Kayapo language

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Native toBrazil
RegionMato Grosso
Native speakers
8,638 (2010)[1]
  • Je
    • Northwest
      • Kayapó
Language codes
ISO 639-3txu

Kayapó, also known as Mẽbengokre, is a Jê language of Brazil. It is an indigenous language used in the eastern part of the Amazon, north of Mato Grosso and Para in Brazil.[3] Mebengokre belongs to the Jê family and the Macro-Jê family stock. There are around 8,638 native speakers since 2010 based on the 2015 Ethnologue 18th edition. Due to the number of speakers the influence of Portuguese speakers, the language stands at a sixth level of endangerment; in which the materials for literacy and education in Kayapô are very limited.


The names Kayapô and Mebengokre do not only make reference to the language itself but have also been used to classify the indigenous communities that speak this language. Kayapô means “those who look like monkeys”[4] and has been used to distinguish the Kayapô group from the other Mebengokre speaking peoples. The name Mebengokre has a meaning of itself; when referring to people, it means “the men of the hole/place of water.”[5] "Although there are differences between the dialects spoken among the various ethnic groups, all recognize themselves as participants in a common culture."[6]

The first historical records of the Kayapô language and culture date back to the end of the 19th century written by the French explorer Henri Coudreau, who came in contact with the Irã'ã Mrãjre Kayapô. The following writings were made by the missionaries who arrived to Brazil later in the century to Christianize the indigenous people. Known authors of such period are Father Sebastião and Reverend Horace Banner, who lived among another Mebengokre group known as Gorotire Kayapó between 1937 and 1951.[5] Although, “the Mebengokre [have been in] permanent contact with the surrounding non-indigenous population at various times, in most cases [there have been] catastrophic consequences.[3] The Irã'ã Mrãjre are now extinct, and the population of the Gorotire Kayapó decreased by 80% during the first years of contact. Following such brutal experiences, some small refused to be approached by investigators and remain uncontacted around the Xingu and Curua rivers.

Since the exploration period, academic linguists and anthropologists have investigated the Mebengokre and have successfully acquired a body of knowledge about this indigenous group. There are academic writings on the descriptive grammar and phonology of Kayapô language; some by Stout and Thomson in 1974, and Borgues in 1995, dictionaries with Portuguese translations; syntactic and phonological studies by Andres Salanova and Amelia Silva, translations of the New Testament into Kayapô published in 1996, and literary works including myth and ritual stories and descriptions of the Mebengokre speaking communities.

Furthermore, the Brazilian organization ProDocult began a documentation project of the Kayapô language and culture in April 2009 and thus far have produced "150 hours of video recording, 15 hours of audio recording and more than 6,000 digital photos, in addition to ... films [containing] records of "culture" Mebengokre, and how could it be ... highly dynamic [in its] creative aspect."[7]


Mebengokre/Kayapô is composed of 16 consonants and 17 vowels;[8] vowel production occurs both orally and nasally. Voiced oral stops are a unique feature of Mebengokre among the Jȇ family[vague].


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Voiceless stop p t t͡ʃ k ʔ
Voiced stop b d d͡ʒ g
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Liquid w ɾ j


Oral Nasal
i ɯ u ĩ ɯ̃ ũ
e ɤ o õ
ɛ ʌ ɔ ʌ̃
a ã


The morphological aspect of the Kayapô is still under research given the complexity that nasality adds to the construction of morpho-syntactic. According to Linguistics Ph.D Professor Patience Epps “the manifestation of nasality in Amazonian languages has practical implications for the development of orthographies.”[9] As well, languages from the Amazon are “weakly-tensed languages; where tense may be left unexpressed” (18). In the case of Kayapô, verbs inflect through reduplication and although there is no morphological distinction between present and past, the completion or continuation of an action is determined by the narrative context.

Reduplication indicates repeated actions and transitivity of verbs as follows:[10]

totyktyk ‘to strike repeatedly’ totyk ‘to strike’
kyjkyj ‘to make many scratches’ kyj ‘a scratch or cut’
krãkrãk ‘to swallow’ tokrãk ‘to swallow at once’

In some verbs, such as prõrprõt (to float up and down or), there is variation in order to follow the /r/ to /t/ to the syllabic structures C(C)V and C(C)VC.


Mebengokre has a set of pronouns to which affixes can be added during the formation of sentence types.

Basic form of pronouns:

Subject Position Object position
1 ba 1 i
2 a/ɡa 2 ɡa
3 Ø * 3 ku*
1+ ɡu 1+ ba
2+ ɡa 2+ ɡa

* Third person can occur in different ways; by not adding inflection to words that are normally inflected and by affixing ku- to a small class of transitive verbs and prepositions to form an accusative sentence.


