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About Cha'palaa
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
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Cha'palaa is the language of the indigenous Chachi people of Ecuador. It is a member of the small Barbacoan language family spoken in the northwestern Andean region of South America, including Guambiano and Totoró in Colombia, Awa Pit on the Ecuador-Colombia border, and Cha'palaa's closest relative Tsafiki, in Ecuador. While initially classed as Chibchan in some sources (Jijón y Caamaño 1914, Murra 1948, Moore 1962), the lack of evidence for this grouping makes it unlikely (Constenla Umaña 1991, Curnow 1998). However, based on historical information and some linguistic data (toponyms and borrowings), the modern Barbacoan languages can be related to several languages spoken in the northern Andes before a massive shift to Quechua beginning with the Inca invasion in the 15th Century and continuing into the Spanish Colony from the 16th Century onwards. The Chachi people's oral history tells that to escape these successive conquests they migrated to the lowlands in the western foothills of the Andes where they live today. Unlike the highland groups, the Chachis did not shift to Quechua, and today number about 10,000 speakers with a relatively high rate of transmission of the language to children. The typological features of Cha'palaa in some ways resemble common South American trends while in other ways show features that are rare in the region outside of the Barbacoan language family:

  • Primarily SOV syntax, agglutinative morphology and morphologically-complex clause-final verb phrases.
  • A relatively simple phoneme inventory, with 21 consonant phonemes (and a glottal), five vowels (a, e, i, u) with contrastive vowel length.
  • Complex processes of phonological reduction in which component morphemes are often opaque in their surface forms.
  • A complex predicate system in which general "generic verbs" take finite morphology and combine with non-finite "coverb" roots to create specific predicate meanings, which are classified by a set of "verb classifiers".
  • Considerable epistemic and evidential morphology, including an alignment known cross-linguistically as "conjunct/disjunct marking" that flags speakers as distinct in statements and addressees as distinct in questions.
  • Many distinct forms of grammaticalized reduplication (for verb aspect marking, word derivation, and more).




Cha'palaa is spoken in settlements along the rivers and streams of the Cayapas River basin and several other river systems in the northwestern coastal province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. This area of tropical lowland forest known as the 'Chocó' is an ecological zone similar to the Amazon rainforest but covering the Pacific coastal areas of Ecuador and Colombia to the west of the Andes. The traditional habitation pattern was for small homesteads of one or several houses but a desire for proximity to institutions like schools, local government, hospitals and churches has resulted in the growth of larger villages and towns in recent decades. Near the Pacific Ocean the Cayapas basin becomes a large tidal estuary of islands and mangroves, with connections to both land and water transportation. Further towards the headwaters the rivers become smaller and rockier and the topography more rugged until the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes rises to cold heights of over 4000m above sea level, with the temperate, densely-populated inter-Andean valleys on the other side.


People and Culture

The current territory of the Chachi people is located between areas occupied by two demographically larger groups, Spanish-speaking Afro-Ecuadorians towards the coast to the west and Quechua-speaking highland indigenous people towards the Andes to the east. Oral history, linguistic evidence and other information (like the archeological record - DeBoer 1995) suggest that the Chachis migrated to the lowlands from the Andean highlands, where they lived in the present-day province of Imbabura and in a settlement known as 'Tutsa'' in the old stories, and where their trading partners were highland indigenous people. Today, however, the Chachis are in close social and economic contact with Afro-Ecuadorians descended from people brought to the Americas from Africa for slave labor. The Chachis have a strong form of local governance that includes a chief known as 'Uñi' and his assistants ('chaita rukula') who are in charge of judging and punishing any moral infractions and of carrying out the traditional festivals of the ritual calendar. Combining elements of Christian religion with native practices, the Chachis hold large celebrations on Christmas and Holy Week in which marimba music and drumming, probably borrowed from their Afro-Ecuadorian neighbors, feature prominently. Today there is also a parallel set of authorities for any official business with the state and external institutions. The Chachis are increasingly involved with the cash economy and sell lumber and crops like cocoa to buy market commodities, but they also continue many aspects of their historical material culture including canoe-making and other wood working, weaving baskets and mats from reeds, and weaving cloth on hand looms. Recent years have seen increased social pressure from encroaching settlement and development and instability linked to the proximity to the Colombian border.



  • Adelaar, Willem F.H. – Pieter C. Muysken 2004. The Barbacoan languages. In: W.F.H. Adelaar & P.C. Muysken, The languages of the Andes: 141-150. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Altschuler, Milton 1965. Notes on Cayapa kinship. Ethnology 4.
  • Altschuler, Milton. 1967. The Sacred and Profane Realms of Cayapa Law. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 8: 44-54
  • Barrett, Samuel A. 1925. The Cayapa Indians of Ecuador. New York: Haye Foundation.
  • Carrasco A., Eulalia 1983. El pueblo chachi: el jeengume avanza. Quito: Abya-Yala.
  • Constenla Umaña, Adolfo 1991. Las lenguas del área intermedia: introducción a su estudio areal. San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica.
  • Curnow, Timothy Jowan 1998. Why Paez is not a Barbacoan language: the non-existence of 'Moguex' and the use of early sources. International Journal of American Linguistics 64/4: 338-351 .
  • DeBoer, Warren. 1995. Returning to Pueblo Viejo: History and Archaeology of the Chachi, Ecuador. In P. W. Stahl, ed. Archaeology in the Lowland American tropics: Current Analytical Methods and Applications. pp 243-262. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Floyd, Simeon. 2009. Nexos históricos, gramaticales y culturales de los números en cha'palaa [Historical, grammatical and cultural connections of Cha'palaa numerals]. In Proceedings of the Conference on Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA) -IV.
  • Floyd, Simeon. 2010. Discourse forms and social categorization in Cha'palaa. PhD Thesis, University of Texas, Austin, TX.
  • Floyd, Simeon. forthcoming. Four types of reduplication in the Cha'palaa langauge of Ecuador.
  • Jijón y Caamaño, Jacinto 1914. Los aborígenes de la provincia de Imbabura. Los Cayapas en Imbabura. Madrid: Blass y Cía., Impresores.
  • Lindskoog, John N. & Carrie A. 1964. Vocabulario cayapa. Quito: ILV.
  • Medina V., Henry 1992. Los Chachi: supervivencia y ley tradicional. Quito: Abya-Yala.
  • Moore, Bruce R. 1962. Correspondences in South Barbacoan Chibcha. Studies in Ecuadorian Indian Languages I: 270-289.
  • Murra, John 1948. The Cayapa and Colorado. Handbook of South American Indians 4: 277-291.
  • Praet, Istvan 2009. Shamanism and ritual in South America: an inquiry into Amerindian shape-shifting. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15:737-754.
  • Vittadello, A. 1988. Cha'palaachi = El idioma cayapa. Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Guayaquil: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Museos del Banco Central del Ecuador.


Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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Simeon Floyd

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands