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Mesoamerica Online

By Anne Fredrickson | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

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 1970s, 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. Over the years researchers have recorded languages on a variety of materials, from wax cylinders in the 1920s and 1930s to reel-to-reel tape and cassettes in the 1970s and 1980s. The formats are all perishable, and finding equipment to play them on has become increasingly difficult.

"Try finding a reel-to-reel recorder" these days, says Hopkins. Scholars are anxious to transfer the information contained in older recordings to the now-standard digital format, which can be copied and shared on the Internet like popular music.

Public access is especially important for these recordings, says Hopkins, because spreading knowledge and excitement about a language often helps revitalize it. The University of Chicago is using part of its grant to digitize eighteen Yucatec Maya language lessons, which will be added to the online database of the university's Language Laboratories and Archives. The LLA, which currently houses printed and recorded archives of more than 180 languages, also plans to digitize 583 hours of its Mesoamerican language recordings to be shared online.

Hopkins, who has almost fifty years of recordings from his own career as a researcher, hopes that sharing the digital files will help others to further break the code of Maya hieroglyphics.

Hopkins's work with Chol, a language spoken by about one hundred and fifty thousand people in northern Chiapas, has already contributed to solving one mystery. The language plays a special role in the study of hieroglyphics because it is almost directly descended from Classic Maya, the language on the inscriptions. When Hopkins first began recording Chol narratives in the 1990s, he noticed that many speakers changed their grammar at the most exciting point of a story. The speakers' grammar masked the subject and object of sentences, creating suspense and forcing the listener to pay close attention until the order was revealed. This same shift was present in the written Maya hieroglyphs, but researchers, assuming the changes were grammatical errors, could not decipher them. What Hopkins observed in the stories of Chol speakers demonstrated that the pattern was, in fact, a five-thousand-year-old Maya narrative style, passed down for generations in the Chol language.

"Everything we can learn about the modern languages helps us learn more about the Classic inscriptions," says Hopkins.

Both Hopkins and Goldsmith hope that support like the DEL grants will foster a greater public understanding of endangered languages. Language diversity, says Goldsmith, is just as important to the study of life as biological diversity. "Every species has learned something terrific and important" about life and survival, he says. Likewise, "every language is poised to tell us something about how languages work."

Anne Fredrickson, a junior at Swarthmore College, was an intern at NEH.

Nicholas Hopkins received $40,000 from NEH to digitize his recordings of Mesoamerican languages. The University of Chicago received $141,516 to digitize parts of its Mesoamerican collection.