Desano language

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Native toColombia, Brazil
Native speakers
3,160 (2001-2011)[1]
  • Eastern
    • Central
      • Desano–Siriano
        • Desano
Language codes
ISO 639-3des

Desano is a Tucanoan language of Colombia and Brazil. There are several alternative names, including Boleka, Desâna, and Kusibi. It is located primarily in the Northwest Brazil and Southern Colombia.


The primary concentration of Desano people is on the Tiquié River in Brazil and Colombia. They also reside near the Papuri River, and their respective tributaries, and on the Uaupés river, which borders Brazil and Columbia, and Negro rivers, as well as in the cities within the area (Cabalzar & Hugh-Jones).

This region is populated by a number of other ethnic communities, most notably the Hup people, with whom they share several linguistic and cultural characteristics.


The Desano language has 90% lexical similarity to the Siriano language. The language is reported to have a form of whistled speech.[3]


The Desano people have faced influence from outsiders when the Spanish and Portuguese explored the region. These people brought outside illnesses, one being measles, which negatively impacted the surrounding communities. These explorers also introduced Christianity into the region. The majority of the history of the Desano people is known through traditional stories told by the Desano people (Silva, 2012). Tukanoan groups suffered greatly at the hands of the Portuguese. From 1739-1760 the Portuguese arrived to the Upper Rio Negro region where they took indigenous people to market them as slaves (Silva, 2012). According to Wilson de Lima Silva (2012), within this time frame about 20,000 indigenous people were displaced from their homes and sold as slaves. Within 1761-1829 indigenous people continued to be displaced as the Portuguese established new villages for the indigenous people. From this time until 1920 is when the arrival of missionaries was encouraged by a program run by the government called ‘civilização e catequese’ (civilization and conversion) (Silva, 2012). During this time, after being taken away from their communities, indigenous people involuntarily gathered rubber  during a time when natural rubber in the Amazon was being taken advantage of (Silva, 2012).

In 1916 the Salesians came to The Upper Rio Negro region and gradually released the indigenous people from slavery, however they proceeded to send the indigenous children to boarding school where they were deprived of speaking their native language, and only allowed to speak Portuguese (Silva, 2012). This system resulted in a loss of many cultural traditions and customs (Silva, 2012). In modern times, many Desano people live in villages and children study in Portuguese at school. As many Desano people no longer reside in their native communities, and children receive education in Portuguese, their native language is left behind (Silva, 2012).

  1. ^ "Desano". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2018-08-16.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Desano". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Desano language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)

Study on the Language[edit]

The earliest piece of extensive linguistic study of Desano were conducted by Kaye in 1970. In which, he has covered the systematic problems of the language in terms of semantics, phonetics, and syntax (Kaye, 1970). In this study, Kaye attempts to compare Desano, which in his own words, is “an undocumented language” (Kaye, 1970), with the syntactical models from Noam Chomsky as an early way to formally document and access the syntactical patterns of Desano. Apart from that, Kaye has also outlined certain phonological features in Desano, namely nasal assimilation, vowel coalescence, and epenthesis (Kaye, 1970). Years after, Chacon (2007) carried out a phonological comparison project focusing on Tukano and Desano, which are sister languages within the same language family. Chacon’s research has taken into consideration certain historical aspects relative to the land where both languages were spoken respectively, as an attempt to study further the implication history has to the language’s phonological aspects.

Years after, Silva (2012) carried out and has published a descriptive grammar research on Desano. Predominantly focusing on the morphological rules and patterns, Silva has also outlined certain syntactical patterns of Desano, relative to the historical background of the language community. This includes the noun-classifier system, and the evidential system, as outlined in Silva’s own words (Silva, 2012). Aside from that, Silva has also included certain unique phonological feature of Desano, namely the “nasal-harmony” feature that are rarely found in other languages, which has also been previously studied by Kaye (1970, 1971).

Similar in nature, but may slightly differ from a language documentation project, Miller (1999) has conducted an in-depth primary experience-based research into the Desano language by living with the people in Colombia. Her publication focuses mainly on syntactical features of Desano, including but not limited to the idea of verb-compounding, and accompanied by various phonological observations (Miller, 1999). Miller’s research has also included in her publication examples from the boreka pora dialect of the 22 dialects documented in Desano, in order to support the syntactical arguments suggested (Miller, 1999).


Vowel Inventory

Front Central Back
High i ʉ u
Mid e o
Low a

Extracted from Silva (2012)

Consonant Inventory

Labial Dental Velar Glottal









Fricative s (h)
Approximant w y

Extracted from Silva (2012)


Thorough documentation of Desano morphology are available from various scholars, mainly contributed by Reichel-Dolmatoff (in Portuguese), and Silva (in English). In which, Silva (2012) has offered a detailed account that covers the nominal and the verbal aspects of Desano morphology. Nominal morphology covers noun roots, pronouns, noun phrase (NP) structures, while verbal morphology covers verb roots, verb classes, and verb constructions. In terms of noun roots, Desano has bimoraic nouns that follows certain tonal requirements, such that each word contains at least one high tone (Silva, 2012). In general, Desano words follows a CVCV structure in terms of consonants and vowels (Silva, 2012), which is similar to that of Japanese. Desano nouns generally has a masculine-feminine distinction, as demonstrated in its pronoun inventory. Furthermore, its verbs distinguishes between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ entities, which is of close relation to the nature. On top of that, it is evident that Desano presents a clear cut between human beings and non human beings in regards to its lexicon, as illustrated by its strict structure of verb class. Desano’s verb class also details in singular or plural, high class or low class animates, and countable and uncountables (Silva, 2012). Overall, it is clear that Desano follows a clear and strict morphological order, which details from pronunciation to word choice, and from physical to supernatural state.

Pronouns in Desano[edit]

There are two kinds of pronouns in Desano, namely personal pronouns and demonstrative pronouns. Some comes with a masculine and feminine distinction in certain classes, similar to that of French or Portuguese.

Personal Pronouns[edit]

Personal pronouns in Desano are somewhat comparable to that of “I, we, you, they, he, she, it” in English, in a sense that there is a distinction between first, second, third person, and also singular or plural subjects.

1st person yʉu <yʉ'u> ~badi <mãɾĩ> gʉa <gʉa>

inclusive exclusive

2nd person ~buu <mu u> ~buu <mu u> ~bʉa <mʉ̃ ã>
3rd person ~igʉ




~ida <ĩɾã> or <ẽɾã>

Silva (2012)

Demonstrative Pronouns[edit]

Demonstrative pronouns are used to “make a distinction between ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’ (Silva 2012), such distinction of proximity could be understood as using ‘this’ or ‘that’ in English, in relation to the distance between the speaker and the object.

idi~ye [iɲẽẽ] 'this topic'


i-bu [ibu] 'this basket


idi-gu [iɾigʉ] 'this tree'


i-do [iɾo] 'this thing (inanimate)


i-ɾi [iɾi] 'these ones (inanimate)'


idi-sibu [iɾisibu] 'this time'


idi-pu [iɾipʉ] 'this other'


idi-ta [iɾita] 'this (emphatic)'


si-pu [sipʉ] 'that other'


si-go [sigo] 'that woman'


si-bu [sibu] 'that basket'


Verb Classes[edit]

The two main verb classes of Desano are stative and non-stative. There are five subcategories of stative verbs. Firstly, there is the copula verb /adi/, which is used to describe either temporary or permanent states. (Silva, 2012). There is also the non-existential verb /badi/, which is used for negation, stating that something does not exist. This can be used in combination with nouns to state the nonexistence of a noun. The third subcategory is the stative possessive, /ohpa/. This verb can be used to express “to have” or “to hold”, and can describe both temporary and permanent states (Silva, 2012). The fourth subcategory is locative and position verbs. This includes the verb /digi/ ‘be standing’, /bede/  or /duo/ ‘to stay’, and /peya/ ‘to be on top of’. The verb /peya/ appears dependently. Finally, there are descriptive stative verbs, which have the same function of adjectives. In general, Desano uses descriptive stative verbs rather than a separate class of adjectives (Silva, 2012).

There are four prominent subcategories of non-stative verbs. Firstly, there are active verbs which act as the subject of a clause, started by an active agent (Silva, 2012). There are transitive, intransitive, and ditransitive variations. The second subcategory is motion verbs, which includes basic motion, directional, and relational. The third subcategory is placement verbs, which occur independently. The fourth subcategory is verbs of perception and mental processes. Verbs of perception can be transitive or intransitive. Some examples are /yɑ̃/ ‘to see’ and /pe/ ‘to hear’. Mental process verbs include beye ‘to explain’ and kẽ ‘to dream’ (Silva, 2012).

Types of Nouns[edit]

Nouns in Desano are categorized by animate, which has subcategories of human and nonhuman, and inanimate, which has subcategories of countable and uncountable (Silva, 2012). Nouns that are human referents are marked by gender. The singular masculine marker is u/-gu and the singular feminine marker is -o/-go (Silva, 2012). Some nouns naturally have the gender marking suffix in them, due to an amalgamation of the root of the noun and the gender marking suffix, therefore they are considered to be inherently feminine or masculine (Silva, 2012).

Inherently Feminine Nouns Inherently Masculine Nouns

  1. yẽhkõ         ‘grandmother’ yẽhkʉ       ‘grandfather’
  2. buɾo           ‘old woman’. buɾʉ          ‘old man’
  3. mẽõ       ‘mom’ ʉ̃mʉ̃          ‘man’

Extracted from Silva (2012)


Case and Agreement[edit]

Desano is hierarchical. Third person is at the top of the hierarchy, followed by animate, then singular, and lastly, masculine (Kaye, 1970). At the end of declarative sentences in Desano, there are personal endings which are in agreement with the verb’s subject.

Personal endings in Desano (Kaye, 1970, p.84)

biN 3rd person, singular, masculine

boN 3rd person, singular, feminine

baN 3rd person, plural

byy non-3rd person/inanimate

Personal endings in use (1970, p.84 Kaye)

jyy waa+by ‘i go’

byyN waa+by ‘you go’

igyn waa+biN ‘he goes’

igo waa+boN ‘she goes’

gya waa+by ‘we (excl.) go’

badiN waa+by ‘we (incl.) go’

byaN waa+by ‘you-all go”

idaN waa+baN ‘they go’

wydidu waa+by ‘the airplane goes’

Singular is a feature often given by a base rule. Third person, animate, and masculine are often thought of as being inherent features of nouns, however there is some evidence that shows masculine behaves differently than third person and animate. The evidence supports the claim that it is a feature that is provided grammatically, not inherently a noun feature (Kaye, 1970). The masculine feature in Desano is unmarked, and only given to nouns that are animate-singular.

/abe/ ‘sun, moon’ Desano people would not consider this object to be feminin or masculin, therefore it is unmarked for gender. This means that in cases of agreement, /abe/ will act as a masculine noun (Kaye, 1970). Many nouns which are presented as unmarked for gender will behave as a masculine or feminine noun, with the only indication of gender being the personal verb ending (Kaye, 1970).


Tense Systems[edit]

Desano has three tenses, general, non-present, and remote, respectively. According to Kaye (1970), the three tenses are marked with T (general), a (non-present), and R (remote). General tense does not have an embedded timeframe, the time aspect is assumed to be at the time of speech (Kaye, 1970), which is comparable to present and present progressive tense in English. While on the other hand, non-present tense also does not specify a particular time or space, except for the differentiation from present time and present space where the conversation takes place. In which, the non-present tense could be used to demonstrate various distinct aspects of English at once, meaning it could be used for observed, non-visible, reported, and inferred situations. Lastly, remote tense refers to events that took place or will take place at a relative distance before or from the present time and/or space. Three tenses of Desano uses relative measurement of time and space, which relies heavier on the speaker’s judgement at the time of the conversation.

Examples of general tense, extracted from (Kaye, 1970):

Igo soda T E boN

She cook GEN ev. P.e.

“She cooks”

Jyy baa GY-i T E by

I eat partic-do GEN ev p.e.

“I am eating”

IgyN kadiN GY-i T E biN

He sleep partic-do GEN ev p.e.

“He is sleeping”

Examples of non-Present tense, extracted from (Kaye, 1970):

Jyy kadiN a E by

I sleep-pres ev. p.e. (Observed)

“I slept”

Juu dodeky a ko by

Ibe sick-pres ev. p.e. (Non-visible)

“I was sick”

IgyN aadi a jo py

He come-pres ev. P.e. (Reported)

“He came”

IdaN wai weheN daN ehea a jo baN

They fish kill partic went-pres ev. p.e. (Inferred)

“They went fishing”

Examples of Remote tense, extracted from (Kaye, 1970):

Dia aadiN R E by

River be REM ev. p.e.

“There is a river (far away)”

IgyN aadiN R E biN

He be REM ev. p.e.

“He was there (a long time ago), he is there (far away)”

Jyy baa R E by

Ieat REM ev. p.e.

“I ate (long ago)”

Jyy kabisaN de asuN R E by

I shirt oblique buy REM ev. p.e.

“I bought a shirt (long ago)”

From the examples above, it is evident that the tense marker is clearly visible in the written script. Instead of modifying the target verb like many language (such as transforming eat to ate for past tense in English), Desano tense markers comes in the form of an additional block after the target verb (illustrated by T, e, and R). Overall, Desano tense works closely with its unique mood system, which also embeds emotion into the written form of the grammar itself.


Cabalzar, Aloisio,  Stephan Hugh-Jones. 2018. “Desana.” Languages - Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, Equipe Do Programa Rio Negro Do Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) Retrieved from:

Chacon, Thiago Costa. 2007. Estudo fonológico comparativo Tukano-Desano Monografia de Iniciação Científica, UnB

Kaye, Jonathan Derek. 1971. Nasal harmony in Desano. Linguistic Inquiry 2. 37-56.

Kaye, Jonathan Derek. 1970. The Desano Verb: Problems in Semantics, Syntax and Phonology. Ann Arbor: UMI. (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University; 212pp.)

Miller, Marion. 1999. Desano grammar: Studies in the languages of Colombia 6. (Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Arlington Publications in Linguistics, 132.) Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Arlington. xi+178pp.

Silva, Wilson de Lima. 2012. A descriptive grammar of Desano. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Utah; 322pp.)