Ushuaia: The Lost Language of the Yaghan People

The weather in Ushuaia is mostly rugged, dim and the terrain is mountainous. While we were there, we woke up some days to fishermen by the Beagle Channel, wondering if to them it was a ‘good’ day of weather. 

We had just got used to the wind on the way down south and now colder temperatures and rain were being added to the mix! It was definitely a challenge to leave our cozy campervan and get outside in it.

The Prison at the End of the World, looking down a corridor with various cells
The Prison at the End of the World

(TW: Colonialism)

One of the original peoples of Tierra del Fuego, the island of which Ushuaia is the capital, were the Yaghan. They were a population of indigenous people who survived this harsh weather hunting, gathering, living in wigwams (mud-huts) and keeping their skin warm by sheltering in the rocks and making fires.

Nowadays fires are strictly prohibited on the island (and in fact most of the country) due to high risk of forest fires. But back then, it was a way of life and an inspiration. It even gave the island its name – Tierra del Fuego – Land of Fire.

Fire kept the Yaghan people warm, dry and alive. We learnt when visiting the now defunct Prison at the End of the World, that one of the key reasons for the demise of the Yaghan people was when the first European settlers arrived in the region in the early 1800s, they bought clothes for them to wear. The local weather conditions meant those (animal skin) clothes became damp, dirty and thus increased the transmission of diseases brought over, that the native people had no immunity to. Eventually, most didn’t survive a measles epidemic. 

Sadly, the only remaining speaker of Yámana (the Yaghan people’s language) passed away last year in Argentina, though they say there are around 1,500 descendants still living (mainly in Chile). We learnt however, that a dictionary from Yámana – English was in circulation, and that there was only one copy that could be found in the local library.

Maxine's hand holding the Yamana - English dictionary
Sarmiento Library, Ushuaia
Out of curiosity and a love for words, Maxine went to root it out. She found the language to be very distinct. It was full of words with multiple meanings, that told a lot about the hunter-gatherer way of life they lived, hunting sea-lions by canoe and diving in the lakes to gather shellfish. There were many words in the lexicon specific to this way of living.

Above are a few samples of the Yámana language that sent sparks into the imagination. The most famous word that we’d heard about, but struggled to locate in the dictionary was ‘Mamihlapinatapai’ – which is a word to describe ‘the moment of meditation around the fire when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.’ This said a lot about the warmth and family-oriented nature of the people.

It was an interesting voyage in literary curiosity and an informative quest to uncover more about the original people of the territory and their history. Long live the souls of the Yaghan people!

Mamihlapinatapai (n.) the moment of meditation around the fire when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.