Mapuche language

Mapuche language
Spoken in  Chile
Ethnicity Mapuche
Native speakers 200,000 in Chile  (1982)
100,000 in Argentina (2000)
Language family
  • Mapuche
Language codes
ISO 639-2 arn
ISO 639-3 arn
Aukan kawin griffitie mapuche.jpg
Graffiti in Mapudungun meaining "War Council".

The Mapuche language, Mapudungun (from mapu 'earth, land' and dungun 'speak, speech') is a language isolate spoken in south-central Chile and west central Argentina by the Mapuche (from mapu and che 'people') people. It is also spelled Mapuzugun and sometimes called Mapudungu or Araucanian (Araucano). The latter was the name given to the Mapuche by the Spaniards but nowadays both the Mapuche and others avoid this usage. The number of speakers differs depending on definition and research methodology. In the political struggle between the ethnic minority and the Chilean and Argentinian governments the different groups support different research results. Mapuche-written publications from 2008 supports research showing approximately 700,000 speakers.[1] Other results report approximately 240,000 speakers, with 200,000 in the Central Valley of Chile and 40,000 in several Argentine provinces, where some 150,000 people use the language regularly.[2]

Mapuche lacks substantive protection or promotion, despite the Chilean government's commitment to improve the situation and provide full access to education in Mapuche areas in southern Chile. There is an ongoing political debate over which alphabet to use as the standard alphabet of written Mapudungun.



Mapudungun, also formerly known as the Araucanian language, has been classified by some linguists as being related to the Penutian languages of North America.[citation needed] Others group it among the Andean languages (Greenberg 1987, Key 1978), and yet others postulate an Araucanian-Mayan relationship (Stark 1970, Hamp 1971); Croese (1989, 1991) has advanced the hypothesis that it is related to Arawak. Other authorities regard it as an isolate language. It has had some lexical influence from Quechua (pataka 'hundred', warangka 'thousand') and Spanish.

When the Spanish arrived in Chile, they found four groups of Mapuche: the Picunche (from pikum 'north' and che 'people'), the Huilliche (from willi 'south'), the Pehuenche (from pewen 'monkey puzzle tree'), and the Moluche (form molu 'west'). The Picunche were conquered quite rapidly by the Spanish, whereas the Huilliche were not assimilated until the 18th century. The Mapuche have retained their ethnic identity and still speak Mapudungun. They were originally found in the historic region of Araucanía, from which the Spanish called them Araucanos, but this name is now disused and avoided by Mapuche and non-Mapuche scholars alike.

Regional dialects

The number of native speakers of Mapundungun is somewhere between 240,000 and 700,000.

Mapudungun has a number of dialects. On the Chilean side of the Andes known as Ngulumapu a number of variations of the Mapuche language are spoken. The Pehuenche dialect is spoken by the Pehuenche living in the Andes Mountains. The Huillice (also Huilliche, Veliche) dialect was spoken south of the Tolten River. It now has several thousand speakers, most of whom speak Spanish as a first language. These speaker live south of the Mapuche in Chile's Valdivian Coastal Range, Osorno Province and on Chiloé Island.[3]

Due to the migration of Mapudungun speaking peoples and the subsequent Araucanization in Argentina, the Pehuenche dialect is spoken in Neuquén (from Valdivia to Neuquén). The Moluche or Nguluche dialect is spoken from the Limay River to Nahuel Huapi Lake. The Huilliche or Veliche dialect is spoken in the Nahuel Huapi Lake region as well, and also in Valdivia, Chile. While the Ranquenche dialect is spoken in the Chalileo Department and General Acha Department in the La Pampa Province, and in the Río Colorado region.


Depending on the alphabet the sound /tʃ/ is represented by "ch" or by "c" and /ŋ/ by "g" or "ng". The language is called by the Mapuche either the speech of the earth (earth=mapu) or speech of the people (people=che). Depending on sources a "N" is put between the two words. This gives several names to write the language:

Alphabet Mapu with N Mapu without N Che/Ce with N Che/Ce without N
Ragileo Mapunzugun [4] Mapuzugun Cenzugun Cezugun
Unified Mapundungun Mapudungun Chendungun Chedungun
Azümchefe Mapunzugun Mapuzugun Chenzugun Chezugun



Mapudungun has predictable, non-contrastive stress. The stressed syllable is generally the last one if it's closed (awkán 'game', tralkán 'thunder'), and the one before last if the last one is open (rúka 'house', lóngko 'head'). There is no phonemic tone.


