infosYucuna: a brief note


Introduction to the Yucuna language and writing system (see below)


Resources :

a All available resources here


Yucuna Texts

a The Story of Keyako
Colombia, Amazonas, Mirití-Parana, Jariyé, 1998, Milciades Yucuna, Laurent Fontaine

This is the story of the first indigenous Yucuna language speaker, from the Kamejeya tribe, to have established regular contacts with Whites, by going down the Caqueta and Japura (the same river on the Brazilian side) all the way to a Brazilian outpost (identified here as Tefé), to exchange objects manufactured locally by indigenous servants (from the Jurumi and Jupichiya tribes) for White goods. However, when he returns home, there are rumors abroad: his wife is said to have organized parties while he was away, in order to drink with her lovers…

aThe Myth of the Cocoi Heron and the Hummingbird
Colombia, Amazonas, Camaritagua, 2003i, Hua'mé Matapi, Laurent Fontaine

The Myth of the Cocoi Heron (Ardea cocoi) and the Hummingbird.

aThe Story of the Green Ibis and the Great Egret
Colombia, Amazonas, Camaritagua, 2003, Hua'mé Matapi, Laurent Fontaine

The Story of the Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis) and the Great Egret (Casmerodius albus).

aThe Story of Kanumá
Colombia, Amazonas, La Pedrera, 2005, Mario Matapi, Laurent Fontaine

For the Yucuna speaking Indians, Kanumá was the first man. A primitive at first, he lived with the Amazons, a tribe of supernatural women called the Namatu. They behaved like men, and made him do the cooking like a woman. In secret, the women performed the Yurupari, and hid the rite's sacred flutes from Kanumá, but one day he managed to steal them… After chasing Kanumá for quite some time, the Namatu gave up and went down the Miriti river, then the Caqueta river, until they reached the Amazon delta. Kanumá was left on his own. He then met the two daughters of Je'chú (the Sky), one of whom became his wife, bringing him tubers (cassava, yams), garden fruits (chontaduro, pineapples, etc.), and even coca.

aThe Myth of Komeyaphu
Colombia, Amazonas, La Pedrera, 2005, Arturo Yucuna, Laurent Fontaine

The myth of Komeyaphu (Rainbow) is that of a man who went with his children to stay with the son of the Moon, who lived near the mouth of the Amazon river, near the sea. Once there, Komeyaphu decides to hunt some small animals for his children, but much to his surprise they are all gigantic and give him considerable trouble…


Introduction to the Yucuna language and writing system

The term "Yucuna" Indians refers to the group of Native Americans who habitually speak Yucuna with their families. The Yucuna language belongs to the Arawak family (Schauer, 1975). The Yucuna Indians share many cultural traits with the Tanimuca and the Letuama, their main exogamic partners, as well as similar practices (kinship organization, maloca, shamanism). Their culture differs however from that of the other neighboring tribes (Miraña, Huitoto, Tucano) covering a vast geographical zone, including Miriti-Parana, Popeyaca, and Guacaya (Jacopin, 1970, 1977, 1981).

Today the Yucuna Indians mainly live on the banks of the Miriti-Parana river and in the area of La Pedrera on the Lower Caqueta in Colombia (see map). Estimates set their population at between 500 and 1000 people.

Map. Geographical location of the Yucuna speaking Indians


The Yucuna language was first documented in 1963 by an American linguist couple from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). They published a phonology (Schauer et Schauer, 1967), a translation of the Caripú Laquena myth (1975) and a grammar (1978). In the 1980s and 1990s they also prepared materials and trained assistants in Yucuna for literacy programs in bilingual schools (Matapi, 1984; Yucuna, 1994). More recently, they have translated the Old and New Testaments into Yucuna and have published a new phonological and syntactic study of the language (Schauer and Schauer, 2000)..

For the writing system, they chose to base the Yucuna alphabet on that of Spanish in order to facilitate its teaching and use among the Yucuna and avoid spelling confusion between Spanish and Yucuna.

This notation system however has led to much debate among linguists and Yucuna speakers, and no final writing system has yet been adopted. .

