A Grammar of the Bakairi Language

Geraldo Pinto De Faria Junior

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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The Bakairi language is a member of the Carib family, comprising around forty languages spoken mostly within north-central South America. It is the southern-most Carib language, spoken in two large settlements of around 1000 people. These settlements correspond to its dialects which differ predominantly in phonology and lexicon, though the morphology more sporadically also varies. As it is actively spoken by fewer than the 1000 residents of the two settlements, Bakairi is an endangered language. Intended as a documentation of the fundamental features of the language, this grammar starts with a description of the Bakairi culture. The following chapters discuss its phonology, morphology, and syntax. Two points stand out in its phonology: sonorant consonants that contrast voice must be devoiced word-initially and a word is allowed only one devoiced realization word-internally. Therefore, any given word can have a maximum of two devoiced sonorant consonants. Bakairi is a highly agglutinative language with a strong tendency for suffixing. Apart from the usual suffixes that express aspect, modality, and plurality, other suffixes add the sense of repetition, totality, evidentiality, and truth. Affixes, in general, are used to create new words (e.g., a noun created from another noun) and transform words into a different class (e.g., a verb created from a noun). In the morphology of verbs, the most remarkable point is a clear distinction in verbal suffixes. When a verb is transitive, it must adhere to one set of suffixes which differs from another set of suffixes for intransitive ones. What is especially noteworthy is that nouns that are intrinsically possessed, such as body parts, are incorporated into the verbs. This creates verbs such as to handwash, to toothbrush, to hairpaint, which must be bordered by additional affixes. In the nominal morphology, past nominal suffixes indicate that the characteristics of the noun are no longer relevant in the present, for instance, a deceased person, or an abandoned house. Previously, it was believed that the default word order of object-verb-agent did not exist in any spoken language. Hixkaryana, another Cariban language, is the first documented language that uses OVA as its default word order. Today, only nine of the world’s documented languages have been proven to be OVA, and Bakairi is part of this group. Lacking nominative-accusative or ergative-absolutive markers, necessary features to classify it as ergative, the Bakairi verbal person prefixation interestingly is aligned like those in split-ergative constructions. The aim of this preliminary work is not only to preserve the language but also to motivate linguists to go out into the field and document languages that are threatened by extinction.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Wetzels, W. Leo, Supervisor
  • Adelaar, Willem, Supervisor, -
  • Coler, Matt, Co-supervisor, -
Award date17 Jan 2022
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2022


  • Bakairi, Carib, Cariban language, language documentation, phonology, morphology, syntax


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