Shigudo warriors showing off their ceremonial finery.
In 1963, at the tender age of 24, I found myself on an expedition deep in the Amazon Basin, up a smallish tributary of the Río Ucayali. There we encountered a
The Shigudo were excellent hosts, and generally found us much more curious than we found them. I spent most of my time with the Shigudo in the company of a young man named Shiyatauo, who, eight years my junior, was already expecting his first child. Shiyatauo spoke excellent Spanish, and I, having a more linguistic bent than my fellows, engaged Shiyatauo to teach me some Shigudo.
The first few lessons I learned were as follows:
|1)||do ki shiresu||2)||do gu shiresu||3)||do ku shiresu||4)||do ka shiresu|
|I am tired||you are tired||it is tired||he is tired|
|5)||do ki shiuado||6)||do ki shisu’u||7)||do ka shisu’u||8)||do ki shilolo|
|I am hungry||I am a boy||he is a boy||I run|
My very preliminary analysis was fairly unexciting.3 I wasn’t sure if ki/gu/ku were pronouns or
Shiyatauo, a respected adult member of the tribe at age 16.
A few more minutes of data brought more interest:
|9)||do ki shiporu||10)||do ki shiporu ing i’ka|
|I am a brother||I am his brother|
|11)||do ka shiporu ing i’ki||12)||do ki shikabayo shilolo|
|he is my brother||I ride a horse|
Well, I thought, shikabayo is clearly and unsurprisingly a borrowing from Spanish caballo, and ing a preposition or genitive marker. i’- might be a case marker of some sort. shi- still confounded me. Then everything spun completely out of control.
|13)||do ki shikabayo shilolo ing i’ku, do ku shikabayo, do ku shizadi ing i’ka, do ka shiporu ing i’ki|
|I ride my brother’s horse|
|14)||do ki shiporu ing i’ka, do ka shipa’e ing i’ku, do ku shikabayo, do ki shikabayo shilolo ing i’ku|
|my brother’s horse I ride|
Concision is clearly not a feature of Shigudo.4 Baffled, I asked for a translation of the new phrases independently:
|15)||do ki shikabayo shilolo ing i’ku||16)||do ku shikabayo|
|I ride a horse||it is a horse|
|17)||do ku shizadi ing i’ka||18)||do ka shipa’e ing i’ku|
|it belongs to him||he owns it|
This did not clear up my understanding of Shigudo at all. shi- still made no sense (and almost seemed to have no meaning); do seemed to be losing its meaning as well.
Young Shigudo warriors participate in “Do Ku Shipunto,” or, “Arrows Fired Upwardly,” an adolescent initiation rite and test of bravery and archery skills.
By odd happenstance, the key to my eventual understanding of Shigudo came from Shiyatauo’s younger brother, Shiyati’e. Shiyatauo confided to me that Shiyati’e, a mere lad of eight, had been studying Spanish with Shiyatauo for some time, but wasn’t making the kind of progress he had hoped for. Shiyati’e had been listening to Shiyatauo and me, and mistaking our exchange for Spanish lessons; at one point he tried to show off his command of the language by translating do ki shikabayo shilolo into Spanish before Shiyatauo could.
|19)||do ki shikabayo shilolo|
At the time, we laughed, and Shiyatauo said of his brother, “Él habla con un acento shigudo pesado.” He speaks with a heavy Shigudo accent. We left the subject of Shiyati’e’s poor translation, and instead debated whether acento pesado was the right way to say “heavy accent” in Spanish. Neither of us was sure, and to this day I don’t really know.5
A few days later, we left in search of anthropologically more interesting indigenes. My notebook was crammed with data I could not understand, and my heart full of admiration for my new friend Shiyatauo.
Months later, looking over my Shigudo data, I saw Shiyati’e’s poor translation among the marginalia of my notebook. Like a thunderclap it struck me
My conclusion, back in my closet of an office in London, was that shi- was correctly translated by Shiyati’e as Spanish -mente (roughly English -ly). Shigudo was, inexplicably, a language with only one open class of words: adverbs. It was a horrible idea, pointlessly whimsical, but the data all fit. I could not construct any historical linguistic path, plausible or not, to evolve any sensible language to such a state. But the data all fit. The data all fit.
I spoke briefly of my analysis of Shigudo to my flatmate, a linguistics grad student, and she ridiculed me mercilessly. She also believed that either I had not recorded my data correctly, or that
“Do Ku Shiflota,” or , “The Ceremony,” in which present-
It took me almost six years to save as much money as I thought I would need to travel around South America, but I still could not afford passage to that far-
I will admit that I used several people badly in the weeks that followed. I abandoned my academic program and my fiancée in London. And after arriving in Brazil, I abandoned the expedition that had brought me there, setting out on my own to find Shiyatauo and the Shigudo. After nine weeks of trekking, trading, and traveling my way across Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru, I found myself once again in a small boat heading up the Río Ucayali. I was terrified that I would not be able to find the right tributary, or even if I did that I would not be able to find the Shigudo again.
