The Colorado/Tsafiki Language of Ecuador


The analysis is broken into two chapters, one studying linguistic aspects, including the language’s history, phonology, morphology, and semantics, and the other focusing on an anthropological point of view, revealing the culture, society, history, cultural contacts, and future. The dictionary for the Tsafiki language has only recently become a task for linguists, and no complete dictionary is yet extant, so the status of the language spelling is necessarily overly-complex. For the purposes of this paper, several abbreviations have been used to make the glosses easier to understand (Table 1.1). In many cases, the presence of a Ø represents a zero-form morpheme, as in the case of second-person declarative and third-person (1).

DV....Declarative voice
Tab. 1.1: Abbreviations used in sentence glosses

(1) anó      ɸi-Ø-ʔé
    plantain eat-NS-DV
    ‘He ate.’ (Adelaar)

1.1 Language Family

The agglutinating, synthetic Tsafiki language is a member of the Cayapa-Colorado branch of the Barbacoan (also spelled Barbakoan) family of languages, of which only five remain as living languages: Cayapa, Colorado, Cuaiquer, Guambiano and Totoró, though the first three are more often referred to by their native names, which are Cha’apaalachi, Tsafiki and Awa Pit. It is obvious through a surface examination that these three languages have spent considerable time in the presence of each other, as is evidenced by the number of shared/borrowed words, and similar sentence structure (Adelaar).

Stops -voice | p        | t        |         | k     | ʔ       
Stops +voice | b        | d        |         |       |         
Affricates   |          | ɕ        |         |       |         
Fricatives   | ɸ        | s        |         | h     |         
Nasals       | m        | n        |         |       |         
Liquids      |          | l r      |         |       |         
Glides       | w        |          | y       |       |         
Tab. 1.2: Consonant Inventory of Tsafiki

One characteristic of the Barbacoan languages is the lack of differentiation between the vowels [o] and [u]–only in Tsafiki is this differentiation present. The Barbacoan languages are in complete agreement, however, about the treatment of nasal vowels. In none of the languages are nasal vowels phonetic structures, but rather a treatment on the vowel by a syllable-final nasal, as is the case in Tsafiki (2).

(2) anó      ɸi-yú-n
    plantain eat-SR-IR
    ‘Did you eat?’ (Adelaar)

The syllable-final n is pronounced only as a nasal on top of the final vowel sound: [ˈãno ɸiˈyũ]. As is evidenced by their name for themselves, Tsachila, and the native name for their language, Tsafiki evidences two main consonant clusters, ts and tch, and one minor, /dr/, which generally only happens when [r] is in the word-initial position. Otherwise, the syllables are pure one-consonant, one-vowel combinations, with the exception of the written [n] in syllable-final positions, which represents the nasalization of the preceding vowel.

An important aspect of Tsafiki is its reliance on syllables for the conveying of meaning. For example, meráno means ‘to hear,’ where mérano means ‘to wait.’

Tsafiki is a case-marking language of the nominative-accusative type. All Barbacoan languages are verb-final in sentence structure (specifically, S-O-V), where modifiers precede their head (3). Additionally, Tsafiki is the only Barbacoan language on record that has a totally unambiguous set of grammatical classifiers, which are used both with numerals and adjectives, and generally refer to shape. When used with adjectives, they are followed by the suffix -n (vowel nasalization). In (3), the classifier is -de, which classifies the noun as a long object (Adelaar, 150). Otherwise, Tsafiki, like the other languages in its family, relies heavily on the morphological devices being suffixes. Though Tsafiki has no word for ‘small,’ it compensates by using the word ‘child’ to describe objects that are small (4). Note that the trailing -n has been affixed to the -de classifier suffix to make the final vowel nasal, and is the same suffix used in (3).

(3) palu-dé anó
    two-CL  plantain
    ‘two plantains’ (Adelaar)

(4) ná-den   anó
    child-CL plantain
    ‘small plantain’ (Adelaar)

Unlike the other Barbacoan languages, Tsafiki makes use of gender-specificity in first-person pronouns. For example, la ‘I’ is used by men, where women use ɕih, and children use ɕe. There is no apparent gender marker for plural forms, however (Adelaar, 149).

1.2 Clause Structure Analysis

Of the more peculiar structures in Tsafiki is the presence of the verb ‘to be’ in most statements of declaration (5). This verb can be present in declarations and questions, and can even sit alone as a state of being (6). When decyphering the clause structure in Tsafiki, this peculiarity cannot be ignored.

(5) kutsu   fi-ka   ho-e
    cassava eat-PTC be-DV
    ‘He has eaten cassava.’ (Merrifield)

(6) na    ho-n
    child be-IR
    ‘Is he a child?’ (Merrifield)

±S:N ±O:n +P:V
N=±M:Adj ±Q:Num +H:n
Tab. 1.3: Clause Structure of Tsafiki

Sentences in Tsafiki always require a verb, but the subject can often be described with a zero-form, if the subject is in second-person declarative or third-person. As the language creates sentences primarily through the use of suffixes, a large array must be recognized to understand the deceptively-simple clause structure (Table 1.3). It is through these suffixes that the vast majority of new words are created (other than in borrowing from Spanish where appropriate) in Tsafiki (7).

(7) músika ke-nún
    music  make-INST
    ‘something to make music with.’

Consider, first, that músika is borrowed from Spanish. Though the Tsafiki lexicon has not been fully produced (rather, no complete dictionary could be found by the author), it is safe to say that Tsafiki has borrowed numerous words from Spanish, given the diglossia with which it cohabitates. The -nun suffix attached to the verb ‘to be’ turns the noun ‘music’ into an item that is instrumental in creating it (Adelaar). This phrase could likely be used to describe nearly any musical instrument.

(8) na    susu fari-no munara-n
    child dog  ask-INF need-IR
    ‘Does the child need to ask for the dog?’ (Merrifield)

Questions are formed in Tsafiki by the presence of a -n suffix attached to the main verb of the sentence (7), except in the presence of the peculiar ‘to be’ verb. Consider sentences (9) and (10). Both use the participle form of ‘to ask,’ but the second, in order to create a question, attaches the -n suffix to the extra ‘to be’ verb.

(9) anó faro-ka-ʔe plantain ask-PTC-DV ‘He has asked for a plantain.’ (10) anó faro-ka ho-n plantain ask-PTC be-IR ‘Has he asked for a plantain?’ (Merrifield)

1.3 Verb Structure

-e     Declaration   fi-e
-n     Interrogative ka-n
-no    Infinitive    fari-no
-ka    Participle    fari-ka
-sa    Subjunctive   neya-sa
Tab. 1.4: Verb Tense Suffixes

Ninety percent of all Tsafiki verbs are formed by the combination of a noun or ‘coverb’ unit and a base verb. These base verbs are those that can occur as the sole verbal element in a clause (Dickinson). All verb tenses are created through the use of adding a suffix depending on what tense is required (Table 1.4) The suffix -e can also be written -ʔe. Merrifield chooses to omit the glottal stop, where Adelaar does not, based on studies originally done by Moore in 1966.


The Colorado language (so called Los Colorados because the people tend to paint their hair red with a grease dyed with achiote seeds) is an ancient and robust language spoken by approximately 2,300 people in the western jungle of Quinto, around Santo Domingo de los Colorados in Ecuador.

The Colorados, or Tsachila, are a peasant agriculturist society spread across a vast fragmented area of approximately eleven small villages in the western part of Pichincha province in Ecuador (Adelaar). The people themselves identify strongly with their culture and language. Though a diglossic situation (Spanish being the high language of the area, and the national language of Ecuador), and all Tsachila are bilingual, most refuse to use Spanish unless absolutely necessary. The language figures greatly in their perception of themselves as a culture. When Connie Dickinson, a linguist from the University of Oregon, came to visit the area to compile lexical data, the natives would not speak to her in Spanish, but only in Tsafiki, much a contrast to the apparent limited percentage of Awa who continue to speak their language. Part of this is possibly tied to the fact that the Tsachila are a culture that possibly predate the Incas. As such, it is assumed that they have lived in this area of Ecuador for thousands of years.

The presence of borrowed words from Spanish, and many of the Barbacoan languages would tend to support this claim.

These days, the Tsachila are predominately Christian farmers, who still weave their cloth by hand from alpaca wool and are often hosts to Christian missionaries, who are charmed by the Tsachila's general quick wit and ability and desire to assimilate new information (Gandy).

Geographically, the Tsachila live in a mostly jungle/tropical forest environment, where their main food sources are fruits (particularly the plantain/banana, the word for which is also the same for 'food' in general) and forest animals. Unfortunately, the language is considered endangered. Though the children who are born do learn the language, that only 2,300 people speak it in total speaks of the danger of its extinction. Volkswagen, among others, have sponsored numerous grants to help the language survive, in the propagation of dictionaries and the spreading of educational services in Ecuador. Missionaries, too, do their part in ensuring the Tsachila remain educated and aware of the world around them.

The recent surge of anthropologists to analyze and catalog this fascinating language is no coincidence. The Totoró language, a cousin to Tsafiki, for example, is almost entirely dead, with an estimated three of every 1,000 natives being taught it as a first language. The same could possibly be said about the Awa Pit, but, as Adelaar mentions, the Awa are notorious for practicing secrecy with respect to their language and cultural identity, so reliable figures are unobtainable. Though children are born into the Tsafiki language and learn it, it is quite clearly in danger of being forgotten entirely.


[1] Adelaar, Willem and Pieter C. Muysken. The Languages of the Andes. Cambridge: University Press, 2004.
[2] Curnow, Timothy Jowan. “Why First/Non-First Person is Not Grammaticalized Mirativity.” 18 Nov. 2005
[3] Dickinson, Connie. “Simple and Complex Predicates in Tsafiki (Colorado).” 22 Nov. 2005
[4] Gandy, Joan. “Missionaries sacrifice family time at holiday for trip to Ecuador.” The Natchez Democrat 23 November, 2005.
[5] Merrifield, William R., Constance M. Naish, Calvin R. Rensch, and Gillian Story, eds. Laboratory Manual for Morphology and Syntax. Seventh Edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2003.