Linguistics Department

Undergraduate Spotlight: Sunny Ananthanarayan

In the state of Amazonas, Brazil, across the Rio Negro from the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a small community called the Waruá boasts the last speakers of Dâw. The Naduhup language of Dâw, spoken by just over 100 people in that region of northwest Brazil, is highly endangered. Linguistics undergraduate student Sunkulp “Sunny” Ananthanarayan traveled to the Waruá community in the summer of 2017, under the supervision of Professor Patience Epps, to help document and preserve the Dâw language.

The focus of their research in the field was to compile a Dâw-Portuguese-English dictionary and an accompanying text collection. The work, as Epps explains, “involved checking the pronunciation, spelling, and meanings of words that were already present in our database,” as well as adding new material. The new material was drawn from local texts, conversations with speakers of Dâw, and walks in the forest to investigate plants and animals.

Sunny Ananthanarayan remembers that one of those walks was several miles long, which the locals considered a very short distance, and he was shocked to see that the community members went on those hikes in Havaiana flip flops. As they walked, they were treated to a remarkable tale when one of the community’s elders told them of a near encounter with a curupira. “Curupiras are tricksters of the Amazon,” Ananthanarayan says, “ whose feet are backwards so as to fool people walking through the forest and catch them.” He learned that the threat of curupiras is taken quite seriously, that they are believed to be responsible for such atrocities as kidnapping children and opening people's heads to eat their brains.

Though his initial instinct was to be surprised that the Dâw community gave credence to the fear of the curupira, it sparked a realization for Ananthanarayan: “I recalled learning in my Theory of Knowledge class that some theorists believe there to be an area of knowledge separate from religious knowledge that is indigenous knowledge. Being from a largely white, Christian small town in Texas, we did not get any examples to further our understanding of what indigenous knowledge might manifest itself as. But I think now I understand. The Dâw elder was truly afraid of the curupira and there was not a doubt in her mind that it was a real entity. The thing is, it was real, for all intents and purposes. Whether all of those signs and sounds are compiled into the danger of animals and enemies or into a curupira, the end result is the same—fear. Fear derived rationally. This was a major lesson in acceptance for me.”

The tale of the curupira was just one dose of the culture shock that Ananthanarayan would encounter in Brazil. Epps, an expert in the indigenous languages of Amazonia, is a frequent visitor to the Waruá community, but this was Ananthanarayan’s first time in the field. The experience immersed him in what Epps calls “the vagaries of Amazonian fieldwork” – insects, lack of running water, washing your clothes by hand in the river – which can be quite a shock to a novice researcher.   Not only did Ananthanarayan tackle the inconveniences without complaint, he seemed to plunge enthusiastically into the entire experience. 

Some of Ananthanarayan’s most distinct memories of the time in Brazil are of watching Professor Epps’ children join right in with the activities of the Brazilian children, despite the fact that they had no shared language. Ananthanarayan remembers that the children in Waruá “shot birds with slingshots, bringing back the most vibrantly colored birds I had seen in my life, held by the wings so we could see the beautiful plumage. Once they pegged a lizard and she had eggs! This lizard was promptly fried, and not in a kosher way.”

The children roamed among the community and beyond, collecting treasures: “a plum-like fruit from an extremely tall tree, cacao (the fruit around the seed is actually sweet!), tucumã (a small orange-like fruit the kids absolutely adored), biriba (a spiky but sweet treat), inga (nicknamed ‘ice cream bean’ in English for its flavor and appearance), and many more. The kids also often went to the creeks around the community and used machetes to fish. On one instance they invited me, and I had the time of my life slashing at tiny little things in the water.”

For her part, Epps loved watching Ananthanarayan dive into the richness of the community. She, too, tells the story of the lizard that was caught and cooked, and of the foray to catch fish in the stream with machetes at night. She also recalls that when he was asked by community members to give English lessons, which inevitably took place at the end of a long workday and went until late in the evening, Ananthanarayan was happy to oblige.

Epps says Ananthanarayan was just as eager to jump into the research itself and was involved in the process in a variety of ways. He participated in the daily work with the speakers, and served as the team’s tech guru. “He was the one who worked out all the challenges with FLEx and ELAN software, and figured out how to turn a FLEx database into a nicely formatted dictionary draft to leave with the community (as a tangible work-in-progress) when we ended our field stay.” Ananthanarayan also worked with another team member to prepare an edited video, subtitled in Dâw, of the process of building a traditional house structure in the community. The video, says Epps, turned out beautifully.

The research work was an education in compromise, and sometimes in humility, for Ananthanarayan. While he was fascinated to see how well Professor Epps’ children were able to interact with “basically no ability to communicate with the others,” Ananthanarayan was glad that he spoke enough Portuguese that he could conduct his fieldwork bilingually, through the medium of a common Lingua Franca. Though speaking English would have been more convenient, he quickly learned that using a second language would force him to be more careful with his choice of vocabulary and grammar, and to be more conscious of the ambiguities in both languages.

This bilingual approach did, however, present complications of its own. Ananthanarayan admits, “I often confused the word for refrigerator and frying pan, failed miserably at using colloquialisms, and made up random words from Spanish and Latin. However, this gave me an opportunity to make a fool out of myself and create memories that would help me remember these mistakes, while bonding with the community by laughing at myself.”

Working with other research styles, too, required a shift in perspective for Ananthanarayan. “Epps and I were working with some linguists who were staunch generativists, and their fundamental approach to linguistics was very different from our own. Also difficult was coming from a typological perspective and having to cut some nuance from analysis due to a preference for parsimony. As someone who aspires to be a descriptive linguist, this was very difficult. That isn’t to say we didn’t include nuance in our analyses (in fact my main object while in the field was to gather lexical data, focusing on the nuance of meaning), just that there were some times when arguments had to be resolved with the answer ‘because it’s simpler and makes more sense to analyze it like this.’” In the process, Ananthanarayan realized that navigating the tension between disparate research philosophies, and the spirit of compromise that would be needed to plow ahead with the work, would be a recurring theme in his ongoing linguistic work.

Sunny Ananthanarayan’s time in the Waruá community provided a broad cultural, personal, and professional education. His work documenting the Dâw language was invaluable research experience. His time in the state of Amazonas – a part of Brazil so unlike the well-known destination spots of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo – gave him the chance to witness the rich culture of the community and, in seeing where this culture differed from his own, to gain acceptance of a new way of seeing the world. It was an adventure that showed him the power and nuance of language, as well as the value of communication that can exist outside the boundaries of a shared language. Ananthanarayan says that he’d do it all again, “but I’ll be sure to wear my sneakers for the hikes next time.”

Sunny Ananthanarayan

Sunny Ananthanarayan working in Brazil


Getting açaí from a tree

Getting açaí from a tree


Hammocks in the boat to São Gabriel da Cachoeira

Hammocks in the boat to São Gabriel da Cachoeira


Kitchen/Bedroom/ Workstation

Kitchen, bedroom, and workstation in the field


Generator room

Generator room

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