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					                                      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.
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.
                 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.
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.
                BILABIAL DENTAL                        PALATAL VELAR GLOTTAL
                p        b t         d                              k          „
                                          ts           ch      y
                                          s            sh                      j
VIBRANT                                   rr
RETROFLEX                                 l
GEMINATED     jp          jt            jts          jch          jk
COARTICULAT               (tk)                                    tk
Table 2. Position of Bribri consonants. (Constenla, 1998)
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
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
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
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.