Due to its morphological characteristics, Kawéskar is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, and polysynthetic, that is, it has “words, sentences or phrases” that cannot be translated into Spanish with a single word.
“There is not a one-to-one equivalence, like, for example, the English ‘table’ and the Spanish ‘mesa.’ ‘”, explains the linguistic expert Oscar Aguilera to the BBC.
The origin of Kaweskar
Although the Kawéskar are believed to inhabit Western Patagonia About 10,000 years ago, the first known evidence of their language appears only between 1688 and 1689, prepared by the French adventurer Jean de la Guilbaudiere.
The few words that have been adopted from Spanish have undergone a “nativization”; that is, a phonetic transformation. This is the example of ‘ship’, which is said ‘jemmáse’ but also ‘wárko’. The ‘b’ in Spanish is replaced by the ‘w’, since there is no ‘b’ sound in Kawésqar.
The Chilean ethnolinguist from Óscar Aguilera has been trying to save this language for 50 years, registering the vocabulary, recording sound files for hours and documenting the lexicon. “If the Kawésqar is not sure of what he is saying, he does not say it. He always uses the conditional. Culturally, they reject lack of truthfulness, it is sanctioned by the group. The person who lies points the finger at them,” he explains. .
The Kawésqar would never say that such a person called them from London. Since they are not sure that this person was in London (because they do not see him), they would say “he would have called me” from London.
Who speaks kawésqar today
Today, only eight people speak their original language. Four of them are elderly. Three were born in the 1960s, the last generation to acquire the language as children, and only one, who is not a member of the ethnic group, speaks it: linguist Oscar Aguilera.
According to him Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, towards the 19th century its population reached 4 thousand people, and the majority spoke the ancestral language. At the end of the 19th century, however, the population fell sharply to 500 people, and then to 150 in the 1920s.
Currently, there are about 250 Kawéskar in the Magallanes region, but they are monolingual, speak only Spanish, and do not speak the language of their ancestors. This language, which is spoken by only 8 people in the world right now, is located in Chile. Being an “isolated” language, it is more difficult to discover where its words, structure or grammar come from.
An endangered language
This language is among the languages that UNESCO considers endangered. “The problem is that, in general terms, it is not a practical language. It is better to learn Spanish or study English,” says Aguilera. According to the expert, one of the reasons that explains why the Spanish penetrated so strongly among the Kawésqar is the commercialization of their products with the inhabitants of the area. Nor from Chile, neither universities, nor colleges, nor organisms, have tried to preserve this language that says so much about the inhabitants of this region.