Yagán (originally Yahgan, but also now spelled Yaghan, Jagan, Iakan), also known as Yámana and Háusi Kúta, is one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego, spoken by the Yagán people. It is regarded as a language isolate, although some linguists have attempted to relate it to Kawésqar and Chon.
Only one elderly speaker remains, Cristina Calderón of Ukika Village on Isla Navarino, Chile, though there is reportedly some interest in reviving the language among Yagán descendants. Along with other Fuegian languages, it was among the first South American languages to be recorded by European explorers and missionaries.
An orthographically simplified variant of the old Bridges system was created for online use on the Waata Chis discussion list on Yahoo Groups and elsewhere. This alphabet consists of tense and lax vowels as well as voiced and voiceless consonants, among others. In this system tenseness is marked by colon : following the vowel sign. a, a:, ai, au, e, e:, i, i:, iu:, o, o:, oi, u, u:, v (here schwa, not /v/), all correspond to unique graphemes in the Bridges orthography. Consonants are: b, d, ch, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, ng, p, r, s, sh, t, w, x, y, z, all corresponding to single Bridges graphemes, some of which are only found in restricted environments, and hm, hn, hl, hr, hw, hy, which are digraphs in earlier Bridges writings but single graphemes in later ones. Still later Bridges made further orthographic modifications: w, h, and y became superscripts- à is read as ya, á as ha, and ā as wa. Superscripts could combine to give hw, hy, etc. Because iu: could now be represented by u: plus y- superscript (ù:), and also because the original graphemes for u: and u were easily confused with each other (as well as with the now superscripted w), Bridges began using the now redundant grapheme for iu: (approximately ų) for u: in his renderings. All these changes took place in a very short time frame, and have led to a lot of confusion on the part of later scholars. In addition, Bridges' modifications of the 19th century phonetic alphabet of Alexander Ellis also included a number of signs meant for transliterations of foreign terms.
There are some ambiguities in Bridges' renderings. He himself notes that g/k, j/ch, d/t and p/f are in many instances interchangeable. In certain environments s and sh are hard to distinguish (as before high front vowels). Likewise ai versus e: and au versus o: Such ambiguities may go far to help explain the loss or lack of contrasts in the surviving dialect.
In syllables reduced through morphophonetic processes, terminal vowels (-a, -u:) of original bisyllables will often drop (except for -i, which tends to remain, leaving previous material unaffected), and resultant final stops will fricativize (r becomes sh). Aside from losing stress, any vowels preceding these shifted consonants will often shift from tense to lax. Ex. -a:gu: 'for self, with one's own' > -ax-. ata 'to take, convey' > vhr-, and so on. Present tense usually results in the dropping of the final vowel of the infinitival form of the verb and associated changes as above, as does affixation by many, but not all, further derivational and inflectional suffixes beginning with stops, affricates, and other consonants. Ex. aiamaka 'to fight' aiamux-tvlli 'to fight confusedly'.
m, n, and l are particularly labile in some environments. atama 'to eat' atu:-yella 'to leave off eating' (not atamayella). n from -Vna 'state' is often reduced to -V: when one would expect -Vn-. l can disappear entirely before some consonants. vla 'to drink', vlnggu: or vnggu: 'to drink'. Initial h- in roots and affixes drops in many instances. Ex. kvna 'to float, be in boat'+ haina 'to walk, go' gives kvn-aina. ng (as in English 'hang') is purely morphophonetic, from terminal n before a velar consonant. Many instances of m before a labial consonant are similarly motivated. w after a passive/reflexive prefix m- often drops. w often vocalizes to u: or o: or drops (depending on preceding material): tu:- causative plus wvshta:gu: 'work' is tu:vshta:gu: 'make work'. y is also relatively labile- after reduced -ata-> -vhr- the suffix -yella 'to leave off' becomes -chella. In combination with preceding -a y often vocalizes: ki:pa 'woman' plus yamalim 'plural animates/people' becomes ki:paiamalim.
