Kallawaya Language Project

Local coordinator Jose Lara Yapita and Kallawaya speaker Illarion Ramos discussing traditional plants

The Kallawaya Language Project began in 2007 in Bolivia, and scenes from fieldwork among the Kallawaya were featured in the film The Linguists.

Bolivia is one of the most endangered and diverse language areas in the world.

Two different Language Hotspots are found in this area. Kallawaya is a secret mixed language spoken by a group of traditional itinerant healers that date back at least to the private retinue of the Inka in the early fifteenth century, and is one of the southernmost remaining languages of this Hotspot.

How is Kallawaya a mixed language?

Kallawaya [caw] is an unusual language in many respects. It is a mixed language with a Quechua grammatical base and a varied lexical base, a large portion of which derives from an otherwise unrecorded language that appears to have been a sister language to the now extinct Puquina language.

It is also a ‘secret’ language, being the exclusive domain of a group of itinerant male ritual healers. The language is an initiate language, and is always learned as a second language, being no speaker’s first language. However, its users will use it in daily conversation when possible, so it has further functions than a memorized ritual, as has sometimes been claimed. Its speakers also use Quechua and Bolivian Spanish.

In 2007, during the filming of The Linguists, Living Tongues made recordings of basic Kallaway vocabulary and expressions. It is not known how many speakers of Kallawaya there are, but it is not likely to exceed 100, certainly no more than 200. Don Max Chura, Don Antonio, Don Illarion Ramos, Don Francisco and Don Ariel Ninacondis are our primary consultants for this language.

How is Kallawaya a secret language?

Kallawaya is a secret language in the sense that it is passed only from father to son or grandfather to grandson (perhaps rarely to daughters if a practitioner is without sons), but not transmitted in normal family situations. It is therefore a language only for the initiated (men) and thus secret. Although used in a ritual context primarily, Kallawaya also serves the purpose of everyday conversation between users.

Snapshots from Fieldwork among the Kallawaya

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