In 1989, when Russia opened its borders and the Berlin Wall fell, Sasha was finally able to travel the world. Brazilian Portuguese wasn’t one of the many languages she had learned so far, but this didn’t deter her from going to Brazil when she was offered a job there. “I left Russia as soon as I could, because it was just not the country I wanted to live in,” Sasha says.
Moving from Russia’s capital, Moscow, to the remote Brazilian rainforests was a big step. She learned Portuguese from the people in the streets, as well as the Tariana language in the rainforest villages along the Vaupés River near the Colombian border. Today, Tariana is only spoken by around one hundred people. With Sasha’s help, the people are trying to preserve their language for future generations.
Tariana – a very special language
For Sasha, every language is special. “There are some things that you can say in no other language. How would you say schadenfreude in English?” she says, thinking about the German word for the dark feeling of self-satisfaction that some people experience when they hear about or see other people’s misfortunes.
Tariana, the language she learned at the Vaupés River in Brazil, is one of her favourite languages. “It's a wonderful language,” Sasha says. “What I really love about Tariana is that in every sentence, you have to say how you know things: whether you saw it, or you heard it, or if somebody told you about it, or you inferred it, or it's just common knowledge.” Still, the Tariana people aren’t more honest than other people around the world. “It doesn't mean that you can't tell a lie. You still can, you just have to be very clever,” Sasha says.
A nomadic rainforest people
Originally, the people who speak Tariana came from the deep rainforests of the Brazilian-Colombian border. Sasha suspects that the German explorer and botanist Carl von Martius might have made contact with them when he travelled through remote Brazil between 1817 and 1820. That was when the Tariana were still a nomadic people.
“When the missionaries came in the 1920s, they established schools and dormitories,” Sasha says. “So, to be closer to their children they moved out of the rainforest and lived on the river banks.”
Names only for useful plants
Rainforests are places of rich biodiversity, and the people of the rainforest know their plants very well. However, there are still some plants that don’t have a name in Tariana. “There are many terms for flora and fauna, but only for flora that is useful,” Sasha says.
“I remember I was trying to get some terms for flowers, and they were saying, ‘this flower, it’s useless’. A plant is only important and worthy of a name if it’s edible or if you can do something with it. Maybe you can weave something or you can cook them or you can make an ornament out of them. That is fine.”
Mother’s Day in Santa Terezinha, Brazil
One occasion, which Sasha remembers well, is Mother’s Day in Santa Terezinha, Brazil. Sasha was planning to visit the village to study the local Tariana dialect. “We travelled about five hours from a coach transmission centre, in the rain, to get to Santa Terezinha,” Sasha says. “It’s really in the jungle, and this settlement is not on regular maps of Brazil, but it is on some indigenous maps.”
Sasha says the people in Santa Terezinha usually get up at 6am. However, that Mother’s Day, the women had to get up even earlier. “They woke us up about maybe five o’clock, and they were singing songs in Portuguese,” she says. “Then they did something which was quite unusual for them. The men prepared a meal for the women. Normally it’s the other way around, and normally the men eat first and the women eat the leftovers. We had this big table, and here are some of these mothers and they were just having fun and eating. They were enjoying themselves.”
But in the end, it wasn’t really a breakfast. “It was more sort of brunch, I would say, because the men were so lazy,” Sasha says. At least on that day, her studies of the local dialect had to wait a little, because everybody was celebrating and drinking pineapple wine — even the children.