Language of the week: Emberá

Emberá is spoken by about 23,000 people in Panama and Colombia. There are a number of different varieties, including (quoting from the Ethnologue):

Emberá-Catío, Emberá-Baudó, Emberá-Tadó, Epena, Emberá-Chamí, and Wounmeu. Panama and Colombia dialects are inherently intelligible. Northern Embera of the Upper Baudó area and downriver Emberá-Baudó are inherently intelligible.

I’m not sure what “inherently intelligible” means here – never seen that term before. Seems to be used mostly in the Ethnologue’s Latin America section.

There’s a reference grammar available, published by SIL (reference details here). There are a couple of language resources listed on, and there’s some more general historical and cultural information here.

Emberá is the language of “End of the Spear” , which I haven’t seen, which sounds potentially highly cheesy and irritating, and which seems to be set in the wrong place if the actors are speaking Emberá. Wouldn’t be the first time, of course. There’s Djinang in Walkabout, which is set in South Australia…

I couldn’t find any more information about Emberá in English, although there’s a small amount on the Spanish wikipedia here.


5 responses to “Language of the week: Emberá

  1. Charles A. Mortensen

    Nice web site you have here. Thanks for putting the Choco family on it. (Wounaan is not an Embera language; it is the oddball member of the Choco family).

    I am a member of SIL in Latin America and and I don’t know what the motivation was for using “inherently intelligible.” To make a long story short, it means Northern Embera is spoken in both Panama and Colombia and the people understand each other. And although Embera-Baudo is another language for Bible translation purposes, Northern Embera speakers who live near the Baudo area can understand it.

    “End of the Spear” was going to be filmed on location in Ecuador but the logistics of having a large cast and crew in the Amazon jungle made it very difficult. So they found some more accessible jungle in Panama, as well as the Emberas, who look remarkably like the Waoranis they are portraying. My daughter is in the film and I helped with sound editing (the Embera lines). I am an extra in one scene as well. Go see the film and decide for yourself whether it’s cheesy.

  2. Hi Charles,
    thanks for your comment! now that you mention it, think I have heard another term for varieties of a language which are mutually intelligible across national boundaries. Can’t for the life of me remember what it is though.

    Thanks for explaining the placement of the film. I have borrowed the film from netflix and it should be arriving today. I apologise, I should not a made a judgment about the cheesiness of the film without seeing it. I guess I’m just reacting to the title in conjunction with the all too common portrayal of Indigenous people in Western film. I am looking forward to seeing it!

  3. I have known Embera Embera people for about four years from spending my summers on the Pacific coast of Colombia near Bahia Solano. I am interested in any anthropological or linguistic work (English or Spanish) that I might share and discuss with them. Any suggestions?

  4. Stephen, I’d suggest you contact Charles Mortensen about this. I don’t really know anything about Embera apart from what I’ve researched for this blog entry. He’s in a much better position to give you information about existing work.

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