Endangered Language Alliance


a Chibchan language of Panama


The Naso people (known as Teribe to outsiders) are spread among 12 communities along tributaries of the Teribe River in northwest Panama, which runs from that country’s Central Mountain Range into the Pacific Ocean. Although the ethnic population numbers some 3,500 people, the Naso language can only be considered healthy in the communities furthest upriver, Sieykjing and Sieyllik, due to its relative isolation. At most, between 500 and 800 people are estimated to still speak the Naso language.


Naso is classified as being in the “A” branch of the Chibchan language family of Central America. Chibchan A languages are spoken by small indigenous groups in the northern part of the Chibchan area, primarily Panama and Costa Rica. Several are moribund and all are under pressure from Spanish. Naso’s linguistic relative Bribri is, by comparison, a little healthier for the time being.


Factors endangering the vitality of the Naso began in the post-contact era, with influences from outside Latino and other indigenous cultures spreading up the Teribe River and threatening the internal autonomy of the Naso. Traditionally, all politics of the Naso are handled by their king, who is elected to protect the Naso and conserve traditional practices. But in the past decade the monarchy has sided with interests of the Panamanian government, creating a major shift of power in opposition to interests of the majority of the Naso population.

Since 2004, the Naso have been adversely affected by a hydroelectric power dam project located in the heart of Naso territory. Because the Naso are the only indigenous group in Panama without land rights over the territory they inhabit, incoming laborers who find their way into the area are settling their families, businesses, and languages as competitors. Spanish has been the official language of education in the Naso schools since the 1970s, and although in 2009 the Panamanian government implemented a law mandating a Bilingual Education Program in the Naso territory, it will take at least 10 to 15 years before enough Naso teachers can be trained institutionally to become officially recognized educators. These are some of the contemporary social and political factors that have led to the endangerment of the Naso language.

Academic Work

More than anyone else, the Chibchan linguist Juan Diego Quesada has documented and described the Naso language, first in a series of articles and then above all in his 2000 A Grammar of Teribe. The ongoing work of Natalia Bermudez, an ELA collaborator, represents the most significant multimedia work on the language to date, with a strong emphasis on traditional knowledge and revitalization. Until the 1990s, most documentation of the language had been undertaken by researchers with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, describing individual aspects of the grammar, as well as one detailed description of the phonology by Oakes (2001).

See the Glottlog entry on Naso (Teribe).

ELA’s Work

ELA has encouraged and supported the in-depth documentation work of researcher Natalia Bermudez, who first began her work on the language in New York City. Later, with funding from the Gesselschaft für bedrohte Sprachen (Society for Endangered Languages) and the Endangered Language Fund, she visited Naso villages and worked with the community on creating a corpus of audio and video recordings of cultural significance, for use in local schools with the purpose of language revitalization. Among the outcomes were 28 recordings including traditional Naso myths, history, knowledge, and stories, as well as specific corpora relating to extensive Naso ethnobotanical knowledge, woodworking knowledge about how to carve boats and weapons, as well as music and dance. With the election of a new king in August 2011, there are also now prospects for increased efforts in the community around cultural and linguistic preservation.