Kuna language

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Native toPanama, Colombia
RegionSan Blas Islands, Panama; north coastal region, Colombia
EthnicityKuna people
Native speakers
61,000 (2000–2012)[1]
  • Kuna–Colombian
    • Kuna
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
cuk – San Blas Kuna
kvn – Border Kuna
Kuna woman selling Molas

The Kuna language (formerly Cuna, and in the language itself Guna), spoken by the Kuna people of Panama and Colombia, belongs to the Chibchan language family.


The Kuna were living in what is now Northern Colombia and the Darién Province of Panama at the time of the Spanish invasion, and only later began to move westward towards what is now Guna Yala due to a conflict with Spanish and other indigenous groups. Centuries before the conquest, the Kuna arrived in South America as part of a Chibchan migration moving east from Central America. At the time of the Spanish invasion, they were living in the region of Uraba and near the borders of what are now Antioquia and Caldas. Alonso de Ojeda and Vasco Núñez de Balboa explored the coast of Colombia in 1500 and 1501. They spent the most time in the Gulf of Urabá, where they made contact with the Kuna.

In far-eastern Guna Yala, the community of New Caledonia is near the site where Scottish explorers tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a colony in the "New World". The bankruptcy of the expedition has been cited as one of the motivations of the 1707 Acts of Union.

There is a wide consensus regarding the migrations of Kuna from Colombia and the Darien towards what is now Guna Yala. These migrations were caused partly by wars with the Catio people, but some sources contend that they were mostly due to bad treatment by the Spanish invaders. The Kuna themselves attribute their migration to Guna Yala to conflicts with the native peoples, and their migration to the islands to the excessive mosquito populations on the mainland.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Panamanian government attempted to suppress many of the traditional customs. This was bitterly resisted, culminating in a short-lived yet successful revolt in 1925 known as the Tule Revolution (or people revolution), led by Iguaibilikinya Nele Gantule of Ustupu and supported by American adventurer and part-time diplomat Richard Marsh[3] - and a treaty in which the Panamanians agreed to give the Kuna some degree of cultural autonomy.[3]


Kuna language recognizes four vowel phonemes and 17 consonantal phonemes.


Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Vowels may be short or long.


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Lax Stops [p] <b> [t] <d> [k] <g>
Tense Stops [pː] <bb> [tː] <dd> [kː] <gg>
Lax Nasals [m] <m> [n] <n>
Tense Nasals [mː] <mm> [nː] <nn>
Affricate [tʃ] <ds, ss>
Fricative [s] <s>
Lax Lateral l [l]
Tense Lateral ll [lˑ]
Rhotic r [ɾ]
Approximants w [w] y [j]

Most consonants may appear either as short (lax) or long (tense). The long consonants only appear in intervocalic position. However, they are not always a result of morpheme concatenation, and they often differ phonetically from the short analogue. For example, the long stop consonants p, t, and k are pronounced as voiceless, usually with longer duration than in English. The short counterparts are pronounced as voiced b, d, and g when they are between vowels or beside sonorant consonants m, n, l, r, y, or w (they are written using b, d, and g in the Kuna alphabet). At the beginnings of words, the stops may be pronounced either as voiced or voiceless; and are usually pronounced as voiceless word-finally (Long consonants do not appear word-initially or word-finally). In an even more extreme case, the long s is pronounced [tʃ]. Underlying long consonants become short before another consonant. The letter w may be pronounced as either [v] or [w] depending on dialect and position.

In 2010, the National Kuna Congress decided a spelling reform by which long consonants should be written with double letters. Equally, the phonemes /p, t, k/ that may sound like [p, t, k] or [b, d, g] are represented by ⟨b, d, g⟩ in all positions. Equally, the old digraph ⟨ch⟩ becomes ⟨ss⟩ or ⟨ds⟩ depending on its morphological precedence (narassole [naraʧole] < naras + sole, godsa [koʧa] 'called' < godde 'to call' + -sa (past). So, the reformed orthography uses only the fifteen letters ⟨b, d, g, l, m, n, r, s, w, y; a, e, i, o, u⟩ for transcribing all the sounds of the language, with the digraphs ⟨bb, dd, gg, ll, mm, nn, ss⟩ for the tense consonants.[4]

Other phonological rules[edit]

The alveolar /s/ becomes the postalveolar [ʃ] after /n/ or /t/. Both long and short /k/ become [j] before another consonant.


Kuna is an agglutinative language which contains words of up to about 9 morphemes, although words of two or three morphemes are more common. Most of the morphological complexity is found in the verb, which contains suffixes of tense and aspect, plurals, negatives, position (sitting, standing, etc.) and various adverbials. The verb is not marked for person.


  1. ^ San Blas Kuna at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Border Kuna at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kuna". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ a b James Howe. A PEOPLE WHO WOULD NOT KNEEL: Panama, the United States, and the San Blas Kuna (Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry). Smithsonian, 1998. ISBN 978-1-56098-865-6
  4. ^ [1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Llerena Villalobos, Rito. (1987). Relación y determinación en el predicado de la lengua Kuna. Bogotá: CCELA – Universidad de los Andes. ISSN 0120-9507 (in Spanish)
  • Alphonse Louis Pinart (1890). Vocabulario castellano-cuna. Ernest Leroux. pp. 3. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  • Holmer, Nils Magnus (1952). Ethno-linguistic Cuna dictionary, with indices and references to A critical and comparative Cuna grammar (Etnologiska studier 14) and The grammatical sketch in Cuna chrestomathy (Etnologiska studier 18). Göteborg: Etnografiska Museet.
  • de Gerdes, Marta Lucía. (2003). "'The life story of grandmother Elida': Kuna personal narratives as verbal art." In Translating native Latin American verbal art: Ethnopoetics and ethonography of speaking. Kay Sammons and Joel Sherzer, eds. Washington, D.C
  • Wikaliler Daniel Smith. 2014. A Grammar of Guna: A Community-Centered Approach. University of Texas at Austin.

External links[edit]