My fears were misplaced. Like a salmon, I knew where to go as if by instinct. Walking into the Shigudo village and seeing Shiyatauo again was like coming home, though I was shocked to learn that he now had four children, and was practically an old man at 22. We caught up like old friends should: we reminisced, and we spoke of the future. Shiyati’e had mastered Spanish,7 and Shiyatauo had become reasonably fluent in Portuguese. Their broadened linguistic horizons crucially informed our discussion of Shigudo.
Despite their linguistic naïveté, their instincts were finely tuned, and our conclusion was as inescapable as it was inexplicable. Shigudo did in fact have adverbs as its only open class of words. The old data made even more sense:
I spent several months living and working with Shiyatauo and Shiyati’e, their wives, and their children. We spent much of our leisure time analyzing Shigudo further. The results were stunning.
Below I present the numbering system, which it is helpful to understand before approaching Shigudo pronouns in their full glory.
The system is oddly regular and compositional even though it is quite limited. It would merit a study of its own8 were the rest of the language not so much more interesting.
After considering several translations of Shigudo into Spanish, and probing Shiyatauo and Shiyati’e’s intuitions, we collectively came to the conclusion that do and ing had been bleached of all semantic content, and are best glossed as “verb” and “prep(osition)”, respectively. I translate do as “be/exist/have/do” as needed, and ing as whatever preposition best fits.
While adverbs carry all of the semantic load of a Shigudo utterance, the pronouns have a very complex role to play as well, since they have to link subjects and objects from phrase to phrase. In the examples used so far, the number or person of each pronoun was sufficient to link it properly and unambiguously from phrase to phrase, as only I/me, he/him, and it were used.
Consider, though, the sentence Yatauo’s father’s best friend is Yati’e’s wife’s father. I offered the following attempt at a translation to Shiyatauo:
|22)||*||do ka shiyatauo;||do ka shiradpe ing i’ka;||do ka shi’au’poru ing i’ka;|
|he is Yatauo-ly;||he is fatherly to him;||he is best-friendly to him;|
|do ka shiradpe ing i’ga;||do ga shimuh ing i’ka;||do ka shiyati’e|
|he is fatherly to her,||she is wifely to him,||he is Yati’e-ly|
I was very proud of this utterance, especially the use of the compound ’au’poru meaning “brother-
Yatauo explained10 that pronouns can be11 numerically indexed. As the astute reader will have noticed,12 compounds in Gudo are formed by joining two forms with a glottal stop. Numerically indexed pronouns follow the same pattern: ku’a, ku’a’a, ku’ti; ka’a, ka’a’a, ka’ti; For ease of reading, I will translate these forms as the first one, the second one, the third one; the first guy, the second guy, the third guy, etc. They could just as readily be glossed it1, it2, it3; he1, he2, he3, etc., but that seems much more difficult for English speakers to process.13
|23)||do ka’a shiyatauo,|
|the first guy is Yatauo-ly,|
|do ka’a’a shiradpe ing i’ka’a,|
|the second guy is fatherly to the first guy,|
|do ka’ti shi’au’poru ing i’ka’a’a,|
|the third guy is best-friendly to the second guy,|
|do ka’ti’a shiyati’e,|
|the fourth guy is Yati’e-ly,|
|do ga shimuh ing i’ka’ti’a,|
|she is wifely to the fourth guy,|
|do ka’ti shiradpe ing i’ga|
|the third guy is fatherly to her|
|Yatauo’s father’s best friend is Yati’e’s wife’s father.|
Note that since only one woman is involved (Yati’e’s wife) ga does not need to be indexed.
Let us look at one last detailed example from the copious data I gathered that spring, all those years ago:
After I felt that my understanding of Gudo had really progressed to a new level, I knew that it was time to return to London. Upon my return, I fabricated a story about getting separated from the expedition, and wandering lost in Brazil for months. My thesis committee understood, and I received my degree. My fiancée was not so forgiving, as she had already taken up with someone else.
Dejected, I threw myself into my work. This only deepened my depression as I came to realize that no one would believe my data. Only one person did. I told my former flatmate, who had previously derided my initial data, about my adventure. To my surprise, she not only came to believe me, she married me less than two years later!
I made several more visits to Yatauo and Yati’e and the other Gudo over the years. At the ripe old age of 42, with my wife and two young children in tow, I visited the Gudo yet again. Yatauo, now a tribal elder at 34 and a grandfather several times over, decided he should leave the
Yatauo, an honored elder of the tribe at age 34.
