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Preventing extinction of the umbra language is urgent

Although oral tradition continues to be the life saver for this language, which was believed vanished; avoiding extinction depends on implementing policies to promote preservation of the language by teaching it to new generations.

Bogotá D. C., 01 de junio de 2016Agencia de Noticias UN-

Remnants of umbra writing were found in petroglyphs in the western region of the Provinces of Caldas and Risaralda. Photo: Personal file

153 sounds were transcribed including signs and diacritical marks, ample vocabulary and bilingual texts.

Young people do not show any interest in learning the umbra language. Photo: Casa de la Cultura of Quinchía.

Currently 65 indigenous languages survive and spoken by approximately 400,000 people in 22 of the 32 Provinces of Colombia.

Close to 120 indigenous languages existed between 1550 and 1810 when the Spaniards colonized Colombia.

It is estimated that currently 65 indigenous languages survive and are spoken by approximately 400,000 people in 22 of the 32 Provinces of Colombia; however there is no exact record as some may even subsist amongst the secrecy of remote communities. 

This is exactly the case of the umbra language, whose existence remained secret for more than 4 centuries. Guillermo Rendón a Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) in Manizales ethnolinguist and professor discovered the language when he was working on a project entitled “Caldas cave art”, near the settlement of Bonafont, Province of Caldas. 

“This discovery was made possible as surprisingly some inhabitants of the region could effectively explain the indigenous rock engravings (petroglyphs) which was an indication that this language is still alive,” said Rendón. 

They discovered that the umbra language is spoken by 7 families of the municipalities of Bonafont and the settlements of Sardinero y Mápura. 

After 16 years of the discovery, Rendón transcribed the sounds of the umbra language to the International Phonetic Alphabet and created a grammatical system which could be a plan to save the language that has roots in the pre-hispanic culture. 

“After transcribing 153 sounds including signs and diacritical marks, ample vocabulary and bilingual texts one thinks why is this language not taught in Indian reservations?, as language is the strongest identity principle besides genetics,” said Rendón, who also wrote a book on the umbra language in 2011. 

After five years of consolidating the language there are no local or governmental plans to preserve the language for future generations. In fact it is important to note that those who resist abandoning it are very elderly people in their 80’s. 

Scarce actions 

For the region of Quinchía, the efforts to consolidate a project to recover the umbra language was publishing a book back in 2001 entitled “Historia de Guacuma”, (History of Guacama) by Merardo Largo, an former ethnic governor who said: “The most difficult part of working with a language is based on the lack of people who known it and are qualified on the topic. They do whatever to remember and use the phonological sentences which they have in them.” 

The book was submitted to elementary schools and middle schools of the region as a life saver for the language, but as Alejandro Ugarte, coauthor of the book said, “We did this to strengthen the identity and recognize that the language exists, despite the few people which speak it, among other aspects, due to colonization of other ethnical groups who got stronger and imposed their own language.” 

The paradox is that after surviving several centuries the language is threatened due to the scarce policies to save it. It is also important to note that while older people carry out efforts to maintain the language, young people have no interest in speaking it. 

“As there are more people that speak the embera–chamí language and do not want to speak the umbra language because it is alien to them. Although we are designing a project through the Ministry of Culture to create an umbra language school in the municipality of Quinchía,” said the Director of the House of Culture, Ómar Ramírez. 

Preventing its extinction 

Historically the umbra shared their territory and rituals with the Quimbaya Indians. Today estimates say there are close to 14,000 of them in several Indian reservations between the provinces of Caldas and Risaralda. 

UNal–Bogotá Department of Linguistics Professor Olga Ardila says that Colombia is a diverse country with many languages, but many have little chance of surviving due to the low amount of people which speak these languages, the close contact with the Spanish language and the need to communicate. 

“Some languages are maintained just by speaking without the need of a writing system and umbra could be considered as dead. However if it has speakers it may be revitalized, just as the Jewish language, just to quote a historic case,” said Ardila.

(Por: Fin/IJR/DMH/APBL
)
N.° 827

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