Sabanê language

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Native toBrazil
Ethnicity40 (2007)[1]
Native speakers
3 (2004)[1]
  • Sabanê
Language codes
ISO 639-3sae

The Sabanê language is one of the three major groups of languages spoken in the Nambikwara family. The groups of people who speak this language were located in the extreme north of the Nambikwara territory in the Rondônia and Mato Grosso states of western Brazil, between the Tenete Marques and Juruena rivers.[3] Today, most members of the group are found in the Pyreneus de Souza Indigenous Territory in the state of Rondonia.[3]

Currently, there are less than 5 native speakers of the Sabanê language, with all the speakers being more than 50 years old.[4] With no apparent transmission level, this language is considered as highly endangered when compared to the other two Nambikwara languages which have higher levels of transmission and preservation.[5]


Amongst the languages in the Nambikwara family, the Sabanê people have the smallest population size.[5] During World War II, many Nambikwara territories suffered from invasions brought about by the search for rubber to supply the war.[6] The installation of tappers resulted in the Nambikwara people being forced into hard labour. Many of the Sabanê people were amongst those forced to provide food crops for the tappers. Due to harsh working conditions, many of the Sabanê people tried to flee to the forest, however this action was met with violent retaliation from the tappers who would return them to the village and murder multiple leaders.[6] In addition, Sabanê people suffered from epidemics brought on by contact with the invaders of their land. This led to an immense loss of lives bringing the Sabanê people close to extinction.[5] Around 1930, the arrival of the Jesuit Missionaries in the Cerrado region brought formal education to the Nambikwara region. By the beginning of 1940, there was the first school called “Irmãzinhas da Imaculada Conceição”, where small groups of children learned to read and write. Consequently, with arrival of rubber tappers many roads began to open near the Nambikwara villages, which allowed for the formalization of indigenous education.[7]

Language Family[edit]

The Nambikwara linguistic family has no known relationships with any other South American linguistic families. The word Nambikwara, Tupi in origin and meaning pierced ear, was designated to the people occupying the northwest Mato Grosso and the border areas of Rondônia. Along with Sabanê, it includes the Southern and Northern Nambikwara languages. These three branches of Nambikwara further include more than fifteen languages and dialects.[4] Unlike Sabanê, Northern and Southern Nambikwara languages are well preserved with the Southern Nambikwara language having the highest level of transmission, with all its people being speakers of the language.[5]

Linguistic Origins and Literature[edit]

The first mention of the Sabanê people being described using this very distinction occurred in 1914, in an account from Cândido Rondon, a Brazilian explorer of Indigenous and Portuguese descent, while building a telegraph line through Nambikwaran land.[4] Linguistic documentation did not occur until Claude Lévi-Strauss, a philosopher on a French cultural expedition did so in 1948. While there was documentation of the language concerning classification done in 1919 by Edgar Roquette-Pinto, and again in 1948 by Rondon and Faria, these two reports did not include any linguistic details.[4] Levi-Strauss however created a word list, comprising fifty-six words, and began to describe the morphology and phonology of Sabanê in some detail. Levi-Strauss concluded that it was not possible to determine at that point whether Sabanê belonged to the Nambikwara family given significant morphological and phonological differences with the other Nambikwara languages.[4] In the following years, Sabanê appeared in some comparative analyses and more developed documentation of the linguistics of Sabanê emerged from this. The most notable of these comparative studies comes from David Price, from the University of Brasília in 1978, who described the phonology of Nambikwara languages in comparison to one another.[4]

Pedagogical Grammar[edit]

A comprehensive linguistic description focusing exclusively on Sabanê did not emerge until Gabriel Antunes de Araujo’s ‘A Grammar of Sabanê’, in 2004. Antunes de Araujo is a linguist and professor at the University of São Paulo. This book includes an extensive description of the phonology, morphology, syntax, adverbs, and interrogative words of the Sabanê language, along with some general historical and cultural information on the Sabanê people. Antunes de Araujo’s work remains the most comprehensive and complete documentation of the Sabanê language, and was sponsored by CAPES (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior), a body of the Brazilian government, as well as WOTRO, a Dutch organization.[4] Another notable documentation of the Sabanê language, Levi-Straus’ work, was supported by the French government.[4]


There have also been some (however very few) ethnographies on the Sabanê people- one of the most prominent being by Edwin Reesink in 2004, that primarily focuses on the cultural implications of names and naming in Sabanê culture, and was also sponsored by WOTRO.[6] This lack of documentation and information tends to be significant for Sabanê culture and language; while it appears in a number of works, it is usually only mentioned with very little information provided.


