The Awajún or Inia Alphabet, according to its native speakers

Through this brief article I would like to share with my fellow speakers of the language, and also with linguists who study Awajún, that this language is spoken by a millenarian group of people who inhabit the regions of Amazonas, Cajamarca, Loreto, and San Martin, and also includes migrants in the Ucayali region. Since linguists started studying the language, these and anthropologists considered the Awajún people to be illiterate in our modern sense of the word; only being able to communicate through their oral tradition. However, in the 1950’s American linguists arrived to conduct sociolinguistic studies of all the different languages in the Peruvian Amazon. These researchers from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) established for the first time the Awajún alphabet that consists of the following letters: A, B, CH, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, M, N, P, R, S, SH, T, TS, U, W, Y. Using these letters they produced pedagogical material that became very valuable to the Awajún students who would learn this material without questioning the content for years to come. Five decades later, people started voicing different opinions about the alphabet established by the SIL.

Just to mention a few of the examples regarding these different views, it was the members of FORMABIAP (Program for the Education of Bilingual Teachers of the Peruvian Amazon) who proposed to incorporate the letter “Ñ” in the Awajún alphabet, considering that by doing this, they would solve the problem of writing the nasal sounds in the language. However, a good number of Awajún speakers along with Peruvian and international linguists agreed that by incorporating this letter, they would be castilianizing (making it into a Castilian Spanish sound) the Awajún language. That means that in the alphabet established by the SIL, the word “dog” in Awajún, written as “yawa,” which any reader can pronounce just by reading the letter, has two vowels that are in reality nasal and the word itself has a stress. Specialists and speakers see this as a problem that according to the FORMABIAB proposition, would be solved by writing the word as “ñawa.” However, linguistically speaking, by writing it that way we do not solve the problem of nasal sounds. Then, what would the solution be? What do we do with nasal sounds?

It is in this linguistic mess of whether to incorporate the “Ñ” or not, where the Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica – CAAAP (Amazonian Center for Anthropology and Applied Practice – CAAAP) has interesting propositions. According to this institution, Awajún alphabets have normal vowels and nasal vowels. For instance, the normal vowels: a, e, i, u, and nasal vowels are the same with the exception that when they are nasal vowels they are underlined below each vowel (letter); this indicates the vowel should sound nasal. This approach today is more popular among the native speakers and Awajún bilingual teachers because they consider that this type of writing better represents the sound that is pronounced in daily talk. It also adds the “accent” marks to the words. For instance, in FORMABIAP’s idea, it is not necessary to use the “accent” mark. The only important thing is to contextualize what you say. I do not agree with this idea, but with the one formulated by CAAAP. For example, the word “dog” in Awajún is written “yawá.” Using this phonetic symbols, if we understand better and are able to understand what the speaker is referring to, other words like, rat “yáya”, star “yáya”, phlegm “ujúk”, tail “ujúk”, dark “súwe”, his/her neck “súwee” eye, “jíi”, his/her eye “jíi”, spectacled bear “chayúu” and many more words like those, could be identified.

In October of 1999, an event took place to debate and decide how to normalize Awajún alphabets. After many debates and discussions, it was decided that the alphabets created by the SIL should be recognized and revitalized. I believe that not even that event caused any type of improvement to the linguistic study of Awajún. The idea proposed by CAAAP was never even taken into consideration. It seemed at the time that people who opposed it, did not have a solid linguistic foundation to criticize this interesting proposition. The only thing that was clear about this debate was its participants wanted to show off, which in the end caused more problems than solutions in terms of producing pedagogical materials. In 2009, the Ministry of Education published a directive approving the use of the following: a, b, ch, d, e, g, h, i, j, k, m, n, p, r, s, sh, t, ts, u, w, y. Lately, some Awajún school teachers, who are expert native speakers of the language, but as usual, lacking the proper linguistic training took part in two events they called “Taller de Elaboración del Manual de Escritura en la Lengua Awajún” (“Workshop for the Creation of the Writing Manual for the Awajún Language”). During this workshop they create a list of words that would be written as listed above, and signed a document to officialize it on March 1, 2014. Considering I lack linguistic training, my opinion is that nothing transcendental came out of that event.

