Shipibo Language

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January 12th 2011
Published: January 24th 2011
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I just would like to share my insights into the second language I have been learning.

My first to learn was Spanish. When I came to Ecuador and later Peru, I had never taken a Spanish class and I was functioning on the basics that a few kind friends had taught me. Six months later, I am far from fluent, but manage well in conversations with grammar, vocabulary, and pronounciation. I have still slip-ups with reflextive verbs sometimes, with very formal speech, or figuring out this or that conjugation. And no one speaker of Spanish will have the same accent or style of speaking, so I am always picking up on stuff. I have to give myself a pat on the back that the once-dreaded compound tenses have even started to flow out naturally, and I´ve never really learned how to create them. Thinking frequently and dreaming occasionally in Spanish have also encouraged my progress. Of course, learning the language is fun and a process, but it feels great to be able to commicate anything I want to someone. It may or may not be perfect, but folks almost always comprehend my ideas. What is more is that I can express myself through jokes, plays-on-words, and slang. Thinking back, my experience travelling is so much more fulfilling being able to connect with people than it was in my first days, weeks, or even months. I truly hope to return to Cascadia proficient in this global language.

I have also been learning Shipibo, which has a different story. While Spanish dominates conversations in public (in the street, on radio, television, in newspapers, products, really all over the place), Shipibo is used in the home, in public while in majority-Shipibo places, in select books, some signage in Shipibo villages, and on the radio in our area for an early one-hour program. To say the least, it less easy to ¨absorb¨ where I am right now (in an asentimiento humano or city neighborhood, and not in a communidad nativa or village) than it was with Spanish. Nonetheless, osmosis is occuring.

The for word I learned was ¨Jakon¨, which is a Shipibo cover-all for nice, good, calm, etc. and is used constantly. From there, my host-brother Linder taught me basics like pronouns and a couple of verbs, as well as polite things for basic conversations (good morning, how are you, I am fine, what´s your name, my name is Susannah, and so on). I also picked up on some grammatical points, for example the suffixes that are used for diminuitives, and negating suffixes. Then Linder left for a big chunk of the time I have been staying in the house, and my Shipibo lessons fell by the wayside.

Just being in the house I picked up on some things with only a little effort. For example, the words for animals and foods, family relations, and imperatives (examples: enter! come here! eat!). I also simply listened to my host family talking. Shipibo is often mixed with Spanish, and moreso in urban families like ours. However, that which is spoken in Shipibo is still Shipibo, and hearing it has helped a lot with one the most intimidating aspects of learning it: pronounciation.

Shipibo has several sounds and letter which are not used in English or Spanish, and for this reason I couldn´t pronounce certain words at first. Linder and other would say, ¨You say it almost right, well enough to undertand you,¨but I didn´t feel like I was speaking correct Shipibo. To make it more complicated the system of writing utilized strange vowel choices. For example, ¨beautiful¨ in an endearing way is ¨metsaxoko¨, but it is said something like ¨meyuhtsahshuko¨. ¨Jakon¨ from before is said something like ¨hakoonm.¨I don´t even know how I can describe pace and intonation in text form, but it is very different than Spanish. With more listening I now can come closer, which is pretty exciting to me considering I am not only learning how to use my mind differently but also my tongue.

My friend Jeiser, who is Shipibo and runs the NGO committed to documenting the variances in and preserving the language of Shipibo, says that I will learn faster and more correctly if I live with a host family in a far-flung or tiny community of Shipibos. I am considering it, but am atill interested by and enjoying my current situation in Yarina. The two situations would certainly make a nice contrast, especially if I could find a textile-oriented family in such a place.

What I would like to emphasize is that I am learning, little by little. For example, here in Iquitos (where I am on my way to Colombia to ask for a new Peruvian visa) I sometimes see women in traditional Shipibo dress and salute them (Iquitos was not traditionally inhabited by Shipibos, but there are many there now). We talk for a few moments, basic conversation, really, until I don´t understand and we revert to Spanish. It makes them smile, which I like a lot. Some smile from happiness, but I´m sure a good couple have thought I was a silly gringa with bad pronounciation. Whichever one it is is not a big deal to me.

Also, when I met up with my ¨extended¨ host-family to take the boat, the young girls squeeled and giggled when we would converse in Shipibo and were delighted to answer my questions, or they say something fast or long and ask me if I understood. Interestingly enough, on the boat a very kind Spanish traveler named Miguel asked me to teach him some basics, which he went on to practice with my 10-year-old friend Sharon, part of said ¨extended family¨. She later told me that she had understood him, and that I had taught him right.

A new friend of mine from the ¨extended family¨ is Fredy. I met him on the boat to Iquitos. He´s around my age and studies visionary art in Pucallpa, like some friends of my host-brothers. He also is the son of a well-known and respected curandera, who works with ayahuasca in the Shipibo village of San Francisco. He studies with his mom and helps in ceremonies. Their family runs a healing center, and people come from all over the world to learn about ayahuasca and Shipibo culture. He was really surprised I could speak and understand as much as I can, though I insist it is the bare-bones basics. Sometimes there are travelers or tourists who visit and live in San Francisco or other communidades for more than a year and who never learn anything in Shipibo. Out of the many, many expatriots to live in or have visited Shipibo villages, Fredy knows of one man who can speak and understand it like a Shipibo. This raises the question in my mind, ¨Doesn´t language act as a centerpoint of culture, literally describing frameworks for connecting, naming, and relating parts of the world? Is it central to learning ´culture´?¨¨The Shipibo have been incredibly kind to me, and the extreme emphasis on family is refreshing and nourishing.

I am interested personally in communicating in my hosts´ first language, or arguably that of the owners of the land in and around Pucallpa. (I am not Shipiba, nor am I indigenous. I am a mix of numerous European ethnicities blurred by generations of immigration and residence in a colonized country. Just to acknowledge that.) I just know that it makes my host-parents Laurino and Maria´s eyes glow when we can talk in their language. I know that my teenaged neighbors go out of their way to salute me in Shipibo and smile when I say something back. I know I am satisfied listening to conversations around the house, or amazing Shipibo music when I can understand some of it. I can also call someone out for saying something silly to me (a favorite of some neighborhood boys: ¨puinki ani¨), or say thanks when someone calls me nice or happy.

I am well-aware that I am learning through immersion more than anything, and I´m not sure I would want to take an intesive course if I could. What I like most is that speaking in Shipibo is was way for me to demostrate interest in friends and family here, and it can make someone feel respected when they hear it. It´s also a beautiful language, and challenges me.

Ichabirus Irake!


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