Chibchan languages

Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia
Linguistic classification: primary family or perhaps Macro-Chibchan
  • Chibchan
ISO 639-5: cba
Chibcha lang.png

The Chibchan languages (also Chíbchan, Chibchano) make up a language family indigenous to the Isthmo-Colombian area, which extends from eastern Honduras to northern Colombia and includes populations of these countries as well as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The name is derived from the name of an extinct language called Chibcha or Muisca cubun, once spoken by the people who lived in the city of Bogotá at the time of the European invasion. However, genetic and linguistic data now indicate that the original heart of Chibchan languages and Chibchan-speaking peoples may not have been in Colombia at all, but in the area of the Costa Rica-Panama border, where one finds the greatest variety of Chibchan languages.

The Costa Rican linguist Adolfo Constenla Umaña (1981, 1991, 1995) has created a detailed classification of Chibchan languages. Most of these fall into the Southern Chibchan subgroupings of Votic, Isthmic, and Magdalenic. The following list is a slight modification of Constenla's groupings.



  • A
    • Waimí (Guaymi)
      • Ngäbere (Movere), Costa Rica and Panama
      • Buglere (Bogotá), Panama
    • Borũca (Brunca), Costa Rica, nearly extinct
    • Talamanca
      • Huetar (Güetar), Costa Rica, extinct
      • Bribri (Talamanca), Costa Rica and Panama
      • Cabécar (Talamanca), Costa Rica
      • Chánguena Costa Rica & Panama, extinct
      • Teribe (Norteño), Panama and Costa Rica
  • B
    • Pech (Paya) northeastern Honduras, endangered
    • Dorasque Panama, extinct
    • Votic
      • Rama southeastern Nicaragua, extinct or nearly so
      • Voto Costa Rica, extinct
      • Maléku (Guatuso) north-central Costa Rica, endangered
      • Corobicí northwestern Costa Rica, extinct
    • Kuna–Colombian
      • Kuna (Cuña, San Blás Kuna), Panama and Colombia
      • Chibcha–Motilon
      • Arwako–Chimila
        • Chimila Colombia
        • Arwako
          • Wiwa (Malayo, Guamaca) Colombia
          • Kankuamo Colombia, extinct
          • Arhuaco (Ika) Colombia
          • Kogi (Cogui) Colombia

The extinct languages of Antioquia, Old Catío and Nutabe, have been shown to be Chibchan (Adelaar & Muysken, 2004:49). The language of the Tairona is unattested, but may well be one of the Arwako languages still spoken in the Santa Marta range. The Zenú aka Sinú language of northern Colombia is also sometimes included, as are the Malibu languages, though without any factual basis.

Constenla argues that Cueva, the extinct dominant language of pre-Columbian Panama long assumed to be Chibchan based on a misinterpreted Kuna vocabulary, was actually Chocoan, but there is little evidence.

The Cofán language (Kofán, Kofane, A'i) of Ecuador and Colombia has been erroneously included in Chibchan due to borrowed vocabulary.

External relations

The most significant neighboring linguistic groups, with which there are important relationships, are the Misumalpan languages (to the north) and the Choco languages (to the south). A larger family called Macro-Chibchan, which would contain the Misumalpan languages, Xinca, and Lenca, was found convincing by Kaufman (1990). Dennis Holt (1986) claimed evidence for possible distant relationships with the Uto-Aztecan and Pano–Takanan.


  • Constenla Umaña, A. (1981). Comparative Chibchan Phonology. (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia).
  • Constenla Umaña, Adolfo. (1991). Las lenguas del Área Intermedia: Introducción a su estudio areal. Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, San José.
  • Constenla Umaña, Adolfo. (1995). Sobre el estudio diacrónico de las lenguas chibchenses y su contribución al conocimiento del pasado de sus hablantes. Boletín del Museo del Oro 38-39: 13-56.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1987). Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Holt, Dennis (1986). The Development of the Paya Sound-System. (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles).
  • Quesada, J. Diego (2007). The Chibchan Languages. Editorial Technólogica de Costa Rica, 259 pp. ISBN 9977661863.
  • A journal of Chibchan linguistics Estudios de Lingüistica Chibcha is published by the Universidad de Costa Rica.

External resources

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