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Tiriyó language

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Title: Tiriyó language  
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Subject: Cariban languages, Tiriyó people, Pelelu Tepu, Aparai people, Tirio language, Psychotria poeppigiana
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Tiriyó language

tarëno ijomi
Native to Brazil, Suriname
Region Northern Amazonia, Guianas Plateau
Ethnicity Tiriyó
Native speakers
2,100  (2003–2006)[1]
  • Guianan Carib
    • Taranoan
      • Tiriyo languages
        • Tiriyó
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tri
Glottolog trio1238[2]

The Tiriyó language (also known as Trio, autonym tarëno), is spoken by approximately 2,000 people living in several villages on both sides of the Brazil-Suriname border in Northern Amazonia. It is a relatively healthy language, learned by all children as their mother tongue and actively used in all areas of life by its speakers. Most of the Tiriyó (there are no precise numbers, but impressionistic observation would suggest more than half) are monolingual speakers. Of course, the long-term survival of their language, as is the case for almost all native South American languages, remains an open question.


Tiriyó has been classified as belonging to the Taranoan group of the Guianan sub-branch of Cariban, together with Karihona (Carijona), in Colombia, and Akuriyó, in Suriname, the former with a few, and the latter with apparently no, speakers left. Gildea (2012) lists Tiriyó and Trió as distinct languages.


There seem to be two main dialects in the Tiriyó-speaking area, called by Jones (1972) Eastern or Tapanahoni basin, and Western or Sipaliwini basin dialects, and by Meira (2000, to appear) K-Tiriyó and H-Tiriyó. The main difference thus far reported is phonological: the different realization of what were (historically) clusters involving /h/ and a stop (see Phonology section below). Grammatical and/or lexical differences may also exist, but the examples thus far produced are disputed.

Demographically, H-Tiriyó is the most important dialect (~ 60% of the speakers). It is the dialect spoken in the village of Kwamalasamutu, Suriname, and in the villages along the Western Paru river (Tawainen or Missão Tiriós, Kaikui Tëpu, Santo Antônio) and also along the Marapi river (Kuxare, Yawa, etc.). K-Tiriyó is spoken in the villages along the Eastern Paru river (Mataware, and some people at Bonna) in Brazil, and in the villages of Tepoe and Paloemeu in Suriname.

Tiriyo was also a basis of the Ndyuka-Tiriyó Pidgin.


Tiriyó has 7 vowels and 10 consonants, as shown in the chart below. (Orthographic symbols in bold, IPA values in square brackets.)


  Front Central Back
Close i /i/ ï /ɨ/ u /u/
Mid e /e/ ë /ə/ o /o/
Open a /a/
  • The cardinal vowels (a, e, i, o, u) are very close to their usual values in, e.g., Spanish.
  • The central vowel ï is usually [ɨ], but [ɯ] is also heard, especially after a velar consonant;
  • The central vowel ë is usually [ə], but [ʌ] or [ɤ] are also common.


  Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/
Plosive p /p/ t /t/ k /k/
Fricative s /s/ h /h/
Tap r /ɾ/
Approximant w /β/ j /j/
  1. The fricative /s/ shows a considerable amount of variation. Some speakers have [s], others have [ç] or [s̠], or even [ʃ]. The following vowel also influences the pronunciation of /s/: [ʃ]-like realizations are more frequent before /i/ and /e/.
  2. The rhotic r is often retroflex ([ɽ]) and may have some laterality ([ɺ]); simple taps ([ɾ]) are also heard.
  3. The approximant w has usually no rounding ([β̞]), and sometimes (especially if followed by e or i) some friction [β̝]
  4. The glottal fricative /h/ is the most obvious difference between the two main dialects. K-Tiriyó is a dialect without /h/; where H-Tiriyó has an /h/, K-Tiriyó shows a VV sequence (realized as a long vowel). In H-Tiriyó, each h-cluster - hp, ht, hk (historically *[hp], *[ht], *[hk]) - has a different realization: [(h)ɸ], [ht], [(h)h] (i.e., with p and k, [h] is weakly realized and spirantizes the following plosive; with t, [h] is stronger and there is no spirantization). Older H-Tiriyó speakers have a fourth cluster hs [(h)s̠], with a weakly realized [h], while younger H-Tiriyó speakers have [ːs̠] ~ [s̠s̠] (K-Tiriyó speakers have only [ːs̠]); all in all, its status is, however, marginal.
    The examples in the table below illustrate these various realizations:
Proto-form H-Tiriyó K-Tiriyó Gloss
*mahto [mahtɔ] [maatɔ] fire
*tuhka [tu(h)ha] [tuuka] Brazil nut
*pihpə [pi(h)ɸə] [piipə] skin
*wɨhse [ʋɨ(h)s̠e]~[ʋɨːs̠e]~[ʋɨs̠s̠e] [ʋɨɨs̠e] anatto

Syllable Structure and Phonotactics

The basic syllable template is (C1)V1(V2)(C2) -- i.e., the possible syllable types are:

V1 V1V2 V1C2 V1V2C2
C1V1 C1V1V2 C1V1C2 C1V1V2C2.
  1. Onsetless syllables (V1, V1V2, V1C2, V1V2C2) occur only word-initially; all vowels except ï are possible in this position.
    Ex.: aware 'caiman'; enu 'his/her eye'; ë 'you (sg.)'; irakë 'giant ant'; okomo 'wasp'; uru 'bread-like food'.
  2. The most frequent syllable type is C1V1, in which all vowels and all consonants (except h) are possible.
    Ex.: pakoro 'house', kurija 'gourd', mïnepu 'brige', tëpu 'stone', jako 'friend!', nërë 's/he', wewe 'wood, tree, plant'
  3. Vowel sequences (V1V2) can be made of identical vowels (V1 = V2), in which case they are realized as long vowels. In this case, no coda consonants are possible (i.e., no *(C1)VVC2).
    Exs.:aa 'your arm', eeke 'how?', mëë 'that one (animate)', piito 'brother-in-law', tïï 'quiet', ooto (tree sp.), muunu 'fish bait'.


Tiriyó stress follows a rhythmic pattern of the kind Hayes (1995) calls iambic. Phonetically:

  • In (C)V-only words, every second syllable from the beginning of the word is stressed, except the final syllable, which is never stressed (extrametric).
  • A non-(C)V syllable anywhere in the word attracts stress (except in the always unstressed final position) and disturbs the pattern, forcing it to restart as if a new word had begun.
  • Bisyllabic words do not have obvious stress.

Examples (acute accents mark stress, and colons length):

Syllable type Underlying form Phonetic Gloss
(C)V-only /amatakana/ [a.ˈmaː.ta.ˈkaː.na] 'toucan sp.'
/kɨtapotomapone/ [kɨ.ˈtaː.po.ˈtoː.ma.ˈpoː.ne] 'you all helped him/her/it'
non-(C)V-only /mempakane/ [ˈˈkaː.ne] 'you woke him/her up'
/kehtəne/ [ˈkeh.tə.ne] 'we (I+you) were'
/meekane/ [ˈmeː] 'you bit him/her/it'

Note that some words apparently follow the opposite - trochaic - pattern (e.g., /meekane/ above). For these words, an underlying sequence of identical vowels is proposed. Cognate words from related languages provide evidence for this analysis: compare the Tiriyó stem /eeka/ 'bite' with e.g. Waiwai, Katxuyana, Hixkaryana /eska/, Panare /ehka/, Karihona /eseka/, suggesting a historical process of syllable reduction with subsequent compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel.

Since stress depends only on the type and number of syllables, morphological processes that involve syllabic prefixes or suffixes affect stress:

/pakoro/ [pa.ˈkoː.ɽo] 'house' → /ji-pakoro/ 'my house' [ji.ˈpaː.ko.ɽo]

In Hayes' framework, one could argue that stress placement is based on pairs of syllables (feet) consisting of either two (C)V (light) or one non-(C)V (heavy) syllables, except for the last syllable, which is extrametric, i.e. never forms a foot. This would explain the lack of stress in bisyllabic words: an initial light syllable, left alone by the extrametricity of the final syllable, cannot form a foot by itself and remains unstressed.


Reduplication in Tiriyó affects verbs (regularly) and also nouns and adverbials (irregularly: not all of them). On verbs, it usually marks iteration or repetition (e.g.: wïtëe 'I go, I am going', wïtë-wïtëe 'I keep going, I always go, I go again and again'); on nouns and adverbials, several examples of an entity, or several instances of a phenomenon (e.g.: kutuma 'painful', kuu-kuutuma 'painful all over, feeling pain all over one's body'; sikinman '(something) black', siki-sikiman-ton 'a number of black things' (including also the plural marker -ton; see below).

Formally, there are two reduplicative patterns, termed internal and external reduplication. External reduplication is a regular process that copies the first two moras of a complete word (i.e., the first two syllables if they are light, or the first syllable if it is heavy). Coda consonants are not reduplicated: the preceding vowel is copied as long (i.e. as a VV sequence). If a syllable contains two vowels, some (older?) speakers copy both vowels, while other (younger?) speakers copy only the first vowel and lengthen it (i.e. turn it into a VV sequence).

Base Gloss Reduplication Gloss
wekarama 'I gave it' weka-wekarama 'I kept giving it'
mempaka 'you woke him/her up' mee-mempaka 'you kept waking him/her up'
waitëne 'I pushed it' waa-waitëne, or:
'I pushed it again and again'

Internal reduplication affects the interior of a word. In most cases, it can be seen as affecting the stem prior to the addition of person- or voice-marking prefixes; in some cases, however, it affects some pre-stem material as well (cf. the table below, in which '+' signs separate affixes from the stem in the first column). In many, but not all, cases, internal reduplication may result from the simplification of external reduplication: impo-imponoosewa > impo-mponoosewa. (Some examples from Carlin 2004 support this hypothesis.)