I’ve been sitting on our data for decades, afraid that attempting to publish it would irreparably damage my credibility and my career. But a number of things have happened recently that have changed my stance on this matter. Firstly, I have retired from Devonshire-
According to the best translation Yatauo has been able to piece together, about 400 years ago, inspired by a chance encounter with Spaniards, the Gudo developed their writing system and established a monarchy.15 Seven generations later (about 100-110 years), the crown prince of the Gudo had unknowingly managed to emulate the worst of the European monarchs, doling out violent retribution for minor faux pas, both real and imagined. In particular, he had a knack for executing his grammar instructors when they criticized his usage. The thirteenth Gudo Royal Grammarian devised an ingenious scheme to save his own neck. He convinced the prince to blame his grammatical shortcomings on those around him, for failing to provide adequate examples from which he could more easily learn. Shortly thereafter, the prince decreed that there would be a Royal Noun Day, followed by a Royal Verb Day, a Royal Adjective Day, a Royal Preposition Day, and a Royal Adverb Day. On each Royal Day of a particular part of speech, the courtiers and others in the prince’s presence were expected to maximize the number of instances of the designated part of speech in their own discourse. Those who pleased the prince with their verbal acrobatics received royal favors. Those who failed to please the prince where often exiled or executed. The royal court was soon dominated by two types of people
Over time, the need for Royal Noun Day and the others decreased, and almost every day was Royal Adverb Day
From what Yatauo and Yati’e can piece together, it seems that the ensconcement of Shigudo damaged the previously thriving Gudo tribe beyond repair. The civil war to establish the original monarchy had reduced the Gudo population from around 17,000 to a mere 8,000. Seven generations later, they had rebounded to a respectable 12,000. The establishment of Shigudo, and the royal declaration that it should be used not only in the royal court, but also in the everyday life of all Gudo, wreaked havoc on this once thriving and noble people. Communication failed everywhere. Crops failed. The underpinnings of civilization failed. Chaos ensued. Many Gudo fled, to be assimilated into nearby societies, usually without having ever mastered Shigudo (thus explaining the uniqueness of the language in the region). Those who remained were generally the most cunning linguists of the royal court. They eventually rebelled, and established a democracy.19 For better or worse, most had been raised speaking Shigudo and could not leave it behind, even though the absurd reasons for speaking it had finally evaporated.
A Gudo dwelling from the 1960s. Four decades later, Gudo dwellings are pretty much the same, except for the addition of aerial antennae and satellite dishes.
Now it’s more than forty years since my original encounter with Yatauo and the Gudo.
The Gudo, whose numbers have now grown to over 1000
I now have young grandchildren of my own, and I delight in watching them continually discover their mother tongue. Yatauo, having attained a previously unheard of life span for the Gudo thanks to his access to modern medicine in Lima, is a newly minted great-
Yatauo also has several great-
Word order is closer to Spanish, and many of the strict rules of Shigudo are flagrantly violated. Phonetically, the vowel in shi- is often reduced to a schwa.
In a couple of moderately radical dialects, there is evidence that the schwa is completely gone, and -sh- (sometimes reduced further to -s- in rapid speech) is being reanalyzed as something of a liaison-
Yatauo sometimes decries these changes as linguistic degradation, though I know he tries to suppress his prescriptivist tendencies. I, however, see such changes as the Gudo reclaiming their linguistic heritage from the legacy of a mad prince
I wish them all well.
1 By “nearly fluent Spanish”, I mean, of course, merely Spanish much better than my own Spanish, being just good enough, and no better, to meet the language requirements for my anthropology degree a small number of years earlier.
2 By “unremarkable”, I mean, of course, not very distinct from many other, well-
3 By “very preliminary”, I mean, of course, stupidly, foolishly premature. But I wasn’t much of a linguist then, and I wasn’t yet taking the whole matter very seriously.
4 By “concision”, I mean, of course, the ability to say anything of interest in, say, a number of words, syllables, or morphemes less than or equal to the equivalent in English or Spanish.
5 By “I don’t really know”, I mean, of course, that I have never been bothered to look it up.
6 By “offered a position”, I mean, of course, that I heard about the expedition, then wheedled and cajoled and generally made a pest of myself until one of the expedition members actually quit in exasperation, a mere two days before the scheduled departure. At that point, I was the only remotely qualified anthropologist-
7 By “mastered Spanish”, I mean, of course, that his mastery of Spanish had overtaken my own, which had grown even rustier.
8 By “merit a study of its own”, I mean, of course, that now that I am retired I do not have the energy to pursue such a study, but would love to see someone else take up the cause.
9 By “Yatauo”, I mean, of course, that I had sufficiently internalized the grammar of Gudo to realize that my good friend’s name was actually not Shiyatauo, but rather Yatauo, which is necessarily and uniformly inflected as Shiyatauo. It was much too complicated for me to discuss or even make the use-
10 By “explained”, I mean, of course, that we riddled through his native speaker intuitions together until we arrived at the explanation provided.
11 By “can be”, I mean, of course, that they must be whenever clarity requires it.
12 By “astute”, I mean, of course, “even remotely awake”.
13 By “English speakers”, I mean, of course, those who are not computer programmers. Those geeks eat this stuff up.
14 By “discovered”, I mean, of course, that he found it using one of those new Electro-
15 By “established”, I mean, of course, that they endured a terrible civil war, with the winning faction subjugating the others and then claiming a divine right to have done so.
16 By “dominated by the verbally skilled and the silent”, I mean, of course, that all the others had fled or been killed.
17 By “ascended the throne”, I mean, of course, “committed patricide”.
18 By “ascended the throne”, I mean, of course, “also committed patricide”.
19 By “established a democracy”, I mean, of course, “committed regicide”.
20 By “speak primarily Spanish and Portuguese”, I mean, of course, that while they speak up to twenty other languages fluently, they don’t, for example, enjoy doing crossword puzzles in those languages.