Maleku documentation project

Maleku documentation project

Language: Maleku
Depositor: Roberto Herrera Miranda
Location: Costa Rica
Deposit Id: 0405,0576
Grant id: SG0372, IGS0345
Funding body: ELDP
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit

The Maleku Documentation Project will deliver a detailed account of the morphosyntax of the Maleku language as well as the internal variation among the three dialects (Margarita, Tonjibe and El Sol), while documenting the rich oral traditions of these communities.

It is meant as a continuation of the previous 1-year Small Grant project (SG372), in which some cultural and linguistic aspects yet to be described and documented were identified. In this pilot project a first oral corpus was collected from different kinds of speakers in different linguistic settings, which was further translated and transcribed. The current IGS project will pay special consideration to traditions and places which the Maleku community has explicitly requested to be documented.

The data will be collected by PhD student Roberto Herrera and by the speakers themselves. The Project aims at making a large percentage of translated and transcribed materials available while futher extending the existing lexical database.

Group represented
Most members of the Maleku community live in three small villages along the Toji River in a small territory alloted to them by the Costa Rican government in the Northern Plains of the country. The number of native speakers is estimated at around 50% of ethnic members (close to 300 from all dialects), none of which are monolingual. This project aims at gathering data from a wider range of speakers from the three main communities and at developing materials to be used in the local schools.

Language information
Maleku, also known as Guatuso, is spoken in the northern plains of Costa Rica, in a territory much smaller than what has been allotted to them by the government since the second half of 20th century. It is presently spoken by approximately 300 speakers, none monolingual, in three small villages stretching along 6 KM of gravel road from the highway connecting the towns of Guatuso and La Fortuna, a tourist center that lures many of the younger community members to learn English and work in the industry. Each of the three neighborhoods, housing up to 3000 people in total, is said to speak their own variety of the language. The historical Maleku territory encompassed 1100 KM2 in which approximately 23 settlements were documented during the 19th century. Maleku is the only extant member of the Votic branch of the Chibchan family, together with the almost extinct Rama of Nicaragua. The language family extends from western Honduras (where the also moribund Pech is spoken) to Northern South America with the highest linguistic density found at the Costa Rica-Panama border.

Special characteristics

Until now the project has focused on the Margarita dialect. Future work on Maleku will attempt to collect substantial data on the Tonjibe dialect and the variety from El Sol, which is the most endangered.

The main products of the 18-month Small Grant project include an electronic dictionary, with approximately 1,000 entries, a Master's thesis on the marked and unmarked valency operations in the language and how they pattern across a set of 128 verbs, and a school poster on locative expressions (designed by Simone Fass and based on data gathered using stimulus material from the MPI Nijmegen BowPed Project Bowerman, Melissa and Eric Pederson. 1992. Topological relations picture series. In Stephen C. Levinson (ed.), Space stimuli kit 1.2: November 1992, 51. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics).

The project also envisions the creation of the first local library at the partner NGO ('Toina Fueja: Asociación Cultural para el Rescate de Nuestra Identidad Cultural'). To this end, legacy materials acquired during the project have been donated to the partner organization and made accessible to the rest of the community.

Deposit contents

The deposit currently contains over 25 hours of video and 40 hours of audio recordings. Eleven speakers, both male and females, 25-65 years of age, participated in the first 18-month project. These include two fluent speakers from Tonjibe and two from El Sol.

A corpus of over 20,000 words of natural discourse, which has been translated (into Spanish) and transcribed in ELAN is already available in the archive. The genre and topics here are varied and include narratives, interviews and demonstrations. Also transcribed were songs composed by one of the speakers. During the second half of the initial project, stimulus sessions were also recorded with three speakers, using materials from the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen.

Deposit history

As of late 2018, the existing ELAR deposit includes approximately 25 hours of video recording (9 speakers of different varieties), as well as close to 40 hours of audio-only recordings collected between September 2015 and January 2017. Over 80% of the video recordings have been translated into Spanish and transcribed with help of two native speakers. These include botanical sessions, interviews, traditionals stories as well as sessions using stimulus materials (specially the 'cut and break clips' in the study of valency alternations. Bohnemeyer, Jürgen, Melissa Bowerman and Penelope Brown. 2001. Cut and break clips. In Stephen C. Levinson and N.J. Enfield (eds.), Manual for the field season 2001, 90-96. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Materials available at )

Most of the audio-only recordings are elicitation sessions. These include word list elicitations based on the Intercontinental Dictionary Series list (Key and Comrie, 2016), but also elicitations on verbal inflection, mostly related to the combinatorial patterns of the different valency operators. This study was based on the ValPal Project: Hartmann, Iren and Haspelmath, Martin and Taylor, Bradley (eds.) 2013. Valency Patterns Leipzig. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.Available online at,

Short interviews on the cultural importance of Caño Negro were also included in this deposit, in preparation to the IGS project.

Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the corpus, please cite the corpus in this way:

Herrera Miranda, Roberto. 2017. Maleku Dictionary Project. London: SOAS, Endangered Languages Archive.URL: Accessed on [insert date here].

I would like to specially thank Alfredo Acosta and Carlos 'Poto' López for their invaluable patience and dedication to this endeavour, as well as to everyone who kindly opened their doors at one time or another and guided me, making these projects possible. ¡Afepaquian ni marama naracarrayeca. Poi marama micua colonhafa ni malainheca macorroca malecuco!


Collection online
Resources online and curated


Roberto Herrera Miranda
Affiliation: University of Leipzig

Deposit Statistics

Data from 2020 October 23 to 2020 October 23
Deposit hits:2
Downloaded files
Without statistics

Showing 1 - 10 of 64 Items

garden Toi Nafueja, medical uses of some plants

Recorded on: 2015-09-09

Olivia tells the story of the Caracche

Recorded on: 2015-09-10

This bundle include all oral informed consents re-recorded during the second trip to the field. Some recordings might include them again

Recorded on: 2015-08-30

recordings has more of an anecdotal character than useful elicited terms; on difference between aa/á, Adolfo Constenla, etc

Recorded on: 2015-09-11

Alfredo explains use of the cora arara while cooking fish

Recorded on: 2015-09-09

Stimuli session Bohnemeyer, Jürgen, Melissa Bowerman & Penelope Brown. 2001. Cut and break clips. In Stephen C. Levinson & N.J. Enfield (eds.), Manual for the field season 2001, 90-96. Nijmegen:Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Materials available at

Recorded on: 2017-01-20

Recorded on: Unspecified

This is a draft of the main marked and unmarked voice alternations in Maleku and how the different verb types pattern according to them. Most of the data on this document was collected during the fieldwork sessions of 2015-2017 conducted as part of the SOAS/ELDP grant SG0372

Recorded on: 2017-06-20

traditional story

Recorded on: 2015-09-08

Poto shows his vegetable garden

Recorded on: 2017-01-19