amadeo, a record of it will be kept, at least.”

“It’s the first time that Peru has made this kind of gesture,” said the linguist leading the project.

For his part, Garcia seems resigned. “The Taushiro don’t think about death,” he said. “We just move on.”

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