BOGOTÁ — How do you save a language from oblivion? For Colombian anthropologist Juan Camilo Niño Vargas, reviving the language of the Chimila, a native community of 1,500 in northern Colombia, required nothing less than a decade of field work.

The Colombian Culture Ministry has listed 12 native languages in the country as threatened with extinction, including Chimila (Ette Ennaka), also known as "Ette." After 12 years visiting and spending long periods among the Chimila Indians living in the southwestern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Niño now speaks their language and is familiar with their families, foods and customs.

And he has compiled a 732-page glossary of nearly 5,000 expressions and words of the Ette language, with more than 15,000 meanings. His work follows investigations on the Chimila that began about 150 years ago by writers like Jorge Isaacs, and it's part of Niño's own masters and PhD theses completed at Bogotá's Andes University and EHESS in Paris.

He says his glossary is "nowhere near being a full dictionary" but that it's a "first step to ensure the future of the language."

It wasn't easy work because until very recently Ette had no alphabet or written symbols, unlike many of the country's 65 idioms. "People who speak it cannot write it, because they never have," Niño says. The language has even been kept a secret. When Niño arrived at the reserves set aside for the Chimila, people were reluctant to talk to him.

The Ette or Chimila were a significant group before starting to decline after the Spanish conquest. They hid in forests, which were then cut down and occupied by farmers and oil companies. They then began merging with local peasant populations, working as daily laborers, which led them to stop speaking their own language.

The sounds and pronunciation are very different from Spanish. And the language is not defined by such concepts as subject, verb or sentence structure. For example, "You couldn't ask how a verb is conjugated," Niño says.

His dictionary includes a detailed history of a community that calls itself either New People (Ette takke) or Real People (Ette ennaka), detailed information on vowels and consonants (k, y and w recur a lot), an Ette-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-Ette glossary, and an ample pictorial section with captions of key words and 1,000 names and pictures of animals and plants.

Anthropological patience

The dictionary began with Niño's personal notes. He always kept a notebook at hand to jot down words and data that he would otherwise forget. These were then listed and turned into a systematic record of the language — the whole process being comparable to completing a gigantic puzzle. Initially he lived with a Chimila family who then helped him build his own hut, with a mud floor and palm-leaf roof.

"It was a pleasant little studio, really," he says. There was room for his solar chargers, lamps, books, clothes, medicines and notebooks. There was no kitchen or bathroom, so he made a deal with some neighbors for meals, and the jungle was his restroom. His working day lasted from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., the hours that there was sunlight. He said he would spend some days working on the language, sitting and talking to people. "Other days I would do a population count, going to all the settlements and gathering information on household units," he says. "Other days I would go into the forest to take plant samples, which tells you how they perceive nature. Some days I'd just rest in a hammock."

Niño also helped with daily tasks such as cooking or getting water, which gave him another opportunity to talk to the women. Conversation was virtually constant, though he admits that there are still words he doesn't fully understand, and which he left out of his glossary.

Statue of an indigenous tribesman in Valledupar, northeastern Colombia — Photo: F3rn4nd0/GFDL

The routine has changed Niño's perspective on the country. He saw things in Colombia he had never seen before, not even in his grandfather's expansive personal library.

The Ette "pay little attention to material things, and that changed my life," Niño says. He has no mobile phone now. "I'm still great friends with many of them. I hope in coming years I can give them more than they gave me."

Myths of the Ette

Niño recorded the long stories he heard among the Ette, and he found that elders used a more sophisticated language when discussing myths and legends. "The systematic position has been that the Ette have no myths, yet I was surprised to find they had so many stories," he says. "They are simple tales with very profound meanings."

And their mythology shows a different view of the world. "There is no creation for them, but more a process of transformation," Niño explains. "The world has always existed but changes constantly. They believe the world destroys and recreates itself at intervals. They think they are a very young people and their grandparents were the first to inhabit the present-day community."

The Ette believe that humans turn into animals, so their hunting stories often convey both their respect for animals, and fear of committing cannibalism when eating meat, which they do nevertheless. Other stories Niño heard were more "classical" — involving flight, cosmic travels and constellations.

Recognition

Niño is not the first scholar to study the Chimila. In the early 1880s, Jorge Isaacs included them in his Study of the Indigenous Tribes of the State of Magdalena, which he wrote while exploring northern Colombia by river. Others who worked on deciphering the language were anthropologists Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff and María Trillos Amaya.

In contrast with Isaacs, who was derided for his book at the time as a "Darwinist and a Jew," Niño has received praise from his supervising professor and a prize from the Culture Ministry for strengthening one of the country's threatened native languages.

The Ette now use his glossary as the core of a curriculum, and Niño has already created a four-member Ette working group to formulate a school program. He says the same work must be done now for other native Colombian languages. "We have to create a big library not just of dictionaries, but also of the grammar and mythology of indigenous languages," he says "If we don't hurry, there will be consequences."