Nora c. England

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  • 8/14/2019 Nora c. England



    Mayan Language Revival and RevitalizationPolitics: Linguists and Linguistic IdeologiesAB ST RA CT Alth ou gh spoken by a relatively large pop ulation , Mayan languages show signs of language shift and loss because thechi ldren in some of the speech commu nit ies are no longer learning the languag e. At the same time , Mayas are part icipating in a move-ment of cultural rea ff irmatio n, a principle focus of which is language. Maya l inguists are central in form ula ting and reshaping languageideologies to furthe r the goals of revitaliza tion, and they play a sign ificant role in cultura l/l inguis tic activism . This article shows the ex-tent ofthe contr ibut ion of l inguistics to Mayan language vitality through an analysis of language ideologies and how they have beenreform ulate d by Maya linguists, and by a review of an appa rently successful attem pt at reversing languag e loss th at has arisen th ro ug han integrated community-based program ofcultural revitalization that centers, to a large extent, on language and makes specific useof l inguist ics. [Keywords: language shift , language ideologies, language re vital ization, Mayan languages, Maya mo vem ent]

    THE MAYAN LANGUAGES ARE A FAMILY of ap-proximately thirty languages, all descended from acommon ancestral language that was spoken more than4,000 years ago. They are currently spoken by about fivemillion people inGuatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Hondu-ras. The family is, compared tomost other American lan-guage families, quite robust, both interms of the numberof speakers and the vitality of the languages that compriseit. However, all of the languages in this family show signsof language loss, principally because of the fact that chil-dren in at least some of the communities inwhich eachlanguage is spoken are no longer learning the language.Several of the languages are quite small and seem to be inthe last stages of language disappearance or "death," asthey are replaced by Spanish. For example, Mocho', whichis spoken in Mexico, has fewer than 150 speakers; Itzaj,which is spoken inGuatemala, is estimated to have thirtyfluent speakers. Moreover, in both cases, the only remain-ing speakers are elderly. Other languages are quite large:K'ichee' and Yukatek Maya have close to a million speak-ers each; Mam, Kaqchikel, and Q'eqchi' are estimated tohave between a half-million and a million speakers; andQ'anjob'al is estimated to have 100,000 speakers (Richards2003:44-88). But even in the larger speech communities,some children are not learning the languagew hich is thebeginning of language death.

    Furthermore, the number of people who are fluent inboth a Mayan language and Spanish has grown enor-mously in the last 25years, surely as a result of th e in-

    creasing interconnectedness that is one of the conse-quences of what is known as "globalization." In manycases, this bilingualism seems to be the first step towardlanguage loss. According to the latest estimates (Richards2003:44-88), if the Maya population ofGuatemala is esti-mated to be around half of the total population, then only50-60 percent are actually speakers of the Mayan lan-guages. In add ition, literacy am ong Mayas is increasing, asit is in the entire country1 but varies widely between 15percent insome areas and 92 percent inothers (Richards2003:129). What is especially telling, however, is that lit-eracy in Mayan communities is inversely related to lan-guage retention. Those townships with thehighest liter-acy have suffered the greatest language loss, while thosewith the lowest literacy have suffered the least languageloss (Richards 2003:128-129). Thus, both the precondi-t ions and the conditions for language loss are readily ob-servable in Mayan communities.

    At the same time that these conditions are becomingapparent, however, Guatemalan Mayas are engaged in asignificant movement of cultural reaffirmation (Bastos andCamus 1995, 1996; Cojti Cuxil 1997; Fischer andBrown1996; Warren 1998) inwhich language is a central theme(Brown 1996; England 1996, 1998; Maxwell 1996; Ro-driguez Guajan 1996) and that may be addressing issues oflanguage loss prevention. The fact that Mayas have takenlanguage tobe the first and most important focus for cul-tural activism has meant that: (1) language has receivedattention since the emergence in the mid-1980s of what is


