Magazine article Humanities

Mesoamerica Online

Magazine article Humanities

Mesoamerica Online

Article excerpt

Forget the Pony Express.

For a number of Guatemalan villages in the 1960s, the best postal service around was Nicholas Hopkins. Hopkins, then a University of Chicago graduate student, was traveling between towns to record different dialects of Chuj, the Maya language spoken in western Guatemala. When residents learned that Hopkins would soon be stopping at other villages, they spoke letters into his microphone, leaving messages to be played in the next community for a sister or uncle.

Chuj, a language with a small number of native speakers, is termed "endangered" by linguists. Recognizing the need to study such at-risk languages, NEH and the National Science Foundation have created the Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) partnership, which provides support for digital language documentation.

Hopkins, now an independent language scholar, has recently received funding to digitize parts of his language recordings, including the audio letters from Guatemala. Many of the towns he visited no longer exist. A thirty-six-year civil war ravaged the Guatemalan countryside, forcing villagers to seek out safer homes elsewhere. Few have returned. Such diaspora can mean the death of a language, says Hopkins, for in a new home speakers often give up their native tongue in favor of assimilation.

It takes less than a war to kill a language. Economic and cultural globalization poses subtler threats, says John Goldsmith, professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago and another grant recipient. Prominent languages such as English or Spanish, he says, are "more economically effective for their users." Parents are more likely to want their children to speak Spanish instead of a local dialect, for example, because it will help them advance later in life. With these kinds of pressures, it is less likely that the second generation of speakers will fully embrace a minority language.

Linguists estimate that there are between six and seven thousand languages spoken today. Of these, almost half are considered endangered, and "there are fewer languages every year," says Hopkins.

This pressing fact is what drives Hopkins, Goldsmith, and other researchers to record and document endangered languages while they still exist. It is "our last chance," Goldsmith says.

Documenting a language involves more than recording a conversation The record must demonstrate aspects of the language that are important to its structure. There are three basic areas, says Goldsmith, that a linguist wants to record: a vocabulary, usually in the form of a word list; a grammar, as evidenced in simple sentences and phrases; and a language text, often a folk tale or personal narrative.

Before beginning any of these recordings, however, a researcher must establish a trusting relationship with members of the community, who also stand to benefit from the documentation of their speech. Understanding this partnership is crucial, says Goldsmith, because recordings may be used by local communities as often as they are used by scholars. When Hopkins was working in Chiapas. Mexico, in the 197Os. he had to first gain approval from the public assembly, a group of village men who met on Sunday afternoons.

The progression of anthropological linguistics has always been tied up with that of the technology. …

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