Judging by the most recent work I have been able to consult but which has yet to be published, some standards have been agreed upon, despite the fact that they still need to be defined explicitly, and are not used by all of the language's writers. To transcribe our data, we have used the main standards which are currently most in use, and have made a certain number of choices which will be explained below.


  Phonological transcription
Graphic notation Articulation
  /p/ p [p]
  /pʰ/ ph [pʰ] ou [ɸ]
  /t/ t [t]
  /tʰ/ th [tʰ]
  /k/ k [k] ou [kʷ] ou [kʲ]
  /ʔ/ ' [ʔ]
  /s/ s [s]
  /h/ j [h] ou [x]
  /tʃ/ ch [tʃ] ou [tʃʲ]
  /m/ m [m]
  /n/ n [n] ou [ŋ]
  /ɲ/ ñ [ɲ]
  /ɾ/ r [ɾ]
  /l/ l [l]
  /w/ w [w]
  /j/ y [j]


  /a/ a [a] ou [ɑ] ou [ə] ou [ã]
  /e/ e [e] ou [ɛ]
  /i/ i [i] ou [ĩ]
  /o/ o [o] ou [õ]
  /u/ u [u]

1. The greatest remaining ambiguity probably resides in the rules for noting stress. As far as we know, no definitive consensus has been reached on the subject. The SIL linguists have chosen to apply the same rules as for Spanish, while other linguists and local teachers note stress on the accented vowel, independently of its morphological status. Given the confusion, most native speakers do not note stress (or at least not systematically), which leads to much confusion between morphemes – this is also the case in Tanimuca. To avoid such confusion here, we have chosen to follow the SIL linguists' system. This system works as follows:

As all morphemes in Yucuna end in a vowel, stress is noted to show accentuation, except when it falls on the penultimate syllable.

Exemple : [pipi'na] pipiná "your enemy"
[hi'mitʃi] jimichi "grass"

Stress is phonologically relevant as it often differentiates between two distinct morphemes.

Exemple : [ɾi'ɾa] rirá "he is sawing"
['ɾiɾa] rira "his blood"

2. Everywhere else, the SIL linguists' graphic notation system has been adopted, with just a few exceptions.

2.1. The first exception concerns their notation of /w/ (noted hu) and /k/ (noted c before a, o and u, and qu before e and i), which are now respectively noted w and k.

Remark: this new notation is made more problematic because of borrowings from Spanish. If one changes the spelling of these borrowings, this could lead to confusion for those who wish to write in Spanish, but if the original spelling is retained in Yucuna texts, this could also lead to quite some confusion… The best solution is probably to leave the question open, so that native writers may make their own choice.

2.2. The other major modification which has been applied to the initial SIL notation system concerns vowels in a glottal context.

When a glottal stop is surrounded by two identical vowels, e.g. a'a, e'e, i'i, o'o, u'u, the second is not noted if the first bears more stress than the second, unless the second is in morpheme final position.

Exemple: [iʔipi'tʃi] i'pichí "worm"
['aʔa] a’a "yes"

Remark: there are two reasons behind our choice of only noting one vowel. First, once the phonology has been defined, noting the second non stressed vowel appears redundant; and second, because it is often barely audible, or is not pronounced before a consonant, which in no way affects the meaning of the morpheme. Thus the distinction between 'CVʔ VCV and 'CVʔ CV is not relevant in Yucuna.

On the contrary, the vowel following the glottal stop is always noted when it bears stress.

Exemple: [ɾiʔ'imi] ri’imi "his meat"

When one of the two vowels bears the morpheme's primary stress, the stress must be noted, unless it falls on the penultimate syllable.

[awaʔ'a] awa'á "near"
[rikohnoʔ'otʰiyaca] rikojno’óchiyaka "You will pay"
[pila’maʔatahika] pilamá’tajika "aaaa"
[pi’yaʔata] piyá’ta "You are showing"

3. Many two syllable morphemes have a long vowel in the first syllable, even though only one vowel is noted.

Exemple ['pa:ɾu] paru "banana"
['hu:ni] juni "water"

4. When a morpheme ends with two vowels (a diphthong), the final vowel is nasalized.

Exemple [he'i̋] jeí "snake"  

Similarly, vowels preceded by j are generally nasalized when they are word median or final, and when they are followed by –ka or –ch.

Exemple [ma:'hõ] majó "here"

5. Many words show free variation between s and j.

Exemple sajalu = jajalu "machete"  

Others may delete the j when it is in word initial position.

Exemple jeta'pá = eta'pá "bench for thinking"

6. For the interlinear glosses, we have adopted those proposed by Schauer and Schauer (2000).

We added the "speaker-distal", which is a prefix indicating that the verb's action takes place away from the speaker's location. Although this prefix has the same form as the recent past marker (-icha), we have chosen to gloss it separately for ease of interpretation.

ACCOMPL Accompli "perfect" IMPARF Imparfait "imperfect" PROG Progressif "progressive"
ALTER.LOC Alterlocutif "distal" INTERR Interrogatif "interrogative" REFL Reflexif "reflexive"
BUT Finalité "goal" LIM Limitatif "limitative" SING Singulier "singular"
DESIR Désir "desire"/ "volitional" NEG Négation "negation" SPCR Spécificateur "determiner"
EXCL Exclamatif "exclamative" ONOM Onomatopée "Onomatopoeia" SUBJ Subjonctif "subjunctive"
INF Infinitif "infinitive" PASS Passé "past" SUJ.VIDE Sujet vide "null subject"
FUT Futur "future" PASS.REC Passé récent "recent past"    
GEN Générique "generic" PL Pluriel "plural"    



— 2000Paroles d’échange et règles sociales chez les Indiens yucuna d’Amazonie colombienne. Thèse de doctorat dirigée par Pierre-Yves JACOPIN, Paris III / Sorbonne nouvelle-Iheal.


JACOPIN Pierre-Yves
— 1970 Mission chez les Indiens yukuna de la région du Miritiparana, Journal de la Société des Américanistes, T. LIX, pp 155-163.
— 1977 Habitat et Territoire Yucuna, Journal de la Société des Américanistes, T. LXI.
— 1981 La parole générative de la mythologie des Indiens Yukuna. Th. Université de Neuchâtel, 392p.


— 1989-1990 Rango y alianza entre los Yukuna de la Amazonia colombiana. Revista Colombiana de Antropología, Vol XXVII. Bogota, pp 137-157.
— 1990 Hierarchical Society : The Yukuna Story. Ethnos Vol. 55 (III-IV), pp 200-213.
— 1994 Nacimiento Yucuna. Reconstructive ethnography in Amazonia. Th. Université d'Oslo, 458p.


— 1985 Por que los Yucunas necesitan una educación bilingüe-bicultural. Bogota : Instituto Linguistico de Verano, 1985.


— 1967 Yukuna Phonemics. In : Phonemic Systems of Colombian Languages. Oklahoma : Norman / Summer Institute of Linguistics, pp 61-71.
— 1975 Texto Yucuna por Quehuají Yucuna. La Historia de los Caripú Laquena. In : Folclor indigena de Colombia T.1, Bogota, pp. 252-333.
— 1978 Una gramática del Yucuna. Articulos en lingüistica y campos afines. Bogota : Instituto Lingüístico de Verano / Digidec, pp. 1-52.
— 2000 El Yucuna. Lenguas indígenas de Colombia. Una visón descriptiva, Bogota, Institut Caro y Cuervo, pp. 515-532.
— (En préparation) Diccionario Yucuna-Español. 121p.


MATAPI Carlos, MATAPI Bonifacio
— 1984 Jupimi i'imacaño yucuna. La historia de nuestros antepasados en yucuna y español. Lomalinda : Editorial Townsend, 28p.


— 1991 El manejo del mundo. -(2ed. 1992). Bogota : Tropenbos, 378p.


YUCUNA Eladio (comp.)
— 1994 Que'iyapeje yucu mari huapura'aco chu. Una colección de leyendas y mitos en yucuna y español. Bogota : Editorial Alberto Lleras Camargo, 104p.


Laurent Fontaine