  • 8/14/2019 Nora c. England


    734 American An thro polo gist Vo l. 105, No. 4 December 2003generally called the "Maya movement"; (2) linguists andlinguistics have played an important role in cultural revi-talization; (3) a significant group of Maya linguists (lin-guists who are native speakers of a Mayan language) hasbeen established; (4) Maya linguists have contribute d bothtechnical expertise and language ideological positions tothe Maya movement; and (5) some reversal of languageloss may have taken place as part of an integrated programof cultural revitalization.The principal actors in the Maya movement and inlanguage revitalization are Mayas from different languagegroups who, by and large, have received a fair amount offormal education. Most have completed secondary school,and an increasingly large proportion have attended a uni-versity. Although the majority are the children of ordinarysubsistence farmers, they have, through one means or an-other, broken out of that mold through education andmay not themselves be farmers at all. Some, of course,come from families who either became part of a tiny Mayamiddle class in previous generations or were so land poorthat they engaged in economic activities other than sub-sistence farming (e.g., agricultural labor, petty commercialenterprises). However, the most common pattern is thatthey grew up in rural villages or rural town centers infarming families. It is probably the case that most of themwere not from the poorest of such families, or their par-ents would not have been able to spare their labor longenough for them to complete school. From among theseindividuals, who number in the thousands, several hun-dred have received some education or training in linguis-tics. These include over 100 trained in the ProyectoLinguistico Francisco Marroquin (PLFM); over 50 trainedby Oxlajuuj Keej M aya ' Ajtz'iib' (OKMA) (NGOs ded icatedto linguistic research); several hundred who have studiedin the licenciatiira programs in linguistics in the Universi-dad Rafael Landivar or the Universidad Mariano Galvez(private universities); and several hundred more who havereceived some training from, and worked for, either the Bi-lingual Education arm of the Ministry of Education, or theAcademia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (state institu-tions). There is, of course, some overlap in several of thesecategories.

    The Maya movement in Guatemala has long antece-dents but emerged as a small but quite vocal force after thecivil war of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is separatefrom, but overlapping and in some respects convergingwith, the popular political movement, which includesboth Mayas and non-Mayas and has much greater politicalpresence and force. The Maya movement, however, hastaken the lead in speaking to specific ethnic issues, such aslanguage rights. It has no formal political representation,such as a political party or congressional delegates electedon a Maya movement platform, but current leaders of themovement (200.3) occupy several key politically appointedpositions, including the minister of culture, a vice minis-ter of culture, a vice minister of education, a vice ministerof agriculture, and the director of bilingual education. The

    fact that the Maya movement emerged after the civil waras a "cultural" rather than specifically "political" move-ment can be linked to the severe repression that politicalleaders suffered during th e war. By con cen trating their e n-ergies on the seemingly more benign cultural aspects ofpolitical action, groups and leaders were able to escape re-pressive notice at first. "Culture," in the eyes of the mili-tary and other national political figures, was akin to "folk-lore" and, therefore, not the threat that the organizationof political parties or unions would have represented. Thefact that a movement for cultural revitalization and recog-nition was in essence a political movement became appar-ent only gradually, and the fact that the movement hadlittle power for political mobilization (unlike the popularpolitical movement) continued to protect its leaders fromrepression.The Maya movement is beginning to have influencein the national political arena and has been noticeably in-fluential in all levels of civil society below the very top. Inspite of the facts that the Maya movement's formal politi-cal influence is weak, that its con nec tion to a popular baseis weak, and that it is viewed by many Mayas as politicallyineffective, the ideas that are generated by Maya intellec-tual leaders have become quite generalized among theMaya population. Such ideas include a revalorization ofMaya culture and language, a demand for public educa-tion that better serves Mayan communities and takes in-digenous languages into account, access to public servicesin local languages, access to more equitable economic andpolitical opportunities, and notions of political autonomythat are still fairly unspecific and undeveloped. Severalideas that emerged from the Maya movement have hadsignificant influence on the more formally organizedpopular movement. For instance, the part of the 1996Peace Accords between the government of Guatemala andthe coalition of guerilla forces that deals with indigenousrights is taken in large part, including some of the specificwording of the legislation, from an earlier publication byDemetrio Cojti Cuxil (1994), widely regarded as the prin-cipal i