Karajá language

Karajá, also known as Ynã, is spoken by the Karajá people in some thirty villages in central Brazil.

Native toBrazil
RegionAraguaia River
Ethnicity3,600 Karajá people (2007)[1]
Native speakers
2,700 (2006)[1]
  • Karajá
  • Javaé
  • Xambioá
Language codes
ISO 639-3kpj
Karajan languages.png
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There are distinct male and female forms of speech; one of the principal differences is that men drop the sound /k/, which is pronounced by women.

Karaja is a verb-final language,[3] with simple noun and more complex verbal morphology that includes noun incorporation. Verbs inflect for direction as well as person, mood, object, and voice.

Language contactEdit

Jolkesky (2016) notes that there are lexical similarities with the Karib, Puinave-Nadahup, and Tupi language families due to contact.[4]


Dialects are North Karaja, South Karaja, Xambioá, and Javaé (Javajé).[5]:95

Xambioá was once spoken at the mouth of the Pau d'Arco River. Javajé is listed by Loutkotka (1968) as spoken in a village in northern Bananal Island.[6]


Karajá has eleven oral vowels, /i, ɪ, e, ɛ, ɨ, ə, a, u, ʊ, o, ɔ/, and three nasal vowels, /ĩ ə̃ õ/. /a/ is nasalized word initially and when preceded by /h/ or a voiced stop: /aθi/[ãθi] 'grass', /ɔha/[ɔhã] 'armadillo'; this in turn nasalizes a preceding /b/ or /d/: /bahadu/[mãhãdu] 'group', /dadi/[nãdi] 'my mother'.

Front Central Back
Close i, ĩ ɨ u
Near-close ɪ ʊ
Mid e ə, ə̃ o, õ
Open-Mid ɛ ɔ
Open a ([ã])

This language has vowel harmony that matches vowels' tenseness to the vowel of the following suffix.[7]

V → [+ATR] / _ (C)-V[+ATR]

There are only twelve consonants, eight of which are coronal:

Labial Dental Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Stop/Affricate Voiceless k
Voiced b d
Implosive ɗ
Fricative θ ʃ h
Lateral l
Sonorant w ɾ

Men's and women's speechEdit

Some examples of the differences between men's and women's speech, especially the presence or lack of /k/ (including in borrowings from Portuguese),[8] follow. Note that men maintain /k/ in at least one grammatical ending.[9]

Women Men Gloss
kɔɗu ɔɗu turtle
kɔlukɔ ɔluɔ labret
kaɾitʃa-kɾe aɾia-kɾe I will walk*
bɛɾaku beɾo river
adõda aõda thinɡ
dõbĩku dõbĩu Sunday
(from Portuguese domingo)

* The /itʃa/ derives historically from *ika, and so becomes /ia/ in men's speech.

The first (♀ dIkarə̃ ♂ dIarə̃) and third (ɗəkI, ♂ optional male form: ɗII) person pronouns differ based on gender but the second person pronoun /kai/ is an exception to this rule, and is pronounced the same by men and women.[7]

It is hypothesized (Ribeiro 2012) that in the past this process of the k-drop became a sign of masculinity and females resisted it in order to keep a more conservative form of speech.



The verb in Karajá grammar always agrees with the subject of the sentence, as it does in French for example; these agreements are determined by the past and present tense (also known as realis) or future, potential, and admonitory tenses (also known as irrealis). Verbs have no lexical opposites (such as in vs. out) and direction is represented through inflection; all Karajá verbs can inflect for direction. Verbs are either transitive or intransitive and the valence of each verb, therefore, may increase or decrease depending on their status as transitive or intransitive.


Nouns can be incorporated into verbs to create noun-verb compounds with the noun being placed into the verb. Any noun can be turned into a verb with the use of a suffix and action nouns can be created with the use of the verb stem.


There are three personal pronouns:

  • dIkarə̃dIarə̃ - ‘I’
 dIarə̃	aõkõ,	kai=ɗa
 ‘Not me, but you instead.’
  • kai - ‘you’
 dIarə̃	aõkõ,	kai=ɗa
 ‘Not me, but you instead.’
  • ɗəkI (♂ optional male form: ɗII) - ‘he/she/it’
 ɗəkI	ɔhã	∅-r-I-r=ɔ=kõ=r-e
 he	armadillo	3CTFG-TRANS-eat=NEG=CTFG-IMPERF
 ‘He doesn’t eat armadillo.’	

These pronouns can be pluralized with the use of the pluralizer ‘boho’. When pluralized, the first person plural has both an inclusive and exclusive interpretation as in the following examples (Ribeiro 2012):

  • dIərə̃ boho kədʊra a-r-I-rɔ=rɛdə̃=kre
 dIərə̃ boho kədʊra a-r-I-rɔ=rɛdə̃=kre
 I     PL   fish   1-CTFG-TRANS-eat=CTFG-PL=FUT
 We (exclusive) will eat fish
  • idə̃ boho kədʊra rək-I-rɔ=r-ɛdə̃=kre
 idə̃    boho kədʊra rək-I-rɔ=r-ɛdə̃=kre
 Karajá PL   fish   1PL.INCL.-TRANS-eat=POT
 We (inclusive) eat fish

Possessive pronouns are not used but are Instead marked by affixes (ie. wa- = ‘my’) and there are two demonstrative pronouns:

  • ·ka - ‘distal’
  • kədã - ‘proximate’


Direction in the Karajá language does not have any lexical opposites. Lexical opposites are words that have opposite meanings (Summer Institute of Linguistics 2004), such as in and out or go and come. Direction, rather, is marked by a set of prefixes that determine whether the event in the sentence is happening away from or toward the speaker. Centrifugal direction (away from the speaker) is characterized by a marking of the prefix r- while centripetal direction (toward the speaker) is characterized by a marking of the prefix d-. Since all the verbs in the Karajá language can have direction, direction becomes its own category of inflection. Inflection in this case refers to the addition of a letter/letters to words to change its grammatical form (i.e. car > cars) (Frankfurt International School n.d.). The phenomenon of direction can be seen in the following example (Ribeiro 2012):

  • rurure
 He died (there)
  • durude
 He died (here)



Valence is defined as the number of arguments that a verb takes on, while an argument is defined as any syntactic element that completes the meaning of a verb (About 2016). The sentence ‘Elizabeth cried’, for example, can have its valence increased through the following sentence, ‘John made Elizabeth cry’, where ‘John made’ serves as an expression which adds to the original sentence (‘Elizabeth cried’). The Karajá language is characterized both by the reduction of valence and by the increase in valence. Valence increase happens through causitivization and through oblique promotion while valence decrease happens through reflixivatization, passivization, and antipassivization (Ribeiro 2012).

Valence IncreaseEdit


Causitavization occurs when an argument is introduced in a sentence that serves to function as a causer. As an example, in the sentence above (‘John made Elizabeth cry’), John is introduced as the causer of Elizabeth crying. Causitivatization is present in the Karajá language through the causitavizer -dəkə̃ and the verbalizer -də̃, shown in the following example (Ribeiro 2012):

  • habu kʊladʊ ririradəkə̃nə̃rɛrI
 habu kʊladʊ  ririradəkə̃nə̃rɛrI
 habu kʊladʊ  ∅-r-I-rira-dəkə̃-də̃=r-ɛri
 man  child   3-CTFG-walk-CAUS-VERB=CTFG-PROGR
 ‘The man is making the child walk’

The man in this example is the causer who makes the child, the causee, walk.

Valence DecreaseEdit


In reflexivity, the subject and object participants become identical (Booij et. al 2004) and, thus, the valence decreases. Reflexivity in the Karajá language is characterized by the use of two reflexive morphemes, eʃi- and iʃi- (Ribeiro 2012):

  • dIkarə̄ ka-re-eʃi-θʊhɔ=kəre
 dIkarə̄ ka-re-eʃi-θʊhɔ=kəre
 I      1-CTFG-REFL-wash=FUT
 ‘I will wash myself.’
  • Habu iʃi=bə̄ ∅-r-∅-obi=r-e
 Habu iʃi=bə̄   ∅-r-∅-obi=r-e
 ‘The man saw himself.’

In this case, I – myself (1st example) and man – himself (2nd example) refer to the same individual.


Passives are described as the change of a sentence from a transitive sentence to an intransitive sentence through the demotion of the subject. Passive verbs are marked either by the prefix a- or by a zero allomorph (∅), depending on the verb (Ribeiro 2012):

  • d-ãdI wa-ɗəkɨ ∅-r-I-∅ʊhɔ=r-ɛrI
 d-ãdI	   wa-ɗəkɨ   ∅-r-I-∅ʊhɔ=r-ɛrI
 REL-mother 1-clothes 3-CTFG-TRANS-wash=CTFG-PROGR
 ‘My mother is washing my clothes.’
  • wa-ɗəkɨ ∅-r-a-∅ʊhɔ=r-ɛrI
 wa-ɗəkɨ	  ∅-r-a-∅ʊhɔ=r-ɛrI
 1-clothes 3-CTFG-PASS-wash=CTFG-PROGR
 ‘My clothes are being washed.’

Here, the subject ‘mother’ is demoted in the second example.


Antipassives, on the other hand, result in the deletion of an unknown or irrelevant direct object and are characterized by the use of the prefix ɔ- (Ribeiro 2012):

  • d-ādI ∅-r-ɔ-θʊhɔ=rɛrI
 d-ādI      ∅-r-ɔ-θʊhɔ=rɛrI
 ‘My mother is washing (something).’

In this example, the object that is being washed is omitted from the sentence.



When referring to nouns, plurality is expressed through three processes: reduplication, the pluralizer –boho, and the use of the noun bãhãdʊ (people, group). In the context of verbs, plurality is marked through the use of the pluralizer -ɛdə̃.


Reduplication refers to the repetition of word categories to convey a certain meaning. In the case of the Karajá language, reduplication occurs with nouns and is used to convey plurality (Ribeiro 2012):

  • irɔdʊ irɔdʊ irɔdʊ
 irɔdʊ  irɔdʊ irɔdʊ
 animal animal animal
 ‘animal’ ‘animals’

Pluralizer -bohoEdit

The pluralizer –boho is used to pluralize the three personal pronouns (♀ dIkarə̃ ♂ dIarə̃ - ‘I’, kai - ‘you’, and ♀ ɗəkI ♂ ɗII – ‘he, she, it’) (Ribeiro 2012):

  • dIərə̃ oho kədʊra a-r-I-rɔ=rɛdə̃=kre
 dIərə̃ oho kədʊra a-r-I-rɔ=rɛdə̃=kre
 I     PL  fish	 1-CTFG-TRANS-eat=CTFG-PL=FUT
 We (exclusive) will eat fish
  • idə̄ boho kədʊra rək-I-rɔ=r-ɛdə̃=kre
 idə̄    boho kədʊra rək-I-rɔ=r-ɛdə̃=kre
 Karajá PL   fish   1PL.INCL.-TRANS-eat=POT
 We (inclusive) eat fish

In addition, the above examples show how the pluralizer –boho, when combined with the noun for people (idə̄), functions as a first person plural inclusive pronoun to include those outside of a specific group. According to Ribeiro, idə̄ serves the same function as the phrase a gente, commonly found throughout Brazilian Portuguese (Ribeiro 2012).


