Bribri in Costa Rica: Creating, Using and Preserving a Written Language Bribri is a tonal indigenous language that belongs to the Chibchan family, the most spread linguistic family in Baja Centroamérica. Other indigenous languages spoken in Costa Rica, such as Cabécar, Boruca, Térraba, Guaimí and Guatuso, also belong to the Chibchan family. The speakers of Bribri are located mainly in the south east part of Costa Rica, in Talamanca (Limón) and Buenos Aires (Puntarenas), on both sides of the Talamanca Mountain Range. According to the national census (2000), there were around 11,000 speakers of Bribri in these two “cantones”, 60% of them native speakers of the language. These numbers only represent 0.7% of the total Costa Rican population. Members of these communities depend basically on their agricultural products for survival, such as rice, corn, beans, pejibayes, cocoa and plantain. Bribri had always been a spoken language until the second half of the 20th century when Jack Wilson, an American linguist settled in Costa Rica, started to systematically transcribe the sounds of the language using the Latin alphabet to represent its sounds with academic purposes. His initiative was then continued and finished by Adolfo Constenla Umaña, a Costa Rican linguist who has dedicated his life to study the different indigenous languages spoken in Costa Rica, more specifically Bribri, a language in the verge of disappearing. Vowels Bribri, as many other languages, has vowels, consonants and semi-consonants. The vowels are represented with the following symbols: a, e, ë, i, o, ö, u (oral vowels); ã, ẽ, ĩ, õ, ũ (nasal vowels) and the ones used for the semi-vowels are w and j. The oral vowels are pronounced by letting the airstream pass through the mouth only (as it happens with Spanish vowels). Most of these vowels may appear only on the last syllable or final syllable of most of the morphemes (roots and suffixes), with the exception of some words borrowed from Spanish and some proper names. Non-final syllables of Bribri only use the following vowels: a, i, u. The letter a in final syllables is pronounced the same as in Spanish, and in non-final syllables is pronounced as a short vowel, and can be compared to the pronunciation of the a in the English word about. The u and i are pronounced as in Spanish; e is a front vowel and it is pronounced as in the English word bed, while the ë is pronounced similar to the English word sick. The o is pronounced in a similar way as the English word north, and the ö is pronounced as look. The nasal vowels are pronounced letting some airstream pass through the nose. The pronunciation and production of these vowels are often compared to the Portuguese nasal vowels when written am, em, im, om, um. VOWELS ORAL NASAL FRONT CENTRAL BACK FRONT CENTRAL BACK HIGH i u ĩ ũ MID HIGH e ö MID LOW ë o ẽ õ LOW a ã Table 1. Position of Bribri vowels. (Constenla, 1998) The semi-consonants represent a special situation in Bribri, since the phonemes /i/ and /u/ sometimes work as the semi-consonants [j] and [w] when they are placed before another vowel working as the nucleus of the syllable. Consonants The symbols used to represent the consonants are b, ch, d, j, k, l, m, n, n, ñ, p, r, s, t, y. The nasal consonants m, n and ñ have different features on their pronunciation. The nasal m is pronounced as in Spanish, with the exception of the final position m, after an accented vowel (as in the Bribri tùm: eye of water) when it is frequently pronounced as n. Final position n should never be pronounced as in Costa Rican Spanish but as in the regional variant of Mexico, Spain or Chile or as in English; the final n in Bribri is considered to be an alveolar nasal. The letter ñ is pronounced as [d3]. The vibrant l is considered to be a lateral vibrant, and it is not pronounced as the Spanish l. It is hard to produce the correct sound without producing the lateral sound of the letter r. The pronunciation of the letter j is a combination of an aspirated h and an aspirated velar with little friction (like the j pronounced in Costa Rica). An interesting feature of the Bribri consonants is the use of a “saltillo” („), pronounced by holding the air in the glottis with the vocal cords. It resembles the sound produced when someone hoarse. In English, it is used before the vowel o in Oh! Oh! Most Bribri speakers use the “saltillo” only at the end of a sentence. CONSONA NTS ALVEOLA BILABIAL DENTAL PALATAL VELAR GLOTTAL R OCLUSSIV p b t d k „ E AFFRICAT ts ch y E FRICATIV s sh j E VIBRANT rr LATERAL RETROFLEX l OCLUSSIVE GEMINATED jp jt jts jch jk OCLUSSIVE COARTICULAT (tk) tk ED Table 2. Position of Bribri consonants. (Constenla, 1998) Tones Bribri is a tonal language which means that it uses height to distinguish between words that are written in the same way, that is, to convey meaning. The tonal phonemes in Bribri are low /_/, high /ˉ , descending , and ascending //. Some samples of how the tones are used to differentiate words are the following: alà means son alá means thunder a’s means bird blood of bull às means for wa’k means going down wák means owner The process of transcribing sounds into letters Although this was the most interesting feature of the Bribri language for me, I could not find published information or references about it. It seems that the only way to retrieve information is directly from the researchers and community leaders who know how the process started and was continued by governmental institutions, such as Ministerio de Educación Pública and Ministerio de Cultura. Due to the inability to meet with these people during the first weeks of this year (most government offices do not start working until the first week of February), I was not able to interview them and retrieve this information. I consider very important to find a way to keep this information for future reference in order to understand reasons and processes followed to achieve the purpose of maintaining an indigenous language as important as Bribri. Use of the language “Cada idioma es un gran invento humano, una creación de su creatividad. Cada idioma que desaparece es una pérdida porque se extingue una evolución de muchos siglos.” María Eugenia Bozzoli, Anthropologist The situation of Bribri as an “official” language of the Bribri indigenous communities is not very optimistic. Researchers have been predicting the soon disappearance of the language due to different reasons. As Díaz mentioned in her article, some of those reasons are the predominant use of Spanish as the language to communicate with other communities, the tendency to stop using the indigenous languages within the indigenous communities, and the slow development of the indigenous communities. (Díaz, 2007). A major cause of this future disappearance along with the migration situation of the reserve inhabitants is that the language is no longer used as an effective tool to communicate with family and neighbors. Some members of the community have left the reserves to move to the bigger towns, searching for new opportunities and access to health and educational benefits. Some others still live in the reserves, but go outside on daily basis to work, which means that they have to be able to effectively communicate in Spanish. Another situation happening in the reserves is the continuous migration of outsiders to the communities, with the intention to help the indigenous population. With this good intention, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, and teachers have been visiting the area since the 1960‟s in order to learn from them and also to offer them the opportunity to have access to the health care programs offered by the government, as well as an elementary education in Spanish and in Bribri. However, the help offered has not been tempting enough for most of the members of the community to stick to the use of their language and the practice of their traditions. Constenla predicts (as cited in Díaz, 2007) that within 50 years, indigenous people will only speak Spanish, and will no longer use or remember their original indigenous language. The president of Mesa Indígena (an indigenous organization), Donald Rojas, declares that around 60% of the indigenous population is under 18 years old, and that they consider their own language to be useless in their professional lives. In the opposite hand, Spanish helps them find better jobs, pursue higher education and entertain them. Këla sa-dékala siâdëlaë se‟la dëka siâdëlaë. Sa-dëya yulërba se‟la dëka; chkàlia nalia se‟la dëka. Sibörö di’röla, Sulérö stëröla, se‟la kë a, Keshkala moshkala dile dole, atkala shpötkala këla kéi, kueila sùne se‟ wa. No vinimos desde abajo así, sino humildes tan solo; vinimos humildes tan solo. Como niños, como pequeños vinimos, como carne, como materia humana vinimos. Aguas de Sibö, compuestos de la Originadora, aquello no es lo nuestro. Del altanero, del arrogante, del soberbio, del altivo, del valentón, del bravucón, el mundo no lo conocemos. Chant retrieved from Cornelia Morales. (Constenla, 2006) Works cited Constenla, A. (2006). Poesía Bribri de lo cotidiano. San Jose: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Works consulted Constenla, A. (1979). Bribri II. San Jose: Escuela de Filología, Universidad de Costa Rica. Constenla, A. (1998). Curso básico de Bribri. San Jose: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Constenla, A. (2006). Poesía Bribri de lo cotidiano. San Jose: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Díaz, D. (2007, November 18). Lenguas indígenas en nuestro país están condenadas a morir. La Nación, p. 18A. García, G. (1986). Stsawö we. Texto II para la enseñanza de la lectura y escritura de la lengua Bribri. San Jose: Asesoría Nacional de Educación Indígena. Jara, C. V. (1997). Kó Késka. El lugar del tiempo. San Jose: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Jara, C.V. (2002, July-December) Tipología del orden de palabras en bribri. Revista de Filología y Lingüística de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Jara, C. V. (2004). Observaciones para el estudio dialectológico de la lengua bribri. Estudios de Lingüística Chibcha, Number 23.