Among the labyrinthine southern archipelagos – where the winds, rains and cold do not let up – lived the Kawésqar.
The nomadic group spent much of the day in their canoes (or hallef) cruising the channels between the Gulf of Penas and the Strait of Magellan, surrounded by dense forests, in search of sea lions, otters, birds and molluscs to feed on.
Men were responsible for hunting on land (which included the iconic huemul) and at sea, while women collected shellfish in dives and covered their skin with sea lion blubber.
Like the other native peoples who populated America thousands of years ago, the Kawésqar had their own language, deeply marked by their geography. This explains, for example, why they had 32 ways to say “here”.
But with the passage of time and the arrival of settlers in this southern part of Chile, called Western Patagonia, the ethnic group underwent a brutal transformation. Not only did he abandon his nomadic life – he settled in Puerto Edén, a small village located south of the Gulf of Feathers – but he also left his language in the background.
This was because learning Spanish became a necessity for them and, little by little, a critical point was reached: today, only eight people speak the original language.
Four of them are elderly. Three were born in the 1960s – the last generation to acquire the language from childhood – and only one who is not part of the ethnic group: Oscar Aguilera.
The 72-year-old Chilean ethnolinguist has been trying to save this language for nearly 50 years, recording vocabulary, recording sound files for hours and documenting the lexicon.
Now, there is another person, who is not from the community, interested in learning its grammar: Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s partner, the first lady, Irina Karamanos.
The feminist leader contacted Aguilera to research more on the subject. For her, Chileans have a “bad” relationship with their communities and indigenous peoples, and learning the language is a way to get closer to them.
But what particularities does this native language have? What is its origin and its most important characteristics?
origin of language
Linguists and researchers always try to answer the same question: where do people’s languages come from and what is their true origin?
In the case of Kawésqar – as with many other indigenous languages - the answer is still unclear.
This is explained, in part, because it is considered an “isolated” or “unclassified” language.
In other words, it is not part of a linguistic family, nor does it have ties to any other living language (such as, for example, Spanish, which comes from Latin and is part of the Romance languages).
Being “isolated” makes it harder to figure out where your words, structure, and grammar come from.
Although the Kawésqar are believed to have inhabited Western Patagonia around 10,000 years ago, the first known evidence of their language appears only between 1688 and 1689, recorded by the French adventurer Jean de la Guilbaudière.
According to the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, in the 19th century its population reached 4,000, and most spoke the ancestral language.
By the end of the 19th century, however, its population had dropped dramatically to 500 people, and then to 150 in the 1920s.
There are currently around 250 Kawésqar in the Magallanes region, but they are monolingual – they speak only Spanish – and not the language of their ancestors.
What characteristics does she have?
Due to its morphological characteristics, Kawésqar is an agglutinative language (like Turkish and others) and polysynthetic. That is, it has “words, expressions or phrases” that cannot be translated into Spanish with a single word.
“There is no one-to-one equivalence, like, for example, the table, in English, and the table, in Spanish”, explains Oscar Aguilera to BBC News Mundo.
Despite the Kawésqar’s extensive contact with the settlers, they are reluctant to accept anything from the Spaniards.
In this way, they created their own words to call, for example, the devices they are buying (such as the television or the telephone).
The few words that were adopted from Spanish underwent a “nativization”, a transformation into Kawésqar phonetics.
It is the example of “boat”, that is said jemmáse or also wárko. The “b” in Spanish is replaced by the “w”, as the “b” sound does not exist in kawésqar.
In addition, there is a cultural side that, according to Aguilera, “is notably different from the way we express ourselves”.
“If the kawésqar isn’t sure what he’s saying, he doesn’t say it. He always uses the conditional. Culturally, they reject the lack of truthfulness, this is sanctioned by the group. The person who lies stands out negatively among them,” he explains.
For example, the Kawésqar would never say that such a person called from London. As they are not sure that this person was in London (because they don’t see him) they would say “he would have called me” from London.
Why is the kawésqar at risk of extinction?
Being spoken by only eight people, it is among the languages that UNESCO considers in danger of extinction.
“The problem is that, in general terms, it’s not a practical language. It’s better to learn Spanish or study English,” says Aguilera.