Sabanê has 16 phonemes — 11 consonants and 5 vowels. Each has different allophones.[4]


Sabanê's 11 consonants are shown in the table below.

Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Stops p t k ʔ
Implosive Stops ɓ ɗ
Fricatives s h
Nasals m n
Laterals l

The consonants used in Sabanê are similar to those for the Northern Nambikwara languages, although there are no implosives in Latundê. However, the Southern Nambikwara languages have different phonemes such as glottalized and aspirated consonants as wells as only one implosive /ɗ/ and one affricate //.[4]


Sabanê has 5 phonemic vowels, listed in the table below.[4]

Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Once again the vowels used in Sabanê are similar to Northern Nambikwara, but vary when compared to Southern Nambikwara. Southern Nambikwara has a much larger vowel inventory, including creaky and nasal vowels.[4]


The roots of nouns in Sabanê can only exist as parts of larger words (they are bound morphemes), and must be followed either by a referential suffix in isolation or by a referential or derivational suffix in context. There is no system for identifying a noun’s gender morphologically, so gender must be inferred or indicated lexically. This is also the case for age and numbers. Possessive pronouns are not required. Compounding is used frequently, with the combined meanings of the individual words often being very different from the meaning of the final compound. There are seven different classifiers for nouns.[4] The verbal theme is composed of a verbal root and verbal suffix, however these verbal suffixes can be attached to adjectives and numerals to make them verbal adjectives and verbal numerals. That being said, adjectives are actually considered verbs due to structural similarity. Morphemes are used to indicate an imminent action, while suffixes are used to indicate supposition, hearsay desire, and negation. Sentences can be either assertive, interrogative, or imperative. While the assertive and interrogative moods are marked by suffixes, the imperative mood is unmarked.[4]


Subject personal pronouns are mandatory in the absence of a nominal subject. There are two classes of personal pronouns: subject pronouns, which are free morphemes except for pi– and object pronouns, which are bound morphemes.[4]

Person Subject Object
Before vowels and glides Before consonants
1st person towali t- ta-
2nd person uli m- ma-
3rd person a-
1st person plural pi- p- pi-
2nd person plural uli m- ma-
3rd person plural a-

In Sabanê the pronouns uli and towali are free morphemes which means that they do not appear affixed to the verb.[4]

    towali ilaw -n -al -i
1SG.SUBJ to be big -VS -Pres Neut ASSR
"I am fat."
    uli wola kiki -n -datinan
2SG.SUBJ a lot to scratch -VS -Pres Ev
"You scratch it a lot."

The pronouns p-, m-, t-, a- and pi-, ma-,ta- , are all bound morphemes, therefore they appear prefixed on the verb.[4]

    uli pi- kal -i -dana
2SG.SUBJ 1PL.OBJ- to cut -VS -Pres Ev
"You cut us."
    wayulu t- ip -i -datinan
dog 1SG.OBJ- to see -VS -Pret Ev
"The dog saw me."
    towali -mi m- yotop -a -dana
1SG.SUBJ -REF 2PL.OBJ- to know -VS -Pres Ev
"I know you."

Note that in Sabanê, the third person singular and plural subject are not phonologically expressed. The third person singular and plural object are only phonologically expressed when the verb begins with a consonant.[4] (As seen below)

    ileypelu a- kalit -i -al -i
today/now 3SG.OBJ- to cook -VS -Pres Neut -Assr
"She cooks it now."

Negation of Verbs in Sabanê[edit]

In the Sabanê language, negation of a verb is not marked by a single word on its own like languages such as English or Portuguese. Instead, negation is marked by the particle -mi(si)na which is suffixed to the verbal theme. Because this particle is affixed to the verb it cannot stand by itself. Generally, the shorter form -mina is used more often that the longer form -misina.[4]

    kanaysik ii -n -mina -al -i
pepper to be hot -VS -NEG -Pres Neut -Assr
"The pepper is not hot."

