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About Shawi
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
  4. Publications
  5. Photos


Shawi is the language of the indigenous Chayahuita/Shawi people of Peru. It is one of Peru’s most vital indigenous Amazonian languages (ca. 21 000 speakers, cf. Rojas-Berscia 2013), spoken in the provinces of Alto Amazonas and Datem del Marañón in the region of Loreto, as well as in the northernmost part of the region of San Martín. It is a member of the Kawapanan language family, together with Jebero/Shiwilu, an almost extinct language spoken in the village of Jeberos in Loreto.

Most Shawi children acquire Shawi as their first language. Although the expansion of Spanish is pervasive, Shawi are very proud of their language, and try to keep it functional in domains such as literature, religion and political affairs.

Shawi had no writing system before the arrival of the Spaniards in the late sixteenth century. A good example of Classical Shawi or Mayna can be found in Hervás (1798). Unfortunately, only prayers and no natural speech were documented. Helen Hart (1988) was the first to devote herself to the scientific study of this language, producing a very complete dictionary of it. Unfortunately, she passed away before producing any complete grammar of the language.

The typological features of Shawi resemble in some ways common Andean and Amazonian trends, hence calling it an Andeo-Amazonian language:

● Primarily AOV, SV syntax
● Agglutinative and synthetic language
● Prefixing strategies and abundant suffixing strategies
● A relatively simple phoneme inventory, with nine consonants, two glides and four vowels (a, i, u, ɨ)
● A C¿complex process of coda epenthesis determined by foot structure
● A complex closed class set of complex verb constructions
● A complex oblique case marking system



Shawi is spoken in the triangle formed by the Escalera mountain range , the Marañón river to the North, and the Huallaga river to the East. This area is the so called modern Upper Amazon and was part of the region formerly called Maynas. The traditional habitation pattern was for small homesteads as it is the case of many other Amazonian groups in the Upper Amazon, but this has been progressively changing, first after the arrival of the Jesuits and the formation of indigenous communities, and then by the creation of the Republic of Peru and the gradual but systematic adherence of these indigenous communities into the state model.

This is a region where many language communities meet. The Shawi have contact with the Candoshi and Shapra (both Candoan languages) to the North, with the Awajún and Wampis (Jivaroan) to the North West, with the Lamas Quechuas to the South West, with Shiwilu (Kawapanan) speakers in the district of Jeberos, with Munichi (isolate) and Munichino Quechua speakers in the small village of Muniche in the South, and with the Chamicuro (Arawakan) and the Kukama-Kukamiria (Tupian) to the East.


People and Culture

The Shawi have been in constant contact with people from the Andes throughout their history. This becomes evident when looking at the amount of structural and lexical loans from languages like Quechua and Aymara (Valenzuela 2015). Apparently, the relations between the Kawapanan indigenous people and the Quechua date back to times before the arrival of the Spaniards.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, and the beginning of the raids or correrías (cf. Fuentes 1988), many Quechua speaking people and other indigenous communities from the highlands moved to the lowlands. After a long period of contact, missionaries arrived in the zone with the scope of christianising the “gentiles”. By means of the lengua general, a standardised variety of Northern Quichua, the missionaries indoctrinated Shawis and other groups.

Nowadays, Shawi men are Spanish-Shawi bilinguals. Although they still maintain the habits of hunting and fishing, they are recently involved in the commerce of cattle and some goods in the cities of Yurimaguas and San Lorenzo, issue which forces them to be in daily contact with Peruvian Amazonian Spanish speakers. Women are compelled to work in the fields, take care of the children and cook. They spent most of their times in the communities or in the farm, not having the necessity of having a good command of Spanish. Although both men and women have access to public primary and secondary education, only men tend to finish or continue their studies.




  • Barraza de García, Yris Julia (2005a) El sistema verbal en la lengua shawi. PhD Dissertation. Federal University of Pernambuco.
  • Barraza de García, Yris Julia (2005b) “¿Es la lengua shawi una lengua activa? In Memorias del Congreso de Idiomas Indígenas de Latinoamérica-II. University of Texas in Austin.
  • Barraza de García, Yris Julia (2007) “Avances sobre relaciones gramaticales en Chayahuita. Congreso de lingüística amerindia y criolla.
  • Beuchat, Henri & Paul Rivet (1909) “La famille linguistique Cahuapana”. In Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. 41, pp. 616-634.
  • Butler, Lindsay and Pilar Valenzuela (2009) “Argument encoding and valence changing in Kawapanan”. Handout. SSILA annual meeting, Jan 10th 2009.
  • Farfán-Reto, Harold (2011) Clasificadores en Shiwilu (jebero): organización semántica y morfosintáctica. Licentiate Thesis. Lima: PUCP.
  • Fuentes, Aldo (1988) Porque las piedras no mueren: historia, sociedad y ritos de los chayahuita del Alto Amazonas. Lima: Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica.
  • Gordon de Powlison, Esther, Helen Hart & George Hart (1976) “La fonología del chayahuita”. In Datos Etno-Lingüísticos: Colección de los archivos del ILV 28. Lima: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.
  • Hart, Helen (1988) Diccionario Chayahuita-Castellano Castellano Chayahuita, Canponanquë Nisha Nisha Nonacaso’. Lima: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.
  • Gibson, Michael Luke (1996) El munichi, un idioma que se extingue. Yarinacocha: Instituto LIngüístico de Verano.
  • Madalengoitia-Barúa, María Gracia (2013) Bosquejo fonológico de la lengua jebero (shiwilu). Licentiate Thesis. Lima: PUCP.
  • Rivet, Paul & Constant Tastevin (1931) “Nouvelle contribution à l’étude du groupe Cahuapana”. In International Journal of American Linguistics. 6, pp. 227-271.
  • Rojas-Berscia, Luis Miguel (2013) La sintaxis y semántica de las construcciones causativas en el chayahuita de Balsapuerto. Licentiate Thesis. Lima: PUCP.
  • Rojas-Berscia, Luis Miguel & Sâm Ghâvami-Dicker (2015) “Teonimia en el Alto Amazonas, el caso de Kanpunama’. In: Escritura y Pensamiento. Lima: UNMSM.
  • Valenzuela, Pilar (2011a) “Argument Encoding and Pragmatic Marking of the Transitive Subject in Shiwilu (Kawapanan). In International Journal of American Linguistics 77(1). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 91-120.
  • Valenzuela, Pilar (2011b) “Contribuciones para la reconstrucción del protocahuapana: comparación léxica y gramatical de las lenguas jebero y chayahuita. In W.F.H. Adelaar, P. Valenzuela-Bismarck & R. Zariquiey-Biondi (eds.) Estudios sobre lenguas andinas y amazónicas. Homenaje a Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino. Lima: Fondo Editorial Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, pp. 271-304.
  • Valenzuela, Pilar (2012) Voces Shiwilu: 400 años de resistencia lingüística en Jeberos. Lima: PUCP.
  • Valenzuela, Pilar & Carlos Gussenhoven (2013) “Shiwilu (Jebero)”. In Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 43 (1), pp. 97-106.
  • Valenzuela, Pilar (2015) “¿Qué tan amazónicas son las lenguas kawapana? Contacto con las lenguas centroandinas y elementos para un área lingüística intermedia” In Lexis, XXXIX (1). Lima: PUCP, pp. 5-56.
  • Wise, Mary Ruth (1999) “Small language families and isolates in Peru. In: Aikhenvald, Alexandra & R.M.W. Dixon (1999) The Amazonian Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 307-340.



Last checked 2018-05-02 by Ludy Cilissen


Luis Miguel Berscia

Luis Miguel Berscia