The Yanomami do not speak a single language, but a family of six related languages, which perhaps began to diverge from each other about a millennium ago.
There are no clear clues about the relationship between the small Yanomami linguistic family and the other native languages of South America. It’s as if Basque, famous for being the only isolated language in Europe today, was still accompanied by some “cousins” amidst a sea of other languages.
It is enough to examine some details of how one of these languages works to realize that the things that we take for granted in Portuguese or other European languages may just be historical accidents.
No person capable of reading this text, for example, needs to make a conscious effort to assemble sentences following the SVO logic – subject + verb + object, as in “The boy kissed his mother”. However, in Sanöma, a Yanomami language with around 5,000 speakers, it is normal to say “Wanotönö öla asäpalöma”, “The man the jaguar killed”. We know that it was the cat in the story, not the human, who died, because we are talking about a SOV-type language.
Precisely because it is a so-called “verb-final” language, Sanöma does not have prepositions – the famous list that begins with “a, ante, ante, tarde” – like Portuguese. Originally very much used in a spatial sense, they are literally “prepositions” for coming before a noun, for example, as in the phrase “Fui until the House”.
In the language of the Yanomami family, however, what we have are postpositions – or, if you’ll allow me another didactic development of the word, “postpositions”, since they appear later. To say that he lives in Boa Vista, the sanöma speaker says “Boa Vista hamö sapilia” – literally, “Boa Vista in moro”. Likewise, the owner of an object appears before that object in the sentence – instead of “the woman’s basket”, the phrasing is “her woman that basket”.
Despite their apparent isolation, the languages of the Yanomami family share with several other South American indigenous languages the structures that define the so-called evidentiality. That is, what speakers use to explain where they got the evidence about what they are talking about. If a statement ends with “ki-pi”, for example, this is an indication that the speaker witnessed that event in the distant past.
If he uses “tha-pi” in the same position, it is a given that he has heard about that past without having seen it himself. Finally, “noa” at the end of the sentence corresponds to a logical inference. “Wa sanömo noa” = “(It looks like) you’ve taken a shower” (because your hair is wet, for example).
There is also the possibility of making neutral statements, without the use of evidential calls. The curious thing is that reports about myths and very ancient historical events take this form. The ending that would indicate something that was not witnessed by the speaker, which he only knows from hearsay, is not used in these cases, perhaps not to indicate that such reports would necessarily be less reliable.
There are those who see no problem when the steamroller of imperial languages –and yes, Portuguese is one of them– crushes little gems like the ones I described above. There are those who think that it is enough to publish a grammar and record some chants. Why on earth would the grandchildren of the current Yanomami need to know how to use a postposition? The result of this kind of thinking is always the same: children who have become only skin and bones, gullies where there was a forest.
PS: The data quoted in this column comes from the chapter “The value of information in the Sanöma language”, written by Joana Autuori and Helder Ferreira for the book “Índio Não Fala Só Tupi”. The organization of the work is by Bruna Franchetto and Kristina Balykova.
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