What can we do? What do native speakers – the Awajún students, have to say about all this? In particular, what needs to be done with the Awajún alphabet? First, teachers, linguists, and native speakers have to agree that we need to respect speakers of the language and their regional variations without claiming which region produces the most correct form of Awajún. In my humble opinion, each region has developed its own rich way to express according to its particular context or reality. Consequently, that is the reason why in a language we find diverse forms of expression that erroneously we call dialects. Second, it is up to the native speakers to acknowledge the existence of the normal and nasal vowels in their language, and how these should be symbolized by underlying each vowel, which I think should definitely be incorporated in the Awajún alphabet. Third, it is necessary to recognize and incorporate the accent marks in Awajún words, which would allow the native, non-native speakers, or people in general, to read and understand properly when trying to understand an Awajún text. Finally, as an official translator and interpreter of the Awajún language to Spanish, I would like to express the fact that the official directives for translations indicate that to translate indigenous languages we have to respect and follow the alphabets officially recognized by the Ministry of Education; however, I need to say as a native speaker of the Awajún language, that with these letters recognized by the Ministry, I do not feel I am able to properly write Awajún words. Thus, this forces me to write according to linguistic criteria that have not been recognized in spite of how important they are, but in my mind these criteria are the most valuable to properly write in Awajún. For instance, the official way to write the word “tiger” in Awajún is “íkamyawa.” I write it as “íkamyawa.” The official way to write the word “flower” is “yagkug” I write it as “yagkug.” They write the word “house” in Awajún as “jega.” I write it as “jéga”. I need to clarify before concluding this short conversation on language that I have no particular interest other than offering my contribution to the discussion. This little contribution, in my opinion, could somehow help improve the Awajún alphabets by including valid linguistic rules instead of omitting them. We cannot produce unfruitful materials in place of important ones that are so essential for our native and non-native speakers of the language.


The Awajún or Inia Alphabet

Letter Example Translation Pronunciation
Aa Ája Garden
Bb Bakáu Cacao
Chch Chagkín Basket
Dd Dáa Name
Ee Éte Hornet
Gg Bága Caterpillar
Hh Jehá Yes
Ii Ipák Annatto
Jj Jápa Deer
Kk Kp Fly
Mm Máma Yucca
Nn Nántu Moon
Pp Pápag Raft
Rr Suakarep Frog
Ss Súwa Huito
Shsh Sháa Corn
Tt Tawás Awajun headdress
Tsts Tsetsék Cold
Uu Úchi Child
Ww Wáwa Log from at raft
Yy Yáya Star




About the author
Awajún intellectual with a Master’s degree in Human Rights from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru), Bachelor in Law and Political Science from the Universidad San Martín de Porres (San Martin de Porres University), Specialist in Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Consultant and Researcher, Official Translator and Interpreter of the Awajun language.
Technical Assistant: Eliseo Atamain
Editing and Audio: Liseth Atamain
Photo: Liseth Atamain


This was originally written by Fermin Tiwi in Spanish, and posted by Liseth Atamain in Awajún and Spanish on the blog Cultura Awajún. Any mistakes in the English translation are entirely mine. Esto fue originalmente escrito por Fermin Tiwi y publicado por Liseth Atamain en Awajún y en Castellano. en el blog Cultura Awajún. Cualquier error en la traducción al Inglés es enteramente mia.
Translation: Roger M. Villamar
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You can read the original text in Spanish HERE.

2 comentarios:

  1. Muchas gracias por publicar en inglés mi artículo, muy agradecido por el equipo Cultura Awajùn. Muy pronto estaré escribiendo otro artículo de sus intereses.

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    1. Tus artículos siempre son muy importantes, gracias por tus aportes!!

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