Some roots, particularly those with doubled consonants, exhibit stress on both vowels flanking the doublet. Diphthongs appear to attract stress when they are morphophonetic in origin, sometimes removing it from vowels on both sides that would otherwise be stressed. The first vowel -V- (influenced by the preceding terminal root vowel) in -Vna '(be) in a state' also appears to attract stress, while -ata 'attain' repels stress to the left. Thus the combination -Vnata 'get into a state' is harmonious. Diphthongal attraction often trumps -Vna, drawing stress further left, while two successive diphthongs often have the stress on the rightmost one (counterintuitively). Syllables reduced morphophonetically generally lose whatever stress they might have carried. The vast majority of 'irregular' stress renderings in Bridges' original dictionary manuscript seem to arise from just these five sources.
Interestingly, it may be that these effects help to preserve morpheme boundary and identity information. For instance given the importance of derivation of verbs from nouns and adjectives using -Vna- and -ata-, shifted stress allows one to differentiate these morphemes from lexical -ata- (common enough) and those -na-'s that are part of lexical roots (also relatively common). -Vna itself will often lose stress and reduce to a tense vowel before other suffixes, leaving the shifting as a hint of its underlying presence.
Stress can also differentiate otherwise identical voice morpheme strings: tú:mu:- causative reflexive (get someone else to do/make one) from tu:mú:-(1) the causative of making oneself seem, or pretend to be in some state, and tu:mú:-(2) the circumstantial (tu:- allomorph before m-) of same (i.e. to seem/pretend at any specified time or place, with any particular tools, for any reasons, etc.). Circumstantial T has different allomorphs- some having following stressable vowel, others not- this also complicates matters for the learner but may also help disentangle morpheme boundaries for the listener.
The historical sources of these patterns cannot be known for sure, but it may be possible that there was at one time a shape and texture classifier system of some sort behind them. Such systems are rather common in South American languages.
There is little direct onomatopoeia recorded by Bridges, despite descriptions of highly animated imitative behavior on the part of speakers being recorded in the late 19th century. Several bird names are perhaps reduplications of calls (or other nonvocal behavior), and there are a couple of imitative cries and sound words. Most words denoting sounds end in an unproductive verb-deriving suffix -sha (in at least one case -ra, and r is known to alternate with sh), which may be derived from the Yahgan root ha:sha 'voice, language, uttered words, speech, cry', or vra 'to cry'. Ex. gvlasha 'to rattle'.
In the Bridges dictionary of the language one may note several otherwise identical terms differing only in whether they are spelled with an s or a ch (for example asela/achela 'skin'). It is not known whether this was dialectal, dialect mixture, ideolectal, gender-based usage or a real grammatical variation such as might occur with augmentative/diminutive sound symbolic shifting.
Further analysis of the biblical texts is showing that the Yahga dialect allowed for semantic reordering of constituents. For instance if SVO is considered the default order for subject and object flanking the verb, then when O is left-shifted (SOV) there is often a sense that the object nominal has more say in his/her patient-hood than if kept to the right of the verb. Similarly, when the subject is right-shifted (VSO) its agent-hood appears often less than what one would expect. It will remain to be seen how pervasive this principle is in the language, and how intricately it interacts with Tense-Aspect-Mood and Polarity marking, topicalization, focus, etc.
The adverb kaia 'fast, quick(ly)' can be used lexically to modify predications, but in the three biblical texts it is also apparently used to mark the second component clause in 'if-then' types of constructions. There is no mention made of this in surviving grammars, nor in the dictionary glosses of kaia.
An example of this in Yahgan would be the change of posture verbs into aspectual markers. Yahgan has a system of verbs which denote the posture of an entity: 'stand' mvni, 'sit' mu:tu:, 'lie' (w)i:a and others (for instance a:gulu: 'fly/jump', kvna 'float' etc.). In normal lexical usage one could say
hai ha-mu:t-ude: 'I sat'. (hai full pronoun first person singular, ha- bound version unmarked for number, -ude: past tense).
sa sa-mvni-de: 'You stood'. (sa full pronoun second singular, sa- bound).
But with the same root in their grammaticalized forms added:
hai ha-mvni-mu:t-ude: 'I stood regularly, or as a rule'.
sa sa-muhr-mvni-de: 'You often sat, or were ready to sit'.
