Photo: Christian Vinces/Shutterstock

Resígaro Is the Amazonian Language With Only One Remaining Speaker

by Eben Diskin Jul 9, 2020

There are approximately six thousand languages spoken in the world right now, and around five thousand are spoken only by indigenous peoples. Due to geographic isolation and cultural insulation, these languages are often at the greatest risk of extinction. Resígaro, an Upper Amazonian language spoken by the Arawak peoples of Peru, is considered the world’s most endangered language, with just one surviving speaker.

The history of Resígaro

Resígaro first received attention from the academic community in the 1950s, when the Summer Institute of Linguistics created a book on Resígaro with the aim of translating the Bible into the Resígaro language. At first, researchers believed the language fell into the Huitotoan language family, though further study revealed that it belonged to the Arawakan family — a language group defined by polysynthetic words.

The Arawakan language family is the largest language family in South and Central America. Due to its deep and widespread roots, protecting Arawakan languages is important to preserve the culture of the speakers, as well as the culture of the entire region. Many Awawakian languages are endangered, but with one remaining speaker, Resígaro is by far at the highest risk of extinction.

During the rubber boom in the first half of the 20th century, the English-Peruvian rubber company Casa Arana was responsible for the enslavement of thousands of indigenous Resígaro and Ocaina people. Colonists used their labor to extract rubber, and thousands of Resígaro and Ocaina people died of exhaustion and disease introduced by foreigners. The Resígaro tribe was so decimated that its members ended up living among the Ocaina, and its language quickly faced extinction.

The last speaker

As of 2016, there were two remaining speakers of Resígaro — Pablo Andrade and his sister, Rosa. In November 2016, 67-year-old Rosa was found mysteriously beheaded in her home in the Peruvian Amazon. The local community suspects the murderer was an outsider, but both her killer and the reason for the murder are still unknown. Rosa had been the last female speaker of Resígaro, as well as one of the last speakers of the Ocaina language.

Upon his sister’s tragic and sudden death, Pablo Andrade who was 65 at the time, became the last known speaker of Resígaro. Although he no longer has anyone to speak to in his native tongue, Pablo is doing his best to preserve the language for future generations and keep it from dying out completely, working with the Peruvian government on initiatives to preserve Resígaro.

Resígaro today

Before Rosa’s death, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture was working with her and Pablo to revise books on Resígaro grammar for the sake of historical record and continuing education. Rosa had also taught children Resígaro songs and stories in the native tongue, in hopes of preserving the language. After her death, Pablo is continuing that preservation project. The government is collaborating with Pablo to catalog the language, compile Resígaro-related resources, and fill in any gaps in knowledge about the language’s vocabulary, grammar, and structure. Linguists are hoping to learn as much as they possibly can from Pablo before the language slips into total obscurity.

The great thing about languages, however, is that as long as one person still speaks it, they aren’t truly dead. That means if you go online and learn a few Resígaro phrases, you’re doing your part to keep this critically endangered language alive. Whether you’re a professional linguist or just interested in learning more about a unique South American culture, you can teach yourself some Resígaro words using this online database.

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