The Tale of One Tiny Songbird Is Amplifying an Ancient Mayan Language

November 13th, 2020 by Maria de Los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains they did. He connected them, they sang, with “the only world that can cover us both / the world in which we all live.” The children sang in Spanish—the second language of their Indigenous Tsotsil Mayan community. It was 2015, and only a couple of months had passed since Azuara and colleagues had started working with 28 teachers from several Indigenous schools in Chiapas. As the environmental education program director at the non-profit Pronatura Sur, her job was to convince teachers to include a children’s book called The Tale of Chipilo Crisopario (La Historia de Chipilo Crisopario in Spanish) as part of their classes. Pronatura is working to conserve the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler’s overwintering habitat, the pine-oak forests that grow across Chiapas’ mountains and extend south through Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. When Azuara heard the song inspired by the book, she was thrilled. “I’ve always believed a children’s book is an extremely powerful tool to create change,” she says. “And Chipilo has proved it to me.” Chipilo has become a cornerstone of Pronatura’s environmental education, a fun tool for helping to instill a conservation ethic in children, with the hopes that they will care about and protect the natural world throughout their lives. The book has reached more than 3,000 children, mostly in Chiapas, many of whom are Tsotsil. In 2018 Pronatura had the book and accompanying lessons translated into Tsotsil. The Golden-cheeked Warbler doesn’t have ancient cultural significance for the community, but there are parallels: Just as the endangered songbird’s plight has long been neglected, so has their language. Translating Chipilo into Tsotsil is just one small part of a growing effort to dignify the country’s more than 68 Indigenous language groups, which are in turn divided into 364 language variations. In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, European languages are “power languages”—they inhabit streets, courthouses, hospitals, and schools, says linguistic anthropologist Margarita Martínez Perez, a native Tsotsil speaker. Indigenous languages have long been deemed inferior and relegated to private spaces. But in recent years, they’ve started to seep into public spaces. In the past decade, Tsotsil has begun to appear on street signs and social media and in rock music, comics, poems, and novels. “This is just the beginning,” Martínez says. “Chipilo’s book is just