There are thousands of languages that span across nations and time–an estimated seven thousand known so far. UNM Linguistics recently hired Assistant Professor Joshua Birchall, who is one of the many linguists working tirelessly to understand, document and preserve some of the lesser known, yet just as crucial languages. 

Few have heard of Moré-Kuyubim, an incredibly rare, complex language shared between small communities split across the Guaporé River that divides Bolivia and Brazil. Birchall is one of the few people in the world who has been able to decipher this language, despite not originating in the community. He is also now a publisher of the first Moré-Kuyubim dictionary

Copy of dictionary
Moré-Kuyubim dictionary

“The language had been passed on from generation to generation without ever having been written. Traditionally, it was spoken on both sides of the border and both sides of the river. Both of these groups went through very different kinds of cultural histories,” Birchall said. “Now, there's an intermediate generation whose parents spoke the language, so they kind of understand it, and can speak it a little bit. Then there's that next generation who maybe heard some, but never really connected with it as their language.” 

Led to Language

Birchall grew up between Brazil and the U.S., with an affinity for learning languages. Little did he know that in a couple decades he would go up that river, and be part of preserving a language that just a handful of people speak.  

“I grew up in a bilingual household. We spoke Portuguese and English at home and traveled a lot. I got specifically involved with Amazonian languages when I did my undergrad in Montana and I first started working with languages of that region. But I was always kind of interested in languages though in Brazil, as it was always a big part of my life,” he said. 

Birchall spent months in the Moré and Kuyubim communities, thanks to funding from the Museu do Índio and UNESCO. Day in and day out he learned, studied and absorbed the speech patterns, words and culture around him. 

“The first step was getting the alphabet, the orthography, because how are you going to transcribe things in written form if you don't have a way to represent the language? We presented to the community, held workshops, talked to school teachers and some of the older people to work through the sounds, their position and contrasts,” Birchall said. 

A brimming background

Such a unique language has an equally distinctive past. Birchall traced Moré-Kuyubim through a lineage that began before the Jesuits were expelled by the King of Spain in the 18th century. It was a back-and-forth between missionization and traditional ways of life.

“The missionization process is what split the Moré from the Kuyubim. Before that, they used to call themselves the Itene, ‘the people.’ On the Brazilian side, the now Kuyubim lived pretty undisturbed until the 1940s when the Brazilian government sent colonists to set up rubber extraction outposts due to increased demand from World War II,” Birchall said.

Joshua Birchall

After years of conflict, it truly came down to three Kuyubim sisters who managed to escape that dangerous situation in Brazil in the 1950s. When they eventually moved back to Brazil from Bolivia, the remnants of the language remained and thrived on both sides of the river in the communities of Moré and Kuyubim. 

“They found some reeds and tied them together to make a raft and floated across the river to Bolivia, where they lived for 10 or 15 years,” Birchall said. “They found husbands, eventually moved back to Brazil, and ended up in this multiethnic colony where different languages smushed together. The children and grandchildren of these three sisters are now working to reassert their indigenous identity, rediscover their past and come to terms with that.” 

“These people in Bolivia still speak the same language, even after as much change that a language can go through in a separation of 250 years.” – UNM Linguistics Professor Joshua Birchall  

Birchall got to meet the children of these sisters, as well as numerous community members with stories to tell.  

“I studied the language with an older Moré man who was sick in a city in Bolivia. I went with a doctor who took him to Brazil for treatment. Every day I would come in the afternoons and we'd sit there and he would teach me about the language,” he said. 

With 24/7 hospitality from members of the community–from food to supplies to comfort, he felt like the dictionary was the least he could do.

“People have been so generous to me with their time and hospitality. In our modern culture, you probably have cousins,” Birchall said. “You see them once a year and hang out for a day or two. When you go to the field, you're around the same people constantly– sharing every meal, bathing in the river, talking about everything in your life for weeks and weeks on end. You grow really, really close to people.” 

There are hundreds of pages breaking down an estimated 1,400 words and their meanings, and translating them to Spanish and Portuguese.  

“That took a little while. We were recording sentences, words, traditional stories or personal histories and trying to transcribe it. We were able to compile this dictionary of 1,400 words, and every word has its own examples for how to use it,” Birchall said. 

More than just words

Birchall emphasizes he simply could not have done it alone. Between initial translators, technicians, visitors, experts and previously archived documentation, the support in making this happen was key. 

“I was able to kind of map out the differences between the speakers from Bolivia and Brazil. We'd have cultural workshops in Brazil on how to make instruments and woven mats,” Birchall said. “We also had language workshops where we’d listen to the sounds and language as recorded on these old tapes. We'd bring some of the elders from Bolivia who spoke the language much better than I could, and give us examples.” 

Elders often debated if the next generation would have a better life if they spoke Spanish or Portuguese rather than their traditional language. Over the last 100 years, those dominant languages had been winning out, but the younger generations started to see that also knowing the traditional language would be better in the long run. 

“People could go to their parents, aunts and uncles and go ‘Hey, what's this called?’ but learning just wasn't really happening. So then I show up, and work with all the other living varieties of languages from this family,” Birchall said. “The young people, especially the ones who really want to use this resource, are dominant in Spanish. They learn to read and write in Spanish first, so you kind of have to take that into consideration.” 

This prompted him to organize the dictionary both alphabetically and thematically, with versions in both Portuguese and Spanish for the different communities on either side of the river.  

On top of the physical dictionary copies, Birchall created a way for community members to access and learn the terms on an app. It’s also available online and can be downloaded. Speakers of Moré-Kuyubim themselves were featured on the app, pronouncing the words and phrases. 

“A lot of people just want to push play on things in the app and hear their grandma, which is certainly cool because they know their grandma and maybe never heard their grandma speak the language. We were trying to build up a support system where the people who are interested in teaching and learning the language could find the best way to use this resource,” he said. 

Above and beyond for generations to come

Something he especially cherished was using all the vocabulary and stories he absorbed into an even more permanent creation: DVDs. 

Cover of DVD
One of the DVDs Birchall made

“Sometimes you go in as a researcher, and it feels a little extractive. You go and you're like, ‘Oh, thanks’ and leave. I decided early on that that wasn't what I wanted to do,” Birchall said. “I wanted to make sure that what I was doing was being done in a way that furthered what people wanted to do. A lot of people from the community were just going to study, learn words and learn sentences, and also wanted to learn the stories that their grandma used to tell them as kids, so a lot of these DVDs are about that.” 

Cover of DVD
One of the DVDs Birchall made

Birchall was able to video, transcribe and edit together tales and activities many younger members could only try to visualize previously. These digital copies featured recipes, weaving tutorials, musical traditions, traditional parties and legends that had long since been verbal campfire stories. 

“One man was able to tell me about how he escaped a jaguar attack with his dogs. He saved them by first hitting the jaguar with his machete. Then he used his broken machete to cut a pointed stick from a tree and stab the jaguar in the neck, allowing them to flee,” Birchall said. “After bringing DVDs to share around his village, he became a sort of a celebrity among the younger people–the jaguar-killer.” 

This is also the second community he has aided by creating an inaugural dictionary. Through the Fulbright Program and later a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he assisted the Oro Win community in creating a physical copy of the language that fewer than 10 people speak fluently. 

“I started meeting these people from a small community where the language wasn't being taught to children. I was asked ‘why don't you come with us? Because we actually really need help,’ and was told ‘my parents' generation speaks the language, I only understand it and my kids don't speak it at all.’ I ended up getting Fulbright funding to go back to the Oro Win,” Birchall said. 

The preservation of languages is something many researchers at UNM prioritize. However, as more speakers dwindle and the younger generations struggle to learn it themselves, it’s becoming all the more dire.  

“Language is certainly a very big marker of cultural identity. You can have a cultural identity outside of a language, but the presence of a language certainly makes that a lot stronger,” Birchall said. 

That’s also why Birchall isn’t just calling it quits with Moré-Kuyubim. He has plenty of work left to guarantee this community and its language’s survival. 

“Descendants of those people speaking that same language really help strengthen their claim to the land and their place in the history of the region. In that most pragmatic sense, it's really important,” he said. “With a new wave of demarcation of Indigenous Territories by the Lula government of Brazil, the people see that it's really important for them to know their language, even if they don't necessarily expect to become fluent, they do certainly want that to be part of their cultural repertoire.” 

Next on the docket, Birchall plans to focus on the grammatical side of things. 

“There are certainly many career’s worth of work to do. My next step is making a grammatical description in Spanish. It will be a little bit smaller, but still hit the main topics,” he said.  

He is also working with community members to turn the information in the dictionary into lessons they can use in their village schools.  

He also hopes to uncover and help preserve Moré-Kuyubim’s musical culture, which was never passed on to the new generations. While German explorer E. H. Snethlage was able to experience and record six of their songs on wax cylinders in the 1930s, the quality of the recordings has deteriorated to the point where they are incomprehensible. Birchall is collaborating with a UNM graduate student on sound engineering techniques to remaster the tunes.  

“It has an impact on people's minds. The language has been there and is part of their identity, but is becoming part of their day-to-day lives. It's been really nice,”  Birchall said.