Mapudungun has six vowel phonemes: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ and a high central unrounded vowel, /ɨ/. The last sound is spelled ï, ü or v depending on the alphabet used, and is pronounced as a schwa /ə/ when unstressed.


Mapudungun does not distinguish between voiceless and voiced plosives. There are three approximants (or glides). Liquids consist of the three lateral sounds and what is phonetically close to a retroflex approximant. Some authors do not recognize /s/ as a separate phoneme; rather, they class it as an allophone of /ʃ/. /tʂ/ (spelled as "tr", "tx" or even "x") is often described as a /tʃ/ sound followed by a /ɻ/ sound; it is similar to the sound of English tr in tree, but without aspiration. Particularly interesting are the relatively rare interdental sounds , and , which contrast with their dentoalveolar counterparts; roots may have either only interdental ([l̟afken̟] 'sea, lake') or only dentoalveolar ([lwan] 'guanaco') consonants.

Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop p t k
Fricative f θ s ʃ
Approximant w ɻ j ɰ
Lateral l ʎ


The Mapuche are not believed to have had a writing system when the Spanish arrived. Historically, there have been a number of proposals for Mapudungun spelling, all of them using the Latin alphabet. The alphabet used in this article is the one used by Chilean linguists and other people in many publications in the language ("alfabeto mapuche unificado"). This alphabet consists of the following letters: a, ch, d (for /θ/), e, f, g (for /ɰ/), i, k, l, (for /l̟/), ll (for /ʎ/), m, n, (for /n̟/), ñ (for /ɲ/), ng (for /ŋ/), o, p, r, s(h), t, (for /t̟/), tr (for /tʂ/), u, ü (for /ɨ/), w, and y.


  • Nouns in Mapudungun are grouped in two classes, animate and inanimate. This is e.g. reflected in the use of pu as a plural indicator for animate nouns and yuka as the plural for inanimate nouns. Chi (or ti) can be used as a definite animate article as in chi wentru 'the man' and chi pu wentru for 'the men'. The number kiñe 'one' serves as an indefinite article.
  • The personal pronouns distinguish three persons and three numbers; they are as follows: iñche 'I', iñchiw 'we (2)', iñchiñ 'we (more than 2)'; eymi 'you', eymu 'you (2)', eymün 'you (more than 2)'; fey 'he/she/it', feyengu 'they (2)', feyengün 'they (more than 2)'.
  • Possessive pronouns are related to the personal forms: ñi 'my; his, her; their', yu 'our (2)', 'our (more than 2)'; mi 'your', mu 'your (2)', mün 'your (more than 2)'. They are often found with a particle ta that does not seem to add anything specific to the meaning, e.g. tami 'your'.
  • Interrogative pronouns include iney 'who', chem 'what', chumül 'when', chew 'where', chum(ngechi) 'how' and chumngelu 'why'.
  • Numbers from 1 to 10 are as follows: 1 kiñe, 2 epu, 3 küla, 4 meli, 5 kechu, 6 kayu, 7 regle, 8 pura, 9 aylla, 10 mari; 20 epu mari, 30 küla mari, 110 (kiñe) pataka mari. Numbers are extremely regular in formation, comparable to Chinese and Wolof, or to constructed languages such as Esperanto.
  • Verbs can be finite or non-finite (non-finite endings: -n, -el, -etew, -lu, -am, etc.), are intransitive or transitive and are conjugated according to person (first, second and third), number (singular, dual and plural), voice (active, agentless passive and reflexive-reciprocal, plus two applicatives) and mood (indicative, imperative and subjunctive). In the indicative, the present (zero) and future (-(y)a) tenses are distinguished. There are a number of aspects: the progressive, resultative and habitual are well established; some forms that seem to mark some subtype of perfect are also found. Other verb morphology includes an evidential marker (reportative-mirative), directionals (cislocative, translocative, andative and ambulative, plus an interruptive and continuous action marker) and modal markers (sudden action, faked action, immediate action, etc.). There is productive noun incorporation, and the case can be made for root compounding morphology.

