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Review of  A Grammar of Kakua

Reviewer: Patience L. Epps
Book Title: A Grammar of Kakua
Book Author: Katherine Bolaños
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Cacua
Issue Number: 29.2592

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AUTHOR: Katherine Bolaños
TITLE: A Grammar of Kakua
PUBLISHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
YEAR: 2016

Review/response to review: “A Grammar of Kakua” by Katherine Bolaños
Patience Epps and Kristine Stenzel

The following discussion of “A Grammar of Kakua” responds to and elaborates on the review by Richa Srishti, published April 16, 2018 on Linguist List.

“A Grammar of Kakua”, by Katherine Bolaños, provides a comprehensive description of the Kakua language, a member of the small Kakua-Nukak family (formerly known as Máku; see Epps & Bolaños 2017), spoken in the Vaupés region of the eastern Colombian Amazon. The grammar was prepared as the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam and was published in the LOT dissertations series (Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT); Bolaños’ work with Kakua began in 2009 at the University of Texas at Austin, where the author received her MA degree, and continued at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she received her PhD in 2016.

This grammar provides the first and only substantial description of Kakua, which until now has been represented only in a few scant word lists and brief discussions. Kakua certainly qualifies as an endangered language, despite the fact that it is still being learned by children – its entire speech community consists of only about 250 people, most of whom live in two small communities. Traditionally a semi-nomadic group with a hunting and gathering orientation, the speakers of Kakua have had relatively limited interaction with the national society over the years, and only a handful are fluent in Spanish. Bolaños’s study draws on on a total of 19 months of fieldwork, marked by significant challenges: the area where the Kakua live is relatively remote; the setting lacks amenities like electricity and running water; and there was a dangerous guerrilla presence in the region for the duration of her research. The grammar is based in a documentary corpus of nearly 70 hours of Kakua speech, the majority of which is natural discourse. Bolaños’s work has involved an ongoing and productive collaboration with the Kakua community, which has included the training and equipping of community members to continue the documentation of their language and culture into the future.

The thirteen chapters of this work, totaling nearly 400 pages, provide a comprehensive overview of the grammar of the language, from phonology to complex clauses. The organization and structure of these chapters follows the standard expectations of a reference grammar, while also giving appropriate space to features of particular language-specific importance and interest, such as noun classification and verb serialization. The description is accessible, well grounded in contemporary typological research, and illustrated with copious examples, many of which are drawn from natural discourse. The work presents a fine example of contemporary best practices in language documentation and grammar writing.

The Vaupés region is already well known for its highly multilingual character and for the profound effect that language contact has had on the languages of the area (see e.g. Sorensen 1967, Aikhenvald 2002, Epps 2007, Stenzel & Gomez-Imbert 2009, Epps & Stenzel 2013), but until recently little was known about the involvement of the semi-nomadic ‘forest peoples’ of the region in this matrix. In addition to the detailed description it provides, Bolaños’s grammar makes a significant contribution to our understanding of language contact in the region by addressing the ways in which Kakua grammar resembles those of its neighbors, and by considering the role that contact-driven change may have played in bringing about these similarities. The grammar thus adds an intriguing piece to the puzzle of linguistic diversity and language contact in the Vaupés region.

Where minor inconsistencies of structure and typos are found, it is worth noting that the tight schedule of a PhD dissertation submission does not always allow for the close editing and multiple rounds of revision that are the norm for books published with major presses. We may hope and expect that the dissertation version of this already excellent grammar will be followed by the publication of a revised and updated monograph, accompanied by a set of glossed texts.

In sum, “A Grammar of Kakua” is an enormously valuable contribution to our knowledge of an endangered and previously undescribed language, embedded within a fascinatingly multilingual region.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2002. Language Contact in Amazonia. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Epps, Patience. 2007. The Vaupés melting pot: Tucanoan influence on Hup. Grammars in Contact: A Cross-linguistic Typology, edited by Alexandra Aikhenvald and R.M.W. Dixon. Explorations in Linguistic Typology 4, pp. 267-289. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Epps, Patience and Katherine Bolaños. 2017. Reconsidering the ‘Makú’ family of northwest Amazonia. International Journal of American Linguistics 83.3:467-507.

Epps, Patience and Kristine Stenzel (eds.). 2013. Upper Rio Negro: Cultural and Linguistic Interaction in Northwestern Amazonia. Rio de Janeiro: Museu do Índio-FUNAI. 597 pp. Ebook available at

Sorensen, Arthur P. Jr. 1967. Multilingualism in the Northwest Amazon. American Anthropologist 69:670-684.

Stenzel, Kristine and Elsa Gomez-Imbert. 2009. Contato linguístico e mudança linguística no noroeste amazônico: o caso do Kotiria (Wanano) [Language contact and language change in the northwest Amazon: The case of Kotiria]. Revista da ABRALIN 8:71-100.