H O M E


THE RAMA LANGUAGE
1. Genetic affiliation: Rama as a Chibchan language

The current genetic classification of Rama still relies, as it has for decades, on the pioneer studies of Lehmann (1914; 1920) and Conzemius (1927; 1929). There is general agreement that Rama is Chibchan. The most interesting hypothesis is that Rama, one of the northernmost true Chibchan languages of Central America, would be closer to the Central subgroup of Chibchan languages of Colombia than to the Western or Pacific subgroup of Chibchan languages of Costa Rica and Panama. Clarifying the relation of Rama to the Chibchan languages of Colombia to the south and to Paya to the north potentially holds the key to a clearer understanding of the precolonial migration patterns of the region.
Kaufman (1989) reassessed classification of the Chibchan family is given in Table II with indications of geographic locations and estimates of number of speakers:

A. Cundinamarcan grp  
1. Chibcha
Col:0
2. Duit
Col:0
3. Tunebo
Col,Ven:1500
B. Arwako grp  
4. Kogi
Col:3-5000
5. Bintukua
Col:2-3000
6. Malayo
Col:1000
7. Atanke
Col:0
8. Tairona
Col:0
C. 9. Chimila
Col:300
D. Motilon grp  
10. Dobokubi
Col:0
11. Bari
Col,Ven 1500-2000
E. 12. RAMA
Nicaragua (around 30, see below)
F. 13. Guatuso
C.R. 150-200
G. Talamanca grp
14. Terraba
C.R.,Pan:1000
15. Boruka
C.R.:500
16. Kabekar
C.R.:3000
17. Bribri
C.R.:4000
H. Kuna grp  
18. Mainland Pan,
Col:600-850
19. San Blas
Pan:35000
I. Waimi grp
20. Move
Pan, C.R.:45000
21. Buglere
Pan, 2000
J. 22. Doraske
Pan:0
K. 23. Paya
Hon:300

TABLE II . Classification of the Chibchan Family of languages (Kaufman 1989)
Today six languages are extinct and Rama is the most endangered of the family.


2. The vitality of the Rama language: Mainland and island Rama people and the fate of the Rama language
The Ramas may have been relatively late comers to Nicaragua. The name Rama did not appear in the colonial documents until the eighteenth century. The Ramas are considered descendants of the Votos, who at the time of the conquest occupied a territory extending from the Rio Escondido north of Bluefields lagoon to the Rio San Juan which forms today the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Traditionally the Ramas lived in small scattered settlements, moving about and hiding from intruders in the tropical forest.
At the turn of the XVIIth century the Miskitus granted the Ramas a small island in the lagoon of Bluefields in recognition of their help in fighting off Terraba Indians from the south. An estimated 200 Ramas from the coastal area of Punta Gorda moved to the island which became known from then on as Rama Cay. The island is thirteen kilometers south of Bluefields. (The trip from Rama Cay to the market town of Bluefields takes about four hours on average by dug-out canoe (`dory' in Creole), and from an hour and a half to thirty minutes by motor boat.)


3. Language shift to English based Creole: Rama Cay Creole (RCC)
The demise of the Rama language came by the usual series of causes of language death of Amerindian languages. To start with the first threat to the Rama language came by way of the death of much of its speaker population. Documents concur in estimating that the population was decimated in part by diseases introduced by colonizers, and in part by conflicts which arose from the Miskitu-run slave trade and by internal strife. A further cause of the decline of the Rama language was a major language shift on the island of Rama Cay, from Rama to a form of English Creole. It was encouraged by the Moravian missionaries, whose religious teaching was carried out in English. They arrived to the island by the middle of the XIXth century.

The most interesting aspect of the shift away from Rama is the nature of the language to which the Rama speakers shifted. Although identified as Creole, it is a creole language distinct from that spoken in Bluefields. According to Holm (1978, 1983) and Assadi (1983), Rama Cay Creole shows variations of pronunciation (flap or trilled r) and prosody, vocabulary, and morphosyntax when compared to Bluefields Creole. Rama Cay Creole is itself today a seriously endangered language that would actually deserve attention and documentation although it is being ignored as the potential marker of identity it could be for a large part of the population of Rama Cay.


4. The last speakers of Rama

It is among the population that remained on the mainland and pursued a traditional way of life that the Rama language has survived until today. Well into the 1970's, the largest settlements of Rama speakers were on the southern part of the Atlantic coast in places named Wiring Cay, Monkey Point, Cane Creek, Diamantes and Petaste up the Punta Gorda river, with smaller scattered settlements along the Kukra river
(See the Rama Language Project for description of last speakers).