Case System[edit]

In Mebengokre any content word can be a direct object. Mebengokre has a split case system composed of the nominative, ergative, absolute and accusative (direct object) cases; each with different affixes.[11]

Nominative Ergative
1st exclusive ba ba ari ba mẽ ije ar ije mẽ ije
1st inclusive ɡu ɡuaj ɡu mẽ ɡu baje ɡuaj baje mẽ baje
2nd ɡa ɡa ari ɡa mẽ aje ar aje mẽ aje
3rd Ø ari mẽ kutɛ ari kutɛ mẽ kutɛ

*Paucal / PC: refers to plurality with a small cardinality.[12]

Absolute Accusative
1st exclusive i- ar i- mẽ i- ba ari ba mẽ ba
1st inclusive ɡu ba- ɡuaj ba- mẽ ba- ɡu ba ɡuaj ba ɡu mẽ baje
2nd a- ar a- mẽ a- ɡa ari ɡa mẽ ɡa
3rd Ø ari mẽ kutɛ ari kutɛ mẽ kutɛ

Nominative and Ergative Case[edit]

These cases are mandatory to express the subject of the sentence. For instance:


a) arɤm nẽ ba ar i.tẽm mʌ̃

now Non-FUT 1Nom PC 1.go to

‘We are leaving’

b) dʒʌ̃m nẽ ga aje ɔmũɲ ket

INT Non-FUT 2Nom 2Erg 3+see Neg

‘Don’t you see?’

In 1a. the nominative case introduces the subject of the main clause while 2b. introduces the subject in a subordinate clause with a non-finite verb.

Absolute case[edit]

The absolute case is not unique to subject and object arguments of non-finite verbs. It is also used when representing the object argument of finite verbs. For instance:


uɤrɤ mã nẽ tẽ

3+shower to Non-FUT Go

'He/She is taking a shower / going to take a shower'

Accusative case[edit]

It is the same as the absolute case, except it present in transitive verbs.


arɤm nẽ ba ku.ma

Already Non-FUT 1Nom 3Acc.Listen/hear

‘I heard it [already]’



Mebengokre tenses are expressed in terms of finiteness rather than aspectual morphology. The following sentence shows the role of verbal finiteness when determining tense:



krwɣj jã nẽ mop krẽ

parakeet DEM NFUT Malanga eat.V

‘This parakeet ate (the) Malanga’


krwɣj jã nẽ kutɛ mop krẽn

parakeet DEM NFUT 3RG Malanga eat.N

‘This parakeet has eaten Malanga (at least once in his life)’

The semantic interpretation of 4a positions the events with respect to the time which can only be determined by narrative context.In contrast, 4b makes the event not "anaphoric to discourse, but rather coterminous with the subject’s lifespan (mutatis mutandis for inanimate subjects). This interpretation has been variously described as “stative” or “subject-oriented” (in the sense that it ascribes a property to the subject, rather than focusing on the event itself) in the descriptive literature.”[13]


  1. ^ Kayapó at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kayapo". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ a b Salanova, Andres. "Mebengokre". Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  4. ^ Turner, Terence. “Os Mebengokre Kayapô: Historia E Mudança Social, De comunidades autónomas para a coexistência interétnica.” 1992. Translated by Beatriz Moises. <http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/hist%3Ap311-338/p311-338_Turner_Os_Mebengokre_Kayapô.pdf> Accessed 30 September 2016.
  5. ^ a b Verswijver, Gustaff. "Kayapó." Enciclopédia dos Povos Indígenas no Brasil. 2002. <https://pib.socioambiental.org/en/povo/Kayapô/print> Accessed 30 September 2016.
  6. ^ “Kayapô/Mebengokre” Encuentro Do Culturas. 2012. <http://www.encontrodeculturas.com.br/2012/artista/Kayapô-mebengokre> Accessed 30 September 2016.
  7. ^ Kayapô." ProDocult. 2015.<http://prodocult.museudoindio.gov.br/etnias/Kayapô/projeto> Accessed 30 September 2016.
  8. ^ Salanova, A. P. (2001). A nasalidade em Mebengokre e Apinayé: o limite do vozeamento soante. Master's thesis, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas.
  9. ^ Epps, Patience and Salanova, Andres. 2012. Languages of Amazonia. 2012.<http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~asalanov/Docs/amazonian.pdf> Accessed 6 November 2016
  10. ^ Salanova, Andres. “Reduplication and Verbal number in Mebengokre> 27 Feb 2011. <http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~asalanov/Docs/reduplication.pdf> Accessed 6 December 2016
  11. ^ Silva, M.A and Salanova, Andres. “Verbo y ergatividad escindida en Mêbêngôkre” 2000. <http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~asalanov/Docs/verbo.pdf> Accessed 6 December 2016.
  12. ^ Cable, Seth. “Proseminar on Semantic theory.” University of Massachusetts. 2010.<http://people.umass.edu/scable/LING720-FA10/Handouts/Number-Beyond-Plural.pdf> Accessed 6 December 2016.
  13. ^ Salanova, Andres. “Building Blocks of Aspectual Interpretation. 2007. <http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~asalanov/Docs/meb-aspect.pdf> Accessed 6 December 2016.

See also[edit]