In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tucanoan Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Classification
  • Internal Classifications
  • Historical
  • Grammars
  • Other Major Grammatical Analyses
  • Sketch Grammars
  • Pedagogical Grammars
  • Archives and Other Resources

Linguistics Tucanoan Languages
Kristine Stenzel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0150


Tucanoan languages are spoken in northwestern Amazonia, in regions of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, the family being composed of two main branches. Orejón (earlier known as Coto and currently as Máíjɨki, spoken in Peru), Coreguaje, Secoya, and Siona (spoken in the Caquetá-Putumayo region in Colombia and Ecuador) constitute the smaller Western branch. The sixteen surviving languages of the Eastern branch: Bará (Waimajã), Barasana, Desano, Carapana, Cubeo, Macuna, Piratapuyo (Wa’ikhana) Pisamira, Siriano, Taiwano (Eduria), Tanimuca/Retuarã, Tatuyo, Tucano (Ye’pa-masa), Tuyuca, Wanano/Guanano (Kotiria), and Yuruti, are spoken in the upper Negro River region, which spans the Brazil-Colombia border and encompasses the Vaupés River basin, as well as the Pirá-Paraná and lower Apaporis Rivers, affluents of the Caquetá/Japurá. Groups in the Eastern and Western branches are not in contact and their languages display many divergent features. Documentation of Tucanoan languages began with early-20th-century word lists. From the 1960s through the 1990s, missionaries affiliated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador produced numerous sketch grammars, pedagogical grammars, and dictionaries for languages from both branches. A good part of this literature is in Spanish and most is available online. A representative selection of SIL studies is cited in this article. Other scholarship on Tucanoan languages includes academic theses, descriptive grammars, typological and areal studies, and several recently developed digital archives. Among the most interesting aspects of morphology in Tucanoan languages are extensive noun classification and evidential marking systems. Important elements of syntax, semantics, and discourse include serial verb constructions, differential object marking, and switch-reference coding. Studies of phonology explore the suprasegmental features of tone, morphemic nasalization, and, in some languages, glottalization. The Vaupés region has been characterized as a cultural and linguistic area based on the dynamics of longstanding social, cultural, economic and linguistic interaction among Eastern Tucanoan, Arawakan and Nadahup (also known as Makúan) peoples. The commonly held cultural definition of language group membership via patrilineal descent and norms governing marriage relations are particularly important to the composition and maintenance of multiethnic and multilingual Vaupés society. Recognition of how the opposing forces of convergence and differentiation work to shape Vaupés culture is crucial to the study of individual Eastern Tucanoan languages. Such forces also contribute to the difficulty of determining internal classification, for which the distinction between similarity due to contact-induced convergence and similarity attributable to genetic inheritance is vital.

General Overviews and Classification

In the late 19th century, languages of the Tucanoan family were erroneously classified as belonging to the Betoya family (Chibchan stock, Colombia). Based on data collected by Koch-Grünberg (see Koch-Grünberg 1912–1916 under Historical, and Koch-Grünberg 1909–1910 under Lexical: Comparative Word Lists), Beuchat and Rivet 1911 and the follow-up commentary Rivet 1916 identify the misclassification and strengthen a “Tukano” identification for the family. The label (anglicized to Tucano) was adopted by the authors of articles in the influential Handbook of South American Indians (see Mason 1950 as well as Steward 1948 and Goldman 1948, cited under Historical) and in references thereafter. Although recognized early on as a distinct family of languages, there has been little research on possible relations between Tucanoan and other South American families, one exception being the hypothesis of a Macro-Tucanoan subgroup within the greater Amerind family found in Greenberg 1987. Campbell 2012 offers a critical overview of work on the classification of South American languages and presents Tucanoan as one of the established larger families. Barnes 1999 is the first of three general overviews of typological and structural features of Tucanoan languages. Based primarily on data from Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) sources, it proposes an internal classification that includes a third, “Central Tucano” branch composed of Cubeo and Retuarã (following Waltz and Wheeler 1972 and Malone 1987, both cited under Internal Classifications). Barnes 2006 is a slightly revised overview that incorporates some data from more recent scholarship but maintains a “Middle Tucano” branch. Gomez-Imbert 2011 is a third comparative overview of key phonological, morphological, and syntactic features of Tucanoan languages; it discusses and disputes the hypothesis of a “Central” or “Middle” branch. We should note that there is a great deal of variation in the spellings of group and language names in the literature. The “c-forms” of names are generally preferred in the literature written in English, while “k-forms” (e.g., Tukano(an), Tuyuka, Karapana, Koreguaje, etc.) are more generally used by South American scholars and currently by the Tucanoan groups themselves. In this article, “k-forms” are maintained in titles and their translations; “c-forms” appear otherwise. Besides widespread c/k variation, in recent years, many groups have requested that their traditional self-names (indicated in parentheses in the Introduction) appear in scholarly works. Name variation should be taken into account by anyone interested in identifying the complete set of resources available for any single language.

  • Barnes, Janet. 1999. Tucano. In The Amazonian languages. Edited by Robert M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, 207–226. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    First general overview of the family, with sections on phonology, morphology, and the internal classification of languages; all data provided comes from SIL studies conducted in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

  • Barnes, Janet. 2006. Tucanoan languages. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by Keith Brown, 130–142. Oxford and Boston: Elsevier.

    General overview similar to Barnes 1999, with basic typological and structural features of the family, with updated bibliography.

  • Beuchat, Henri, and Paul Rivet. 1911. La famille Betoya ou Tucano. Mémoires de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 17:117–136; 162–190.

    Critical discussion of the early “Betoya” family classification (following Brinton, Daniel G. Brinton’s The American race: A linguistic classification and ethnographic description of the native tribes of North and South America (Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1901), which grouped together languages in regional proximity but which are shown to belong to distinct genetic (Cariban and Tucanoan) families. Rivet 1916 gives additional supporting data.

  • Campbell, Lyle. 2012. Classification of the indigenous languages of South America. In The indigenous languages of South America: A comprehensive guide. Edited by Lyle Campbell and Verónica Grondona, 59–166. Berlin and Boston: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110258035

    The internal classification of Tucanoan languages given in this work includes extinct languages, gives alternate names and spellings, and represents closely related sister languages as dialects. In contrast to most other classifications, it places Tanimuca/Retuarã in the Western branch.

  • Gomez-Imbert, Elsa. 2011. La famille tukano. In Dictionnaire des langues. Edited by Emilio Bonvini, Joëlle Busuttil, and Alain Peyraube, 1454–1460. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    General overview of the family with theoretically informed details of key phonological, morphological, and syntactic features, as well as an introductory section with historical and cultural information.

  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Presents the hypothesis of a Macro-Tucanoan subgroup of the greater Amerind family, based on multilateral comparison of a small set of basic grammatical elements in a limited number of lexical items.

  • Mason, J. Alden. 1950. The languages of South American Indians. In Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 6, Physical anthropology, linguistics and cultural geography of South American Indians. Edited by Julian H. Steward, 157–317. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

    The section on the Tucanoan family (258–261) gives a very preliminary overview of structural features of the languages and offers a tentative subclassification into two main Eastern and Western branches, based on geographical rather than linguistic criteria. Many of the language names cited actually identify internal ethnic subgroups. Text available online.

  • Rivet, Paul. 1916. La famille Betoya ou Tukano. Note Complémentaire. Mémoires de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 19:91–95.

    Short follow-up note related to Beuchat and Rivet 1911 and providing additional evidence against the Betoya classification; includes data from an unidentified, but clearly Tucanoan language.

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