The indicative present paradigm for an intransitive verb like konün 'enter' is as follows:

Singular Dual Plural
Person First konün

(< kon-n)


(< kon-i-i-u)


(< kon-i-i-n)

Second konimi

(< kon-i-m-i)


(< kon-i-m-u)


(< kon-i-m-n)

Third koni

(< kon-i-0-0)


(< kon-i-ng-u)


(< kon-i-ng-n)

What some authors[citation needed] have described as an inverse system (similar to the ones described for Algonquian languages) can be seen from the forms of a transitive verb like pen 'see'. The 'intransitive' forms are the following:

Singular Dual Plural
Person First pen

(< pe-n)


(< pe-i-i-u)


(< pe-i-i-n)

Second peymi

(< pe-i-m-i)


(< pe-i-m-u)


(< pe-i-m-n)

Third pey

(< pe-i-0-0)


(< pe-i-ng-u)


(< pe-i-ng-n)

The 'transitive' forms are the following (only singular forms are provided here):

First Second Third
Patient First pewün

(< pe-w-n)


(< pe-e-n)


(< pe-e-n-mew)

Second peeyu

(< pe-e-i-u)


(< pe-w-i-m-u)


(< pe-e-i-m-i-mew)

Third pefiñ

(< pe-fi-n)


(< pe-fi-i-m-i)

DIR pefi / INV peeyew / REFL pewi

(< pe-fi-i-0-0 / pe-e-i-0-0-mew / pe-w-i-0-0)

When a third peson interacts with a first or second person, the forms are either direct (without -e) or inverse (with -e) and the speaker has no choice. When two third persons interact, two different forms are available: the direct form (pefi) is appropriate when the agent is topical (i.e., the central figure in that particular passage). The inverse form (peenew) is appropriate when the patient is topical. Thus, chi wentru pefi chi domo means 'the man saw the woman' while chi wentru peeyew chi domo means something like 'the man was seen by the woman'; note, however, that it is not a passive construction; the passive would be chi wentru pengey 'the man was seen; someone saw the man'.

Studies of Mapudungun

Older works

The formalization and normalization of Mapudungun was effected by the first Mapudungun grammar published by the Jesuit priest Luis de Valdivia in 1606 (Arte y Gramatica General de la Lengva que Corre en Todo el Reyno de Chile). More important is the Arte de la Lengua General del Reyno de Chile by the Jesuit Andrés Febrés (1765, Lima) composed of a grammar and dictionary. In 1776 three volumes in Latin were published in Westfalia (Chilidúgú sive Res Chilenses) by the German Jesuit Bernardo Havestadt. The work by Febrés was used as a basic preparation from 1810 for missionary priests going into the regions occupied by the Mapuche people. A corrected version was completed in 1846 and a summary, without a dictionary in 1864. A work based on Febrés' book is the Breve Metodo della Lingua Araucana y Dizionario Italo-Araucano e Viceversa by the Italian Octaviano de Niza in 1888. It was destroyed in a fire at the Convento de San Francisco in Valdivia in 1928.

Modern works

  • Gramática mapuche bilingüe, by Félix José de Augusta, Santiago, 1903. [1990 reprint by Séneca, Santiago.]
  • Idioma mapuche, by Ernesto Wilhelm de Moesbach, Padre Las Casas, Chile: San Francisco, 1962.
  • El mapuche o araucano. Fonología, gramática y antología de cuentos, by Adalberto Salas, Madrid: MAPFRE, 1992.
  • El mapuche o araucano. Fonología, gramática y antología de cuentos, by Adalberto Salas, edited by Fernando Zúñiga, Santiago: Centro de Estudios Públicos, 2006. [2nd (revised) edition of Salas 1992.] ISBN 9567015414
  • A Mapuche grammar, by Ineke Smeets, Ph.D. dissertation, Leiden University, 1989.
  • Mapudungun, by Fernando Zúñiga, Munich: Lincom Europa, 2000. ISBN 3895869767
  • Parlons Mapuche: La langue des Araucans, by Ana Fernandez-Garay. Editions L'Harmattan, 2005, ISBN 2747592375
  • Mapudungun: El habla mapuche. Introducción a la lengua mapuche, con notas comparativas y un CD, by Fernando Zúñiga, Santiago: Centro de Estudios Públicos, 2006. ISBN 9567015406
  • A Grammar of Mapuche, by Ineke Smeets. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2008. ISBN 9783110195583


  • Diccionario araucano, by Félix José de Augusta, 1916. [1996 reprint by Cerro Manquehue, Santiago.] ISBN 9567210179
  • Diccionario lingüístico-etnográfico de la lengua mapuche. Mapudungun-español-English, by María Catrileo, Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1995.
  • Diccionario comentado mapuche-español, by Esteban Erize, Bahía Blanca: Yepun, 1960.
  • Ranquel-español/español-ranquel. Diccionario de una variedad mapuche de la Pampa (Argentina), by Ana Fernández Garay, Leiden: CNWS (Leiden University), 2001. ISBN 9057890585
  • Diccionario ilustrado mapudungun-español-inglés, by Arturo Hernández and Nelly Ramos, Santiago: Pehuén, 1997.
  • Mapuche: lengua y cultura. Mapudungun-español-inglés, by Arturo Hernández and Nelly Ramos. Santiago: Pehuén, 2005. [5th (augmented) edition of their 1997 dictionary.]

Mapudungun language courses

  • Mapudunguyu 1. Curso de lengua mapuche, by María Catrileo, Valdivia: Universidad Austral de Chile, 2002.
  • Manual de aprendizaje del idioma mapuche: Aspectos morfológicos y sintácticos, by Bryan Harmelink, Temuco: Universidad de la Frontera, 1996. ISBN 9562360776

The most comprehensive works to date are the ones by Augusta (1903, 1916). Salas (1992, 2006) is an introduction for non-specialists, featuring an ethnographic introduction and a valuable text collection as well. Zúñiga (2006) includes a complete grammatical description, a bilingual dictionary, some texts and an audio CD with text recordings (educational material, a traditional folktale and six contemporary poems). Smeets (1989) and Zúñiga (2000) are for specialists only. Fernandez-Garay (2005) introduces both the language and the culture. Catrileo (1995) and the dictionaries by Hernández & Ramos are trilingual (Spanish, English and Mapudungun).

Microsoft lawsuit

In late 2006, Mapuche leaders threatened to sue Microsoft when the latter completed a translation of their Windows operating system into Mapudungun. They claimed that Microsoft needed permission to do so and had not sought it.[5][6] The event can be seen in the light of the greater political struggle concerning which alphabet should become the standard alphabet of the Mapuche people. The initial Mapudungun was only a spoken language, without a written form.

See also


  1. ^ (Spanish) Berretta, Cañumil, Cañumil (2008) Diccionario Castellano-Mapuche. ISBN 978-987-05-4139-4
  2. ^ (Spanish) Zúñiga, Fernando (2007) Mapudunguwelaymi am? '¿Acaso ya no hablas mapudungun?' Acerca del estado actual de la lengua mapuche. Estudios Públicos 105: 9-24.
  3. ^ Gordon, Ethnologue (2005) treats Moluche and Huilliche as separate languages.
  4. ^ La Nacion (Chile) [1]
  5. ^ Reuters news article
  6. ^ Guerra idiomática entre los indígenas mapuches de Chile y Microsoft. El Mundo / Gideon Long (Reuters), 28 November 2006 [2]


  • Aprueban alfabeto mapuche único (Oct 19, 1999). El Mercurio de Santiago.
  • Campbell, Lyle (1997) American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005) Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 15th ed. Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version:
  • Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (2005) Encuesta Complementaria de Pueblos Indígenas (ECPI), 2004-2005 - Primeros resultados provisionales. Buenos Aires: INDEC. ISSN 0327-7968.

External links

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