Notes on the pronunciation and spelling of mapudungun…

Simplifying the language of the Mapuche for English speakers necessarily simplifies the language itself.  As one illustration—since the mapudungun E runs a gamut of sound—the language has two words that would be spelled ‘me’ in English.  One means ‘no,’ and the other means ‘shit’ … as in the word medomo—or, ‘shitwoman’—found in the text.  Rather than use the symbol of linguistics—an upside down e—to indicate the distinction in pronunciation, or introduce the embarrassment of a ‘phonetic’ spelling for speakers of English, which would make the mapudungun ‘no’ be ‘muh,’ as in the ‘Juh pens donk juh sooey’ kind of phonetic crutch with can be found in some English language newspapers printing French recipes, I simply cut this Gordian knot….  The mapudungun ‘no’ is me in the novel … though the E of this me is not the one of English, as in ‘me too.’  Neither is it the E of the Spanish me.  Rather, it resembles the E of me in French.  In novels transliterating a language unknown to the reader—especially a language with no writing of its own—inaccuracy as to sound is unavoidable.


As for the complex sounds of mapudungun, they have been bewilderingly, and differently, transcribed over the centuries.  Recently, diacritical signs abound, the dieresis (ü) being frequent, the tilde (ñ) more or less universal.  In researching Arauco, therefore, I was faced with a welter of spelling—ranging from wild, sixteenth century stabs at mapudungun, attempting to make it sound Hispanic, to recent, more accurate attempts to do the best one can with the symbols of linguistics.  All this I have radically simplified and normalized in the interest of clarity, fully aware that I may have gone too far for experts.

Keeping in mind that, as the invading Spanish were the first to transcribe mapudungun, their spelling is politicized, I have—with the exception of the ñ—by and large avoided a “Spanish” transcription of the language.  One example is the national flower of Chile, which I write ‘kopiwe,’ rather than ‘copihue, avoiding both ‘hu’ as a spelling of the ‘w’ sound, and the Spanish ‘c,’ which would be hard before an ‘o’— a meaningless distinction for mapudungun, which has no soft ‘c’ in the first place.  In the same vein, I eliminate the Spanish ‘qu,” so that the Chilean ‘queltehue,’ that indigenous bird whose name is directly transcribed from mapudungun, I write as ‘keltewe.”  Etc….  An important exception to all this—as explained in the afterword—is the title of the novel itself, which by the logic of my transcription should be Arauko.

In the same vein, I have kept the name ‘Lautaro,’ with which Alonso de Ercilla introduced this intransigent Mapuche to the larger world.  In mapudungun, the word is an amalgam of lef, meaning swift, with traro, a falcon (see below).

One thought on “Notes on the pronunciation and spelling of mapudungun…

  1. Marimari, chachay John Caviglia,
    I must say that i completely enjoyed your novel, from the first page to the very last –the preface with Ñamku gave me goosebumps. You are a great wirife (writer), i literally devoured the book. But, also, i would like to discuss a little bit on the way to spell the words in mapudungun. Actually, mapudungun language has a unified alphabet called “alfabeto mapuche unificado” that was developed by linguists and that is not based on the spanish spelling rules. But i wouldn’t like to write that many lines here. Maybe we can discuss it by e-mail? I would be very glad, since this is an awesome book.


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