Base Gloss Reduplication Gloss
im + ponoo + sewa 'not telling it' (stem: pono(pï)) i-mpo-mponoosewa 'not telling it (despite many requests)'
wi + pahka 'I hit/broke it' (stem: pahka) wi-pah-pahka 'I hit it several times'
s + et + ainka 'I ran (away)' se-tain-tainka 'I kept running (away)'

Finally, some cases are idiosyncratic and probably need to be listed independently (e.g., tëëkae 'bitten', 'bit', tëëkaakae 'bitten all over').


There are two general morphophonological processes that have important effects on the shapes of Tiriyó morphemes: syllable reduction and ablaut.

Syllable reduction

Syllable reduction is the process whereby the final syllable of certain morphemes (mostly stems, though also sometimes affixes) is changed depending on the shape of the following element. These morphemes will typically have:

  • a full or CV grade, in which the final syllable occurs in its full form;
  • three reduced grades:
    • a coda or C grade, in which the final syllable is reduced to a coda consonant (n if the syllable had a nasal onset, h otherwise);

      if the reducing syllable is not nasal (NV):
    • a length or VV grade, in which the final syllable is dropped, and the preceding vowel is 'compensatorily lengthened' (becomes VV);
    • a zero grade, in which the final syllable is dropped without any changes on the preceding vowel.

The table below illustrates the various grades of the verb stems pono(pï) 'to tell O' and ona(mï) 'to bury, hide O'.

Full (CV) Grade Coda (C) Grade Length (VV) Grade Zero Grade
wi-ponopï nkërë 'I still told O' wi-ponoh-tae 'I will tell O' wi-ponoo-ne 'I told O' wi-pono 'I told O'
w-onamï nkërë 'I still hid O' w-onan-tae 'I will hide O'
w-onon-ne 'I hid O'
w-onon 'I hid O'

The reducing syllable can be the final one (pono(pï) 'to tell O', ona(mï) 'to bury/hide O'), or the initial one ((pï)tai 'shoes', mïta 'mouth'). The full form occurs when the following material (affix, stem, clitic) has a consonant cluster, i.e. is CCV-initial (the first consonant resyllabifies as the coda of the reducing syllable), or then starts with r. The reduced forms occur when this is not the case: the coda grade when a possible cluster - mp, nt, nk, ns, hp, hk, ht - results, and the length grade in the other cases (the zero grade for verb stems, when no clitics follow). Reducing syllables generally consist of a stop or nasal and the vowels ï or u (, pu, , tu..., , mu,...); and ru syllables can also reduce, but with some irregularities; syllables only reduce stem-initially (and apparently never have a coda grade).

Historically, syllable reduction results from the weakening and loss of the high vowels ï and u, leading to the formation of consonant clusters, in which the first element typically 'debuccalizes' to a glottal element (h or ʔ) and later disappears, causing (when possible) the compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel (cf. Gildea 1995). Comparative evidence suggests that many, perhaps all, morpheme-internal clusters in the Cariban family were formed as a result of this process.

...CV.CV.CV... > ...CVC.CV... > ...CVh.CV... or ...CVʔ.CV... > ...CVV.CV...


In Tiriyó, as in most Cariban languages, there is a class of stems which has two forms in different morphosyntactic environments: a form which is e-initial (the e- or front grade) and a form which is ë-initial (the ë- or back grade). With nouns, for instance, the back grade occurs with the inclusive (1+2) prefix k-, the third-person coreferential ('reflexive') prefix t-, and with the non-possessed form (prefixless); all other person-marked forms have the front grade.

enu 'eye(s)'
1 j-enu 'my eye(s)' Non-poss ënu 'eye(s)' (in general)
2 ë-enu 'your eye(s)' 1+2 k-ënu 'our eye(s)'
3 enu 'his/her eye(s)' 3coref t-ënu 'his/her own eye(s)'


Tiriyó morphology is in most respects typical of the Cariban family, and comparable in degree of complexity to Romance or Slavic languages (though less prominently fusional than these latter families).


  1. ^ Tiriyó at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Trio". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  • Carlin, Eithne (2004). A Grammar of Trio: A Cariban Language of Suriname. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang (Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften). 
  • Gildea, Spike (1995). "A comparative description of syllable reduction in the Cariban language family". International Journal of American Linguistics 61: 62–102. doi:10.1086/466245. 
  • Hayes, Bruce (1995). Metrical stress theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Meira, Sérgio (1998). "Rhythmic stress in Tiriyó (Cariban)". International Journal of American Linguistics 64 (4): 352–378. doi:10.1086/466366. 
  • Meira, Sérgio (2000). A reconstruction of Proto-Taranoan: Phonology and Morphology. Munich: LINCOM Europa. *Meira, Sérgio (to appear). A Grammar of Tiriyó. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: Mouton de Gruyter. 
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