Endangered Language Alliance


a Chibchan language of Costa Rica


Bribri is a language spoken by an estimated 11,000 people in the south of Costa Rica. Mainly living off hunting and subsistence agriculture, the Bribri represent the indigenous population of the Costa Rica-Panama border area and still live in mountainous and coastal areas for the most part isolated from the general population.


Bribri is classified by linguists as a Chibchan language. Within the Chibchan family, already considered highly endangered as a whole, Bribri is classified as being a Viceitic language in the “Chibchan A” branch, along with its closest living relative, Cabecar (also spoken in Costa Rica). Three dialects have been identified, identified by the Ethnologue as Amubre-Katsi, Coroma, or Salitre-Cabagra, or as belonging to two parts of Talamanca Canton and the area of Buenos Aires Canton.


Although most ethnic Bribri of all ages still speak the language, there is long-term pressure from Spanish, which most Bribri know and which many are able to read and write. There is some limited use of the Latin-based orthography for Bribri is limited.

Academic Work

First published in 1898 and recently reissued, Henri Pittier de Fabrega’s description of the Bribri remains an important starting point for researchers, as do early works by William Gabb and Alanson Skinner. Available multimedia documentation has been sparse, but Spanish-Bribri dictionaries were published by Jack Wilson in 1982 and Enrique Margery Peña in 1996, basic pedagogical materials for the language exist, SIL linguist Paul Williams spent many years working on the language, and recent decades have seen papers on individual aspects of the language by such researchers as Adolfo Constenla Umaña and Carla Victoria Jara Murillo as well as other Costa Rican linguists.

See the Glottolog entry on Bribri

Language Structure

ELA’s Work

There are scattered speakers of Chibchan languages, including Birbri, living in the United States, but no established communities. ELA has worked with construction worker Robert Elizondo and a friend of his, who live in New Jersey and are native speakers of Bribri. Among the texts recorded were descriptions of how to make chicha (a traditional corn-fermented alcohol) and how to make a blowgun for hunting.