According to the specialist, one of the reasons that explain the strong penetration of Spanish among the Kawésqar is the marketing of their products to the new inhabitants of the region.
In addition, according to the specialist, they felt discriminated against by neighboring cities, such as the Chilotes (inhabitants of the island of Chiloé).
“The Chilotes despised them and even laughed at how they spoke their language. So they decided not to speak the language in public anymore, only at home”, explains the linguist.
The State of Chile also did not prioritize their rescue or survival. To date, there are not enough incentives to revitalize the language. The only school in Puerto Edén, for example, teaches in Spanish.
“There are some people who are struggling to learn the language, but the lack of continuity and persistence, in addition to being a language so grammatically different from Spanish, makes it difficult for them,” says Aguilera.
The fascinating story of Oscar Aguilera
In the winter of 1975, Oscar Aguilera embarked on an adventure that would change his life forever.
As an inexperienced young man, recently graduated in Classical, Germanic and Linguistic Philology at the University of Chile, he decided to travel to Puerto Edén, where the Kawésqar currently live.
“I was very impressed because they had painted a completely different picture for me. I imagined I would find people dressed in furs, almost in rags, and living in iconic huts. But no, they lived in ordinary houses and dressed like me,” he says.
On that trip – which lasted all winter – he met the Tonko family, who helped him start recording the language, sharing with him long recording journeys.
The following year, he published a first lexicon that has survived to this day.
Aguilera’s fascination with the kawésqar was such that he always found reasons to return.
And that’s how he decided to embark on a second expedition, from which he returned with two members of the community to his home in Santiago, where he lived with his parents and grandmother.
“They lived with us for four months. My family welcomed them, they accepted them,” he says.
At the time, Aguilera was a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chile.
Every afternoon, when classes ended, he stayed with the two kawésqar recording part of the lexicon and recording ethnographic information.
Afterwards, they all returned together to Port Eden.
“I liked to go because the language of a community has a very important cultural component. That’s why I dedicated myself not only to saving the language but also to the cultural rescue that implies much more, the whole way of life and their own testimony”, explains.
Most of the Kawésqar he met on these trips spoke Spanish, but with varying degrees of fluency. The older ones, for example, tended to have more interference from the mother tongue, making mistakes such as not differentiating the singular from the plural.
The academic recognizes that he fell in love with the people.
“I did the opposite of what the books recommended for a researcher: ‘You take the information, describe the language and go.’ I got involved with the community,” he says.
In the 1980s, Oscar Aguilera’s relationship with the Kawésqar deepened even further when he decided to adopt two children from the community to receive a good education in Santiago.
The children belonged to the Tonko family. In total, there were eight brothers. One of them, José, loved to read.
“With his parents’ permission, I bought a ticket to Puerto Montt and went to look for him to go to Santiago. He was enrolled in the school, Liceu Alessandri, where I also studied,” he says.
Four years later, José’s brother Juan Carlos also moved to Santiago with Aguilera. They all lived together in a house that the academic had rented in the neighborhood of Providência.
“I adopted them. Their family was very good to me, they always welcomed me as if I were part of them. So it was really a mutual adoption.”
When they turned 18, José and Juan Carlos entered university. The first studied Social Work and Anthropology, and the second, journalism.
‘They are my family’
Currently, the brothers – who are around 60 years old – live in the city of Punta Arenas, as does Aguilera, who teaches six courses at the University of Magallanes.
“To this day, they are my family. It’s like my children. They take care of me and I take care of them.”
They both worked with him through the arduous afternoon of rescuing the language.
José is the co-author of several publications – such as “Gente de los canals” (2019) – and collaborated in the creation of a Kawésqar-Spanish dictionary, which has not yet been completed.
In addition, between 2007 and 2010, they wrote a text and recorded a sound file that is now at the University of Texas, Austin, USA, and James Cook University, Australia.
However, the linguist believes that much remains to be done.
“Behind languages, there is a lot of knowledge and that’s why they must be preserved. Because they contain unique information about the environment where the people who speak it live”, he says.
Looking to the future of the language, hope lies in the future first lady, Irina Karamanos.
Perhaps Irina’s interest, he reveals, really helps to revitalize the language of those the linguist considers his real family.