However, in cases where the progressive suffix -say is used, -mi(si)na can optionally occur after this progressive suffix instead of after the verbal suffix. Native speakers do this switching, but the meaning of the sentence does not change.[4]

    Ani -n -say -mina -al -i
to feel -VS -PROG -NEG -Pres Neut -Assr     Ani -n -mina -say -al -i
to feel -VS -NEG -PROG -Pres Neut -Assr
"S/he is not pretending ."

Negation in the imperative mood is similarly obtained, by which the negative particle is suffixed to the verbal theme.[4]

    t- osa -n -mina
1SG.OBJ- to give -VS -NEG
"Do not give it to me!"

Lastly, because -mi(si)na is a bound morpheme it can not grammatically form a sentence. This means that when responding to a question negatively, a full sentence must be constructed.[4]

    isun -i -al -a
to be angry -VS -Pres Neut -INT
"Is s/he angry"
Grammatical answer:
    isun -i -mina -al -i
to be angry -VS -NEG -Pres Neut Assr
"She is not angry"
Ungrammatical answer:
* Mina

Oppositional morphological marking of assertive and interrogative sentences[edit]

Most languages in the world do not morphologically express an opposition between assertive and interrogative sentences. That being said, Sabanê uses an assertive suffix (-i), and an interrogative suffix (-a), attached to neutral tense forms of verbs.[4]

    iney -i -ntal -i
to fall -VS -PRET NEUT -ASSR
"S/he fell."

While the few languages that do express a morphological opposition for assertive and interrogative sentences, they typically leave the assertive unmarked, while Sabanê marks both the assertive and the interrogative. The suffixes used to mark these ‘moods’ occupy the same syntactic slot, so the use of one suffix excludes the use of the other. In Sabanê the interrogative suffix must occur with a question word, such as ‘who’ or ‘what’.[4]

    iney -i -ntal -a
to fall -VS -PRET NEUT -INT
"Did s/he fall?"


Case and Agreement[edit]

In order to discuss Sabanê’s case system, it is first important to define certain terms used to represent arguments of differing roles, and how they are used to classify case systems. These three terms are S, A, and P. S is used to describe the only nominal argument of a single-argument clause.[8] A and P are used within multi-argument clauses however, with A describing the most-agent like argument and P describing the most patient-like argument. In Sabanê, patient S arguments of some intransitive verbs are marked the same as P arguments of transitive sentences, being marked by a -k.[4] Conversely, A arguments as well as S arguments of transitive sentences are not marked.[4] Given these conditions of Sabanê’s system, it is categorized as Split Intransitive.[4] A Split Intransitive case system is described as a system in which some S arguments are marked like transitive P arguments, while others are marked like transitive A arguments. The evolutionary process of this kind of system is typically made up of several successive developments over time, however given the lack of data for Sabanê the development of its particular split intransitivity is not known.[4] The following examples are examples of the presence and absence of markings for S, A, and P arguments in Sabanê.

Patient S argument of intransitive verb (marked with -k)

    Towali kiata -k ilul -i -datinan
1SUBJ corn -OBJ to eat -VS -PRET EV
"I ate corn"

S argument of transitive verb unmarked

    Towali ilul -i -dana
1SUBJ to eat -VS -PRES EV
"I eat."

A argument of transitive sentence

    Manoel t- osa -n -ntal -i anose -mi
Manoel 1OBJ to give -VS -PRET NEUT -ASSR bowl -REF
"Manoel gave me a bowl."

Agentive pronouns are used in Sabanê to mark volitional verbs (controlled actions), while patientive pronouns are used to mark non-volitional verbs (uncontrolled actions). Below is a table of the agentive and patientive pronouns in Sabanê.[4]

Person Agentive Patientive (Before vowels and glides) Patientive (Before consonants)
1st person towali t- ta-
1st person plural pi- p- pi-
2nd person uli m- ma-
3rd person a-

While Sabane exhibits a split intransitive case system, this system has some specific rules. Objects expressed by nouns in transitive sentences must be marked by -k, and if it expressed by a pronoun the pronoun must be patientive.[4] Subjects in transitive sentences are unmarked if they are a proper noun and the object is marked by -k. Agreement markers in Sabanê do not exist, shown particularly through the lack of grammatical gender, and lack of morphological opposition between animate and inanimate objects.[4]


Tense Structure[edit]

