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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Kallawaya Language of Bolivia

When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human KnowledgeThe latest of my anthropological endeavors includes a documentary entitled The Linguists.

Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, The Linguists chronicles the global adventures of Harrison and Greg Anderson, the Harvard and University of Chicago-educated co-founder (with Harrison) of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, as they race to document vanishing languages from the Andes and Siberia to India and Arizona (Thill 2009).

I almost couldn't get past the fact that David Harrison spoke over 25 languages and was able to assume a more culturally and uncluttered view of individuals questioned.

There were dozens of languages mentioned, however there was one on Bolivia that fascinated me.

Anthropology:  Kallawaya Language

Healers of the Andes: Kallawaya Herbalists and Their Medicinal PlantsThe main language focus in Bolivia was Kallawaya. Kallawaya people are known for their medicinal practices, using their extensive knowledge of the more than 10,000 plants in Bolivia to create remedies. The filmmakers learned there were less than 100 native Kallawaya speakers left in Bolivia. In a country where the Spanish language was gaining ground, the Kallawaya language was still around, and the filmmakers investigated the internal factors allowing this to happen.

The Kallawaya were extremely segregated as the filmmakers quickly learned on their ride though the mountain pass, over the rocky terrain filled with lamas, looking down a steep ravine. Interestingly enough, their first encounter with a Kallawaya speaker, a healer, occurred when their tire went flat.

Kallawaya healers were difficult to track down. However, the healer that was found did not actually understand the form of structure of language they believed he could speak.

Consequently, the team moved forward and was able to meet with a Kallawaya healer, after waiting three hours, to speak about the language. The healer, Max, performed a ritual for the filmmakers prior to engaging in conversation, with coca leaves. Coca leaves are cast and used to read the patterns. Max Churra was able to simply pinpoint exactly what the filmmakers were feeling and he was quite accurate.

When sharing their findings with the Bolivian Cultural Board, they were able to convince those present that Kallawaya is still alive, yet under threat.

Kallawaya language is impossible to transmit by memorization as it’s audibly incomprehensible. Kallawaya is not learned at birth, but rather transmitted from adult males to teenage males, in order to avail themselves of the medicinal knowledge. Language is the Kallawaya’s livelihood.

Unfortunately, small languages are being abandoned in the effort to procure better economical standards. Consequently, globalization and colonialism has left, and is presently still making, a deep incision on the cultural languages.

The filmmakers explained that children didn’t have to give up a language to speak another, as children were really the ones that could preserve their native speak.

1 Comment:

Michele Cameron Drew said...


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