In contrast to the pluralizer –boho, the noun word bãhãdʊ is not used with pronouns but rather functions as a noun to pluralize a group of people, as shown in the following example (Ribeiro 2012):

  • idə̄ bãhãdʊ ɗabə̃ ∅-r-a-ɔrʊ-də̃=r-e
 idə̄    bãhãdʊ ɗabə̃ ∅-r-a-ɔrʊ-də̃=r-e
 people group  3.AL 3-CTFG-INTR-run-VERB=CTFG-IMPRF
 ‘Firing their guns, the Karajá ran after them, it is said.’

In the above sentence, ‘Karajá’ (people- idə̄) becomes pluralized through the use of bãhãdʊ.

Pluralizer -ɛdə̃Edit

As mentioned above, the pluralizer -ɛdə̃ functions to pluralize verbs as shown in the following example from Ribeiro’s article (2012):

  • ɗamə̄le dɔIdɛnə̄de ɗuidʒɨɨmə̄
 ɗamə̄le     dɔIdɛnə̄de                            ɗuidʒɨɨmə̄
 ɗabə̄=le    ∅-d-∅-ɔI=d-ɛdə̄=d-e                   dʊ=idʒɨɨ=bə̄
 ‘They came to him to tell the story.’

‘Came’, in this example, is pluralized to indicate that many individuals came.


Loukotka (1968) lists the following basic vocabulary items for Karajá and Javajé.[6]

gloss Karajá Javajé
one dohodzyi zohódi
two inati ináti
three inatanga nádo
head wa-ara rahah
ear noʔonti nóhonti
tooth wa-idzyu zyuʔú
woman hanökö uãuoːkoː
water bää
stone máma mená
maize mahi diulad'ié
tapir kaongri konrí


  1. ^ a b Karajá at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Karajá". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Rodrigues (1999), pp. 187-88
  4. ^ Jolkesky, Marcelo Pinho de Valhery (2016). Estudo arqueo-ecolinguístico das terras tropicais sul-americanas (Ph.D. dissertation) (2 ed.). Brasília: University of Brasília.
  5. ^ Nikulin, Andrey. 2020. Proto-Macro-Jê: um estudo reconstrutivo. Doctoral dissertation, University of Brasília.
  6. ^ a b Loukotka, Čestmír (1968). Classification of South American Indian languages. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center.
  7. ^ a b Ribeiro, Eduardo (2012). A Grammar of Karaja. Chicago, IL: Dissertation of University of Chicago.
  8. ^ Rodrigues (1999), pg. 177
  9. ^ Rodrigues (1999), pg. 177


  • Ribeiro, Eduardo Rivail. (2002) "Direction in Karajá". In Rosa María Ortiz Ciscomani, ed., Vi encuentro internacional de lingüística en el noroeste.
  • Ribeiro, Eduard Rivail. (2000) "[ATR] vowel harmony and palatalization in Karajá". Santa Barbara Papers in Linguistics. 10: Proceedings of wail 2000. pp. 80–89.
  • Rodrigues, Aryon D. (1999) "Macro-Jê". In R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald (eds.), The Amazonian Languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • About (2016). Valency (Grammar). Retrieved from http://grammar.about.com/od/tz/g/Valency.htm
  • Booij G, Lehmann C, Mudgan J, Skopeteas S (2004). Morphology: An International Handbook on Inflection and Word-Formation. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter.
  • Fortune, David & Fortune, Gretchen (1963). The phonemes of the Karajá language (manuscript). Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Lingüístico do Museu Nacional.
  • Frankfurt International School. (n.d.) Inflections. Retrieved from http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/rules/inflections.htm
  • Ribeiro, Eduardo (2012). A Grammar of Karajá. University of Chicago, Chicago. Museo do Índio (2016). Karajá/Iny. Retrieved from http://prodoclin.museudoindio.gov.br/index.php/etnias/karaja
  • Summer Institute of Linguistics. (2004). What is an opposite lexical relation? Retrieved from http://www-01.sil.org/linguistics/glossaryoflinguisticterms/WhatIsAnOppositeLexicalRelatio.htm

External linksEdit