Shipibo-Konibo, Our Language

Shipibo-Konibo represents the 6th most spoken langauge In Peru, of 54 officially recognized languages. 48 are Indigenous or Original Languages and 44 are from the Amazonian regions. We are a riparian or riverine nation of 34,152 (INEI- Peru 2018) ethno-linguistically linked citizens in 153 Comunidades Nativas (Ibid.), which is the official state title for villages and land of Peru’s First Peoples. Currently there are 166 Shipibo-Konibo communities that are recognized by our emergent nation.

The 2017 National Census was the first to specifically ask about perceptions of self-identity, and while 34,152 responded that Shipibo-Konibo was their first language only 25,222 self-identified as ethnically Shipibo-Konibo (Ibid.). Each community has a population between 150 and 2800, and average around 205. The Shipibo-Konibo Nation represents the 3rd largest Indigenous group in the Amazonian regions of Peru and the 5th largest of all Indigenous groups in Peru, according to the first language learned data (Ibid.).

Our language is at a crucial stage of endangerment (see Our Language Vitality). Currently, most Shipibo-Konibo adults and children are speakers, yet many of those children are learning a Shipibo-Spanish hybrid that is increasingly spoken by most children and adults under the age of 50. This hybrid has caused a rapid decline in the diversity of words used by the current generation as language environments decline and their culture shifts away from traditional subsistence activities and lifestyle. The factors contributing to the loss of our language are very real, while the innate power and absolute beauty of our language, culture, and people are equally as real.

Ethnolinguistic Data and History

ISO 639-3 Code:SHP
Family:Pano; Mainline Branch
Group: Nawa
Dialects:Shipibo, Konibo, Xetebo
Piskibo (Loriot 1993, MINEDU 2013)
Kapanawa (Fleck 2013)

The language Shipibo-Konibo is derived from the fusion of three to five Mainline Pano family dialects from the Nawa group and Chama subgroup. That subgrouping is contentious as the word Chama is now considered a racial slur for many Shipibo-Konibo, and its use within the language taxonomy is yet another mark of colonization within the field of linguistics.

A common story amongst the Shipibo-Konibo about the coining of the term chama says that in the early 1900’s when Iquitos was the only large colonial city in the Peruvian Amazon, groups of Shipibo, Konibo and other Panoan speaking groups would go down river to see the city and bring trade goods. In those early days, the Indigenous groups would stay near the city’s ports on the banks of the converging rivers. Often disputes or displays of power would take place between the different groups to the amusement of the colonizers. During the disputes, the men would make threatening vocalizations of /cha/ or /chama/. Thus, the colonizers began using the term chama as general term for all Indigenous Amazonian groups.

Missionary linguists then observed that it was specific groups who would use this them and thus it became associated with a subgroup of the Nawa group in the language taxonomy. The term continued to be used by the colonial population and became a racist slur for the Shipibo-Konibo. We feel the language taxonomy subgroup name needs to be changed; perhaps calling it Ókayari, after the Ucayali River’s Panoan roots.

Shipibo, Konibo, Xetebo, Piskibo, and Kapanawa, which is the most isolated of the other groups and located Northeast of the commonly recognized Shipibo-Konibo homeland. While all the groups are recognized as dialects, today the language and the people are often simply called the Shipibo, and the ISO 639-3 code, SHP, also reflects this generalization.

The earliest descriptions of the Shipibo-Konibo language date back to 1638-1683 (Steinen 1904), 1654 (Fleck 2013:27) and 1685-1689 (Ortiz 1974:840) from manuscripts written by Jesuit and then Franciscan missionaries that included word lists and short grammar sketches. These were later edited by Karl von den Steinen to create the Diccionario Sipibo. Castellan- Deutsch-Sipibo. Apuntes de gramática. Sipibo-Castellano. in 1904. Further linguistic documentation then took place by explores, like Günter Tessmann (1928-1930) of Germany, who produced additional word lists and a detailed grammar, in addition to detailed ethnographic data (Fleck 2013). Later in 1942, the Peruvian government and their Ministry of Education began collaborating with the Summer Institute of Linguistics-SIL and Erwin Lauriault of the United States of America, which began printing a series of primary school grammar books in 1953 (Ibid.; Loriot et al. 1993). This collaboration produced a large number of linguistic materials, including a detailed grammar lesson book for missionaries to learn Shipibo-Konibo (Faust 1973, 1990), a detailed grammar sketch (MINEDU 1977, 1986, 1989), and the dictionary of 1993.

The following table shows all the historical spellings of each dialect. The heading of each dialect is the current spelling.

In recent history Shipibo, Konibo, and Xetebo, even Piskibo, were and continue to be considered the dialects (Ethnologue 2019), but the recent work of David Fleck (2013) defines Xetebo and Piskibo of Piskino as obsolescent dialects of the Pano language, while placing the geographically distant Kapanawa alongside Shipibo and Konibo as the dialects of the language Shipibo-Konibo. Fleck proposes that the proto-Shipibo-Konibo language originated from the region of the Kapanawa along the Tapiche River and spread west and then south, up the Ucayali river and some of its effluents like the Pisqui River during the 1600s; possibly after European diseases wiped out the previous populations found on the Ucayali (Ibid.). Fleck’s paper Panoan Languages and Linguistics includes a nearly exhaustive examination of the historical references to Shipibo-Konibo and other Panoan languages and dialects.

Little is or can ever be known about proto-Pano, but the largely discredited and ignored English journalist and pseudohistoric writer Harold T. Wilkins proposes that Pano may have evolved from the original language of Atlantis (1946). I mention this to not further a potential false truth, rather it is important to point out that the Panoan languages like Shipibo-Konibo warrant prestige and consideration to what they may be able to teach the world about the overall human experience; along with every other language that continues to hold ancient knowledge in their words, morphemes, and etymology. Indigenous languages truly are “one of the great treasures of humanity” (Zepeda & Hill 1992).