In Sabane, all sentences must include a tense morpheme, with the exception of sentences in the imperative mood.[4] Unlike many other Brazilian languages, Sabane consists of three tenses: the past, the present and the future. These tense morphemes are bound morphemes (suffixes) that appear after the verbal theme or other verbal suffixes in a sentence. Additionally, in Sabane evidentiality and tense are combined into a single morpheme. This means that this language distinguishes between evidential events (sensory or inferential) and non-evidential/ neutral events (neutral or inferred neutral), which is all marked with tense.[4]

  • Note: the assertive morpheme -i or the interrogative morpheme -a can only be used to mark neutral tense.
Past morpheme Present morpheme Future morpheme
Non evidential: Neutral -ntal (PRET NEUT) -al (PRES NEUT) -tapanal (FUT NEUT)
Non evidential: Inferred Neutral -np (PRET NEUT)
Evidential: Sensory -datinan (PRET EV) -dana (PRES EV) -telo (FUT EV)
Evidential: Inferential -tika (PASS INF)

The Past[edit]

The past consists of four forms, which are morphologically marked and based on evidentiality and non evidentiality.

-ntal assumes neutrality in the sentence.

    Manoel a- kan -n -ntal -i*
Manoel 3OBJ- to kill -VS -PRET NEUT -ASSR
"Manoel killed him"
    Hay ay -i -ntal -a*
already to go -VS -PRET NEUT -INT
"Did s/he already go?"

-np is used when the speaker believes that an event could have happened based on inference.

    m- yotop -i -np -i*
"(one infers that) you knew it"
    m- yotop -i -np -a*
"Did you know it (it seems you did)"

-datinan is used when the hearer concludes that the sentence is factual based on the speaker's availability of sensory evidence.

    wayulu -mi ip -i -datinan
dog -REF to run -VS -PRET EV
"The dog ran"

-tika is used when the speaker uses hearsay evidence for the factuality of an event.

    may -i -mina -tika -towali ay -i telon
to walk -VS -NEG -PASS INF 1SUBJ to go -VS FUT EV
"He did not arrive (because of the fact that) I am leaving"

*note:-tika is only found in sentences preceding evidential sentences

The distinction between recent past (today) and less recent pass (yesterday and beyond) is expressed by using the adverbs ileypelu ‘today’ and ileytika ‘yesterday’.

    ileypelu -a kalit -i -datinan
today -3OBJ to cook -VS -PRET EV
"S/he cooked it today"
    ileytika -a kalit -i -datinan
today -3OBJ to cook -VS -PRET EV
"S/he cooked it yesterday "

The Present[edit]

There are two morphemes that are used to mark present tense in Sabane: -al is used for the present neutral and -dana is used for the present evidential.

-al assumes neutrality in the sentence

    ilul -i -say -al -i*
"She is eating"

-dana is used to infer factuality of the sentence and implies that there is sensory evidence

    towali ilul -i -dana
1SUBJ to eat -VS -PRES EV
"I eat"

The Future[edit]

There are two morphemes that are used to mark future tense in Sabane: -tapanal is used for the neutral future and -telon is used for the evidential future.

-tapanal can only be used in a non-factual or elicited sentence

    ilul -i -tapanal -i*
to eat -VS -FUT NEUT -ASSR
"S/he will eat"

-telon can only be used in a sentence in which the speaker is confident regarding its factuality

    amayl -i -telon
to rain -VS -FUT EV
"It is going to rain"


  1. ^ a b Sabanê at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Sabane". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ a b Miller, Joana. (2008). "Povos Indigenas No Brasil, Instituto Sociambiental". Instituto Socioambiental.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag Antunes de Araujo, Gabriel (2004). A Grammar of Sabanê, a Nambikwara Language (PDF). The Netherlands: LOT publications. ISBN 9076864594.
  5. ^ a b c d Moore, D. (2006). "Brazil:Language Situation". Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/B0-08-044854-2/01855-1.
  6. ^ a b c Reesink, E.B. (2010). "An Introduction To Three Nambikwara Ethnohistories". Rozenberg Publishers.
  7. ^ Saramago de Souza, Ilma; Bruno, Marilda (2012). "O povo sabanê e o processo civilizador: algumas reflexões sobre o lugar da educação formal indígena" [The Sabanê people and the civilizing process: some reflections on the place of formal education] (PDF) (in Portuguese).
  8. ^ Payne, Thomas (1997). Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguistics. England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521588057.