Banned by the king of Spain, an extinct Colombian language is making a comeback
By Eduardo Avila
The Muisca language is officially extinct but its “echoes” remain.
The language, part of the Chibcha linguistic family, was previously spoken by the Muisca people, who lived around Colombia’s central highlands including the area surrounding present-day Bogotá. Much of the language’s history is found in texts and documents from the 16th and 17th centuries, rescued from archives where they sat dormant. The language’s path towards extinction was cemented by the ruling of King Charles III of Spain, who banned its use as a way to further control the indigenous population. The law remained on the books until Colombia’s 1991 Constitution eliminated it.
Even though the language is not actively used, it remains alive and well in some of the daily words used by Colombians, which were borrowed from the Muisca language. These words, usually used to describe local animals, plants, and fruits, are called “muisquismos,” and are often used in and around Bogotá by residents unaware of the words’ origins.
The historical importance of this extinct language piqued the interest of a group of linguistics and anthropology students from various universities around Colombia, which has been working to slowly bring the language back. By taking advantage of digital tools, apps, and social media, the project called “Muysccubun” has been working to document and share the language on the Internet. Their activities include transcribing primary source materials in Muisca and uploading to a wiki. They have created a Spanish-Muisca online dictionary, also available as a free Android app.
This material is also shared through the group’s Facebook Page, where they have been sharing the Muisca word of the day linking to the documentation on the wiki. For example:
Word of the day:
Fon. Gonz. */iaia/
Fon. Cons. */iaia/
- Fishing net
This experience using technology to engage with the Muisca language led to similar initiatives led by the Muysccubun team, including the creation of an online Sáliba language-Spanish dictionary, also available as an Android app in conjunction with the Caro and Cuervo Institute. They are also collaborating with Mozilla Colombia to promote the localization of the Firefox browser into Colombian indigenous languages.
While there are some new initiatives to teach Muisca in some rural schools, as well as various classes in Bogotá, the project hopes that their contribution to document and revitalize the Muisca language can flourish with the help of their work in digital media.