January’s rare language: The Mapuche

Published 13th January 2012
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January’s rare language: The Mapuche

Did you know that a language dies every two weeks?

Around 6,000 languages worldwide are now in danger of becoming extinct. Half the languages spoken today are expected to disappear by the end of this century.

We find this such an interesting and important issue! We’ve decided to include it as a brand new feature on the blog, which I’m pleased to introduce to you all today. “The Rare Language of the Month”. Each month we will explore a rare language and bring light to the importance of saving these languages.

In this new monthly series, we will learn some interesting facts about some of these rare languages. As well as their characteristics, history and culture. Lets not forget the circumstances that have put them in danger of extinction. We really hope you enjoy reading it! Also, we invite you to participate in this discussion by telling us your thoughts and opinions!


The first rare language we are going to talk about is the Mapuche language. Mapuche one of the four indigenous languages spoken in south-central Chile and west-central Argentina. The number of regular speakers is estimated to be around 20,000.

This language, also called Mapudungun, comes from the words mapu (meaning “land”) and dungun (which is “speech”). The language is spoken by the Mapuche (a word that comes from mapu, and che meaning “people”). The language was previously referred to as Araucanian (Araucano in Spanish), although that term is now in disuse.

Araucanian language’s origins are uncertain. It’s been related by various linguistics to the Mayan, Arawak, and Penutian languages of North America, and Andean languages. However most experts have classified it as a language isolate or non-classified language.

Three main groups of surviving dialects can be distinguished: the Picunche (from picun, people from the North), Moluche (“people from the center”) and the Huilliche (from willi, south).

The relationship between sounds and letters in the Mapuche alphabet is very similar to Spanish. There are six vowel phonemes: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ . As well as a high central unrounded vowel, /ɨ/, 19 or 20 consonants and 2 semivowels. Nouns in Mapudungun are grouped into two classes, animate and inanimate. It is a polysynthetic language, which means that one single word is translated into other languages ​​by a complete sentence. With three persons and three numbers, and genre is indicated lexically, for example wentru pichiche (‘man-child’) and domo pichiche (woman-child).

After the Conquest of the Desert (Conquista del Desierto) took place, Mapuche communities were socially marginalised. This then forced them to stop teaching their own language to their children, who now grow up speaking Spanish better than their native language, or not learning Mapudungun at all.

Here are some sentences in Mapudungun:

Hello! : Mari Mari!
How is it going? : Kümelekaimi?
Good : Kümelekan
What’s your name? : Inei pingeimi?

We hope that highlighting these rare languages will bring more attention to the crisis. These languages were part of a culture. If we do not preserve them now, then they will simply be forgotten in history.

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