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The Xavante language is a Jê language spoken by the Xavante people in the area surrounding Eastern Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Xavante language is unusual in its phonology, its ergative object–agent–verb word order, and its use of honorary and endearment terms in its morphology.

Native to Brazil
Region Mato Grosso
Ethnicity Xavante people
Native speakers
9,600 (2006)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xav
Glottolog xava1240[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

The Xavante people are approximately 18,380 individuals in 170 villages as of 2014, but the language is spoken by 9600 people, of whom about 7000 are monolingual in Xavante alone. The current speakers, made up of all ages, use the language vigorously, and hold positive attitudes towards Xavante.[3]



Xavante is a language in the Jê family, spoken in Mato Grosso, in the west part of Brazil.[4] It has been orthographically rendered as Chavante and Shavante, and is also called Akuen, Akwen, A’uwe Uptabi, A’we, Crisca, Pusciti, and Tapuac.[5]


The Xavante people originate from the east of the Araguaia River, in what was then called the province of Goias.[6] In the early 18th century, this area was heavily invaded by colonizers searching for gold, leading to the indigenous population in the area to suffer from epidemics and live in the residential settlements created by the government.[7] Following this, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, groups of indigenous people, now distinctly self-identifying as Xavante, settled in Mato Grosso; this area was relatively undisturbed until the 1930s.[8]

At this point, the government under Getulio Vargas initiated the ‘March to the West’ campaign within the National Integration Program, in which expansion to the interior of Brazil and ‘domestication of the Savage’ were heavily promoted.[9] The Xavante people were used in print media as illustrations of newly ‘pacified’ people who had decided to ‘join Brazilian society’.[7] In the meantime, groups including missionaries had invaded the Mato Grosso to try to convert the Xavanate into Catholicism; the indigenous people, angry at the unsolicited invasion, attacked the group in return.[8] However, following this period until the 1960s peaceful contacts, in which goods were exchanged, were established.[8]

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Xavante land was coveted for farming and agriculture purposes; deals to arrange transfers to white settlers were often fraudulent, and land used for monocultures, such as entire fields of rice, or grazing.[8] The people were transferred from Mato Grosso to southern Brazil, a less fertile region; however, the Xavante people then began the attempt to recover the land they had lived on prior to contact with settlers in the 1970s, with demands for territory being met with violence by large capitalist companies that now had hold of the areas.[8] In 1981, six areas were demarcated to the Xavante, and in 1991, the rights to extensions of some areas were won.[10] However, conflicts regarding the territories between the Xavante and Brazilian government continue today.[8] Currently, there has been a Program of Documentation of Indigenous Cultures (PRODOCULT) devoted to Xavante, run by J.R. Welch and R. Costa; the permanent collection, containing images, text, cartography and more information on the Xavante people and language, is housed in the Museum of the Indian.

Language OverviewEdit

Xavante is a member of the Jê language family, itself a member of the Macro-Gê stock.[11] This stock is spoken in a wide distribution of non-central Brazil; Macro-Gê is also popular in the eastern, northern, and central, and southwestern parts of the country, as well as being distributed in nearby Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, but the Jê family is its only remaining large subgroup, with other languages remaining in isolates due to extinction. Within Jê, its 16 languages are distributed in four divisions; northern, north-eastern, central, and southern, and are better preserved than other languages in the stock due to its inland-inhabiting speakers. Xavante is classified in the central, alongside Xerente, Xaxriaba, and Akroa. The stock is marked by a large presence of nasal vowels, this also being marked in the proto- Jê reconstructed language. Consonant inventories of the Macro-Ge stock are of medium size, with Xavante historically undergoing a phonological change from velar consonants to glottal stops. All are mildly synthetic, without complex morphology, and have SV constituent orders.


The Xavante people have been studied in ethnographies; in 2010 and 2011, demographic information and ethnographic details were researched for the context of health among the Xavante by Basta, and tuberculosis specifically being examined alongside ethnographic information by DeSouza. Contemporary Xavante research by Lecena and colleagues in 2016 and Da Silva in 1999 has also investigated inactivity and socioeconomic status in the region and general information regarding the ways that Xavante people were living in the late 20th and early 21st century.

Xavante in LinguisticsEdit

The Xavante language was first referenced in the 19th century, in works of comparative philology which used word lists from the language and overviews of its structure.[12][13] In the 20th century, Xavante has been studied academically since the 1960s by both Brazilian and foreign linguists, starting with a grammar;[14] papers from this period examined the language’s phonemes,[15] syllable structure,[16] as well as aspect and acquisition.[17] By the 1980s, works on the syntax and semantics of Xavante were published, focusing on sentence initial devices[18] and focus;[19] the first Xavante-Portuguese dictionary was also produced by Hall, McLeod, and Mitchell, all of whom had researched extensively in Xavante (1987). Since the 1990s, more specific properties of the language have been researched academically, namely with respect to acquisition,[20][21] name agreement,[22] assimilation,[23] morphology, and respect/intimacy relationships.[24] A revised Xavante-Portuguese dictionary, again compiled by Hall, McLeod, and Mitchell, was released in 2004.


The phonology of Xavante is described by McLeod (1974).


Xavante has nine vowel qualities, long and short. Four occur nasalized, long and short.

Front Central Back
High i, ĩ ɨ u
Mid e ə o
Low ɛ, ɛ̃ a, ã ɔ, ɔ̃

/i/ is [iː] when long and [ɪ] when short. /e/ is raised after /r/ in a non-initial syllable. /a/ is a central vowel. It is a rounded [ɐ̹] in certain stylistic conventions. /ɔ/ is a mid vowel [ɔ̝ː] when long, and a more open [ɔ] when short. /u/ is [uː] when long and [u] or [ʊ] when short. /o/, /ɨ/, and /ɛ/ do not vary much. /ə/ is written ⟨ë⟩ in the orthography.


Xavante has ten consonants, /p t c ʔ b d j r w h/. They are realized as,

Labial Coronal Glottal
apical laminal
Obstruents Voiceless s ~ tʃʰ ʔ
Voiced b ~ m d ~ n z ~ dʒ ~ ɲ ~ j
Sonorants w ɾ h

(/j/ varies between obstruent and sonorant, alveolar and palatal.)

Xavante is highly unusual in lacking velar consonants, except for the labio-velar approximant /w/. At a phonemic level, it arguably also lacks nasal consonants, which is less unusual in the Amazon. The language however has a high degree of allophony, and nasal stops [m n ɲ] appear before nasal vowels.[25]


With so few phonemic contrasts, Xavante allows wide latitude in allophones of its consonants.

  • P and T: /p/, /t/ are aspirated [pʰ], [t̪ʰ] as syllable onsets (at the beginning of a word, between vowels, or before /r/), and unreleased [p̚], [t̪̚] as syllable codas (at the end of a word or before a consonant other than /r/).
  • C: /c/ freely varies among [tʃʰ, tsʰ, ʃ, s] as an onset, and [t̪ʲ, ʃ] as a coda (only preceding another /c/, as [tːʃ, ʃː]).
  • : /ʔ/ is a glottal stop [ʔ].
  • B: In a C or CC syllable onset before an oral vowel, /b/ is pronounced as a plain voiced stop [b] at the beginning of a phonological word, and as either [b] or as a prenasalized voiced stop [ᵐb in the middle of a word. Before nasal vowels, as C or CC, it is pronounced [m].
As a syllable coda, /b/ is pronounced [m] before /h/ regardless of the following vowel's nasality, and optionally also as [m] before the oral allophones of the other voiced obstruents, /d/ and /j/: [bd, bdʒ] or [md, mdʒ]. It is [m] before [ɲ].[26]
  • D: In a syllable onset before an oral vowel, /d/ is pronounced either as a plain voiced stop [d̪] or as prenasalized voiced stop [ⁿd̪]. Unlike /b/, it may be prenasalized at the beginning of a phonological word, not just as a syllable onset. Before a nasal vowel, it is pronounced [n̪].
As a syllable coda, /d/ is pronounced [d̪] before the oral allophone of a consonant, and as [n̪] before a nasal consonant.
  • J: In a syllable onset before an oral vowel, /j/ is pronounced [dz, z, dʒ, ʒ, j], in free variation. Before a nasal vowel, it is pronounced [ɲ].
As a syllable coda, /j/ is generally pronounced [j], and is nasalized to [ȷ̃] or [ɲ] after a nasal vowel.[27] It is also nasalized to [ȷ̃] before a prenasalized stop allophone. Between oral vowels, the sequence /jb/ optionally takes an epenthetic [d]: [jb] or [jdb]. When [ɲ] is followed by an /h/, a nasalized epenthetic schwa separates them.
  • R: /r/ is an alveolar flap, [ɾ], which is nasalized [ɾ̃] between nasal vowels.
  • W: /w/ is similar to English w, but not rounded before the vowel /i/.[28]
  • H: /h/ has no place of articulation, but is a voiceless transition between vowels.

Vowels do not become nasalized because of nasalized consonants, so the only consonants that become nasal are those in a cluster preceding a nasal vowel (and coda /j/ after a nasal vowel); a preceding oral vowel blocks the nasality from spreading to preceding syllables.


Xavante syllables are of the forms CV, CCV, CVC, CCVC, CV:, and CCV:; that is, all syllables begin with a consonant, sometimes two; they may optionally either end with a consonant or have a long vowel. Although a syllable may end in a consonant, a phonological word may not, apart from a few cases of word-final /j/.

The attested initial CC consonant clusters are:

/pr br ʔr ʔb ʔw/.

All seven obstruents occur in final position, but in a maximal CCVC syllable only /p b j/ are attested. Across two syllables, the following CC sequences are attested:

/pp, pt, pc, pʔ/
/ʔʔ ʔb/
/bb, bd, bj, br, bh/
/jp, jt, jʔ, jb, jj, jw, jr, jh/.

There are also CCC sequences such as /pʔr/ (coda /p/ followed by onset /ʔr/).

The vowels /o/ and /ɨ/ are rare, and not attested in maximal CCVC syllables.


In Xavante, morphological variations of words are a significant aspect of generating new constructions within the language.[24] For example, morphology reflects honorific status, in that morphemes are used to denote relationships of intimacy and kinship. Similarly, social positions and situations of individuals are marked using morphological constructions; for instance, a’ama, a group of Xavante men trained in new forms of pre-existing words, are referred to by other members of the clan using a specific set of morphological forms. Xavante also uses a reflexive prefix, tsi-, in situations requiring this grammatical construction to be denoted; for instance, ʔmadə (to look at) becomes tsi-ʔmadə (to look at oneself). Finally, the postverbal morpheme ni appears when referring to a generic or unknown subject, as in ‘ma ø-wæræ ni’ (or ‘someone (unknown) killed him. Morphological changes are important in generating meaning in Xavante, and reflect the possibilities of showing meaning using set morphemes.

As previously discussed, Xavante expresses relationships between people in its morphology. This is particularly reflected in familial connections; a child must use the respectful grammatical forms when growing older in reference to their parents and grandparents, and are scolded if they do not do so (Harrison, 2001). For example, the morpheme a is added to refer to a second person singular; a boy asking his grandfather to give a favour to his grandmother is generated thus:

    Ï 'radare ãhã õme a-te sãræ -re na apâsi da-te råne da
1SG gr.father.ENDR here there 2.RES-LTR put.down-DIM IMP later GEN-LTR eat PURP
"Grandfather, here, put this over there for (grandmother) to eat later."

Conversation between men and their father-in-laws is also marked by use of honorific grammatical variants, used by both parties. Finally, a couple that has been arranged to be married also enter a specific relationship, known as dasiwasini, and must use grammatical forms denoting respect. In all, morphological variation in Xavante is critical to displaying intimacy and closeness between people, and in marking where such a relationship exists through the way they refer to one another, with more personal relationships being denoted by special grammatical forms. Also previously discussed was the use of the post-verbal morpheme ni whe referring to unknown subjects. This is formally known as a ‘non-referential subject’, in that the subject does not refer to immediate entity in the world; for instance in saying ‘people’ as a collective instead of ‘my uncle’. This morpheme is added in both transitive and intransitive clauses, for instance when saying both ‘people love me’ and ‘people run’. Ni is also commonly used with another morpheme, da, as a person prefix referring to a generic entity; for example, to use both transitive and intransitive sentences as examples:

    Ma da-siwi ø-azâri ni
"People (unspecified group) collectively beat him up."
    Da-'ahâ na te ta13 -'ry'ry ni
GEN-a.lot REF N1 GEN-mourn NREF.S
"Lots of people are mourning."

In these ways, Xavante uses morphological variation to express concepts relating to abstract individuals that exist in a different way than concrete, specific people. By extension, the language uses morphology in general to conceptualize a variety of concepts, including closeness in relationships as well as personal prefixes.