The semantic bases of such usage seems to the degree of bodily contact with the substratum, vigilance, engagement, etc. Flying/jumping means ceasing some activity of interest entirely and going off to do something else rather suddenly, standing implies readiness to do something else as needed but attending to the activity when one can. Sitting is regular involvement in the activity, though not to the exclusion of other things that need doing. Lying (not just on but also within) is deep involvement, almost to the exclusion of other activities (English 'immersed in', being 'wrapped up in', 'in a rut' 'be up to one's neck/ears in', 'in over one's head', 'buried in (as work)' etc. have similar import). Relative height is another way to look at it- we say we are 'over' with something to mean 'done with' (equivalent to the jump/fly term in Yahgan), with a hint of relative dominance implied as well. While English has a plethora of colorful expressions for denoting such circumstances, Yahgan has reduced the system to a well defined smallish set of terms from the domain of posture verbs. Such reduction is one symptom of grammaticalization.
Such contact/engagement-based semantic clines are relatively common crosslinguistically, and the phenomenon of posture verbs changing to aspect marking morphemes is well known among linguists, though it is not the only pathway to creating such terms.
A phonetically based cline (based on both oral articulatory position and manner) can be seen in prefixes y- a- u:- in Yahgan, and combinations ya- and u:a-.
y- denotes an activity begun or intended, but not completed. a- seems to imply continuation, and u:- removal of impediments to the completion of the activity. Combined forms ya- and u:a- appear to accentuate the continuous part of the activity.
In North America, languages of the Siouan and Chemakuan families have similarly structured basic systems (Siouan prefixal, Chemakuan suffixal), but mostly with spatial reference. i- is standing out, away from some surface, a- is surface contact, and u- is containment within a surface, though there are also processual and figure/ground senses involved. Note that standing away minimizes surface contact. Other language families have distance demonstratives which follow similar phonological clines. It is possible that there may be historical connections between the y- form and ki:pa 'woman' and u:- and u:a 'man', which when verbalized apparently refer to less and more forceful or determined attempts to achieve respectively. Verbs ya:na 'to intend, wish' and wa:na 'pass, surpass', as well as u:a- 'do fiercely, forcibly' may be related, with suffixal -na on the first forms.
Horizontal movement verbs commonly change, crosslinguistically, into tense markers. Yahgan shows evidence of such shifts as well.
Free/emphatic forms: Nominative Singular: 1 hai, 2 sa, 3 kvnjin. Dual: 1 hipai, 2 sapai, 3 kvnde:(i) or kvnde:u:. Plural: 1 haian, 2 san, 3 kvndaian
Accusative Singular: 1 haia, 2 skaia, 3 kvnjima. Dual: 123. Plural: 1 haiananima, 2 sananima, 3 kvndaiananima.
Example: lvmbi 'dark, black', lvmbi:na 'be dark', lvmbi:nata 'become dark', lvmbi:nuhrka:taka 'incrementally become dark', tu:lvmbi:nuhrchella 'cause to leave off becoming dark'.
Adjectives in Yahgan generally have predicative value when following a noun, but are attributive when preceding. There are large numbers of adjective-noun compounds in the language. Examples of attributive adjectives preceding the noun: yaus-u:a 'a lying man, i.e. a liar', yaus-ki:pa 'a lying woman', yeka-kaiiu:ala 'a young child', hu:lu:-a:nan 'a large canoe'. Examples of predicative adjectives following a noun: lvn-tauwa 'tight-tongued i.e. tongue-tied', yvsh-duf 'weak-handed i.e. not dexterous'.
Some more commonly used suffixal forms creating adjectives are: -kuru: 'wishing, wanting to X', -pun 'having no ability to resist X'ing', -Vta 'disposed towards X(ing)', -vnnaka 'having difficulty Xing or unable to X', -a:ru:gata 'troubled doing X', -siu:wa:ta 'tired of X or Xing', -Vtas 'doing X well'. Examples: a:musha:kuru: 'liking to pray', u:ku:tu:mvra-siu:wa:ta 'tired of explaining', i:kama:natas 'good at writing'. As with other adjective roots, these suffixed forms may be further derived as in the lvmbi example above.
Yahgan emphasized interconnected parts over unanalyzed wholes (also reflected in their verb serialization). Body parts are finely differentiated, as are social relationships. The vocabulary contained a vast number of deverbalized nouns.
Personal names often derived from the name of the place of birth- for instance a man born in Ushuaia (meaning 'bay (waia) in the upper back (ushsha)') might be Ushuaia-njiz. Alternatively one might use the case form -ndaulum 'from' and u:a 'man' giving Ushuaia-ndaulum-u:a.
Subject nouns take no overt case marking (subject coreference is on the verb instead). Nouns can be marked for accusative, genitive, dative, locative, instrumental and other cases. Geographical information can be incorporated into the string, as can information about number, collectivity, definiteness, etc. Most of these marks are suffixal.
In the three biblical texts there are numerous complex noun phrases with very involved case relations. It is unknown whether this is characteristic of speaker usage or an invention of the missionary Bridges.
Verbs can be nominalized through a variety of means, particularly by the prefixation of circumstantial T (with its various allomorphs) and/or suffixation of participial morphemes: -shin 'past participle', -(k)un 'present participle', and -Vmvs 'future participle'. Examples: ts-ta:gu: 'to give at some particular time, in some stated place, using some tool', or 'a gift', teki-shin 'when X saw, or the one who saw', wvle:wa twi:amanana-shin 'The boy who lived', ts-ta:pvn-a:mvs 'the one who will die'.
Ex. i:nan haian kvndaiananima ha-ts-tu:-uhr-gaiat-u:sin-de:-aka a:nan 'We (haian) were making them (kvndaiananima) take (uhr < ata 'take') the boat (a:nan) during (ts- circumstantial plus -n locative on) the winter (i:na) a while ago'.
A handful of verbs form doublets where one of the pair seems to have an unproductive reversative suffix possibly related to the form -a:gu: '(do) for oneself'. For instance ma:na 'to lend', ma:na:ku: 'to borrow'.
In addition to normal serialization Yahgan also exhibits complex verb stems of a type relatively common in western North America, where the main verb is flanked by instrument/body part manner of action prefixes and pathway/position suffixes. The prefixes are part of a larger, more open system of elements marking various kinds of causes or motivations, grading off into more grammaticalized voice marking. Many of the path/position suffixes (especially posture verbs) do double duty as sources for more grammaticalized aspectual morphology. Tense suffixes seem to derive historically from horizontal motion verbs, and together with the more vertical postural aspect forms, make an interesting Cartesian-style coordinate system for dealing with the temporal dimension.
Example stems are: -aku:-pung-kvna-, -aku:- 'by striking' (itself from aki 'strike' plus -u:- permissive/causative), -(a)pvna-'kill/die', -kvna 'in a boat or afloat', meaning 'to kill by striking while afloat'. -alagvnat-u:-tekil-uhr-man-a:tsikvri- 'to stand by watching (-alagvnat-) and let (-u:) step completely (-tekil-ata-) out (-man-a:tsikvri-) (say a person one does not like out of the house into the line of gunfire without warning or stopping him).
A small number of commonly used verb roots have irregular present tenses. Instead of dropping the final vowel (triggering reductive processes) these forms instead add -ata after the vowel is dropped. Examples: mu:tu: 'to sit'/'to be', present mu:ta (from mu:t-ata), wi:a 'to lie'/'to be', present wi:ata, kvna 'to float'/'to be', present ga:rata. In the last example note that this seemingly suppletive present may in fact hark back to the original historical form, and infinitival kvna may be the changed one.
The form mvra 'to hear' has grammaticalized into an evidential suffix -mush 'hearsay'. Ex. hauanchi isin wuru: yamanaiamalim ma:maia-mushun-de: 'They say that in this land many men died'. There are several other evidential suffixes, differentiating sensory mode (hearing, sight, etc.) as well as time. mvra also finds modal use in the clitic space that often follows the first substantive in the sentence: kvnjin MUSH yamana:mu:ta, kvndian-da:gia kv-teki-sin-de: kvnjima hauachi moala 'He MUST be alive, because they (the ones who told me about it) saw him today'. There are other modal verbs also found in this space.
There is little or no reduplication evident on the Yahgan verb, and sound symbolism of the augmentative/diminutive type appears to be largely lexicalized. On the other hand, Yahgan exhibits a good deal of remnant sound symbolism in the verb, similar to what one sees in English.
A good number of verbs seem to form small 'word families' which have slight semantic differences which may have been encoded using sound symbolism (as one often sees, for instance, in some languages of the Austroasiatic stock). For instance haina 'go, walk lightly' versus u:unna 'walk heavily, plod'. In such cases the original symmetry of form seems often to have been distorted by historical changes.