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A Language Puzzle in Panama

Carlos Cisneros, PhD Candidate, Linguistics

Humans around the world vary immensely in their preferences for organizing information through language. Regional languages can have unique words that are difficult or impossible to translate. They might even bear grammatical features that challenge the way we think about how words can be put together in meaningful ways. I was drawn to research on the native languages of Panama by such a phenomenon.

Early in my graduate career, I read J. Diego Quesada’s (2007) The Chibchan Languages, a terrific survey of the characteristics found among many indigenous languages in and around Panama. In a section on the grammatical structure of numerals, Quesada provided the following example sentences from the indigenous Naso (or Teribe) language. For each example, the first line is the Naso sentence, the second line gives the individual translations for each word (called a gloss), and the last line is the English translation of the full sentence. In both sentences, the speaker expresses that they engaged in an activity involving a single item.

(1) Shwong        ko      plublun        ĩ-no-r                      k-ara
dress            color   white          see-PERF-1SG      CL.WIDE-one
‘I saw one white dress.’
(2) Dröng           twlẽ-no-r                  pl-ara
machete       buy-PERF-1SG       CL.LONG-one
‘I bought one machete.’

(Quesada 2007: 60)

Note the word order in the glosses, which are noun-verb-numeral for both Naso sentences. The numeral and noun are not adjacent. They instead occur on opposite sides of the verb, completely separate from each other. In sentence (1), the numeral kara ‘one’ occurs after verb ĩnor ‘I saw’, while the noun shwong ko plublun ‘white dress’ occurs before the verb. Likewise, sentence (2) has the numeral plara ‘one’ occur after the verb twlẽnor ‘I bought’, while dröng ‘machete’ occurs before.

I had never seen such data before this, and the phenomenon appeared especially exotic to my biased worldview as an educated English and Spanish speaker. This option of separating numerals from nouns is not available in my languages. In English, it would be like saying ‘He three bought machetes’. But English numerals are adjectives, and they must occur adjacent to the noun denoting what is being counted, as in ‘He bought three machetes’. Naso, on the other hand, seemed to have numerals as adverbs: words like quickly and completely which attach to verbs and add details about events that verbs describe. I asked myself how Naso speakers could interpret numerals as adverbs, while still interpreting that they indicate count for nouns. I decided to investigate this phenomenon further, both through searching the possible literature on the topic and by traveling to Panama myself to interview speakers.

The literature showed me that Naso was not unique in having this feature. It is common among languages of the Chibchan family (Uhle 1890; Constenla Umaña 1989, 1991, 1995), a group of related languages extending from eastern Honduras south to the northern regions of Colombia and Venezuela. Below is a selection of further data on adverbial numerals from three different Chibchan languages: Guaymí (or Ngäbe) in (3), Buglé (or Buglere) in (4) and (5), and Cabécar in (6).

(3) Kirabe          ni             nigui          iti       krare
long.ago       person     go.REC    one     hunt.FIN
‘Long ago a man went to hunt.’
(Quesada-Pacheco 2008: 147)

(4) Kuang          muire          ete       chula    doe      gada-de
person         woman       one      cat        carry    CL.LONG-one
‘A woman carries a cat.’
(Quesada 2012: 73)

(5) Koikeba          je         du               gaba-taugobobu       cha     ke
egg                 those   give.IMP      CL.ROUND-twelve   1SG    to
‘Give me those twelve eggs.’
(Quesada 2012: 74)

(6) yis-të              pũ        sũl       mãñã-tkö
1SG-ERG       hawk    saw    three-CL.FLAT
‘I saw three hawks.’
(Bermúdez 2016: 12-13)

As the glosses show in each example, the numeral occurs after the verb, while its associated noun occurs before the verb. Other common features among these languages include the placement of the sentence object before the verb, as well as the presence of numeral classifiers, which are the markers you see on these numerals, indicating the shape of the objects being counted.

I also learned about the linguistic debates regarding the status of adverbial numerals as true adverbs. Beyond the Chibchan language family, adverbial numerals have been identified in Japanese and are a favorite topic among researchers of Japanese linguistics. Researchers disagree on whether Japanese adverbial numerals are true adverbs, with some proposing instead that they are really adjectives, only having the appearance of adverbs due to the noun moving away from the numeral. This would mean that adverbial numerals in Japanese are nearly the same as adjectival numerals in English and Spanish, differing only in being subject to a special Japanese rule that requires nouns to shift away from numerals. The details of Japanese grammar often obfuscate the facts that could lend support to one hypothesis over the other, and the debate persists without much input from work on other languages.

Meanwhile, my visits to Panama provided me with a much broader understanding of both the Chibchan languages and their speakers. In Panama, I was lucky to find speakers of Guaymí and Buglé to interview. They were all internal migrants from the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, a relatively large indigenous autonomous zone in Panama. They moved frequently around the country for work and often took on jobs at the various fincas ‘farms’ that brought in many multi-ethnic migrants from across the country. As with many indigenous Panamanians, they traveled with their families and absorbed the Latino/Hispanic culture they encountered together. Life outside the comarca benefited their families with greater access to health and social services, as well as Spanish language schools that their children could attend. As parents made greater effort to communicate with their neighbors in Spanish, their native languages took a more subdued role in their lives, and some of their children have not acquired fluency in the mother tongue. This pattern is typical of languages in danger of disappearing, and although Guaymí speakers number over 150,000 people, Buglé speakers number only around 2,500 (Quesada 2007: 34-35). It is uncertain how much longer these languages may be around for study or for appreciation as a cultural heritage of Panama and surrounding countries. All the more motivation to document what I could about these languages and find material to get more researchers interested in them!

My interviews with the Guaymí and Buglé speakers illuminated much about the details of adverbial numerals missing in previous work, and I gained a better understanding of the phenomenon as a whole. At least for Guaymí, adverbial numerals turn out to be very grammatically similar to adverbs, especially those indicating numbers of events, like twice and three times in English. It would seem then that Guaymí simply has an expanded inventory of this adverb type, lacking in most common languages. This clarified the picture somewhat regarding the status of adverbial numerals as truly adverbs, but it did not answer my original question of how exactly these numerals attach to verbs while also indicating count for nouns. Several months after my last trip to Panama, I took a long break from this work to concentrate on other research topics and allow myself more time to interpret the data that I had collected. It was not until recently that I came back to this work, more mature in my thinking about the highly creative human language faculty, and benefiting immensely now from collaboration with colleagues. We hope to reveal our answer soon in upcoming publications.

Bermúdez, Natalia (2016) Diachronic development of isthmic numeral classifiers. Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin MA thesis.

Constenla Umaña, Adolfo (1989) Subagrupación de las lenguas chibchas: Algunos nuevos indicios comparativos y léxico-estadísticos. Estudios de Lingüística Chibcha 8:17–72.

Constenla Umaña, Adolfo (1991) Las lenguas del área intermedia: introducción a su estudio a real. San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica.

Constenla Umaña, Adolfo (1995) Sobre el estudio diacrónico de las lenguas chibchenses´ y su contribución al conocimiento del pasado de sus hablantes. Boletín Museo del Oro 38-39:13–55.

Quesada, J. Diego (2007) The Chibchan languages. Cartago: Editorial Tecnológica de Costa Rica.

Quesada, J. Diego (2012) Gramática del buglere. Quito, Ecuador: Editorial Abya-Yala.

Quesada-Pacheco, Miguel A. (2008) Gramática de la lengua guaymí (ngäbe). Muenchen: Lincom Europa.

Uhle, Max (1890) Verwandtschaften und wanderung der tschibscha. In Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists 7 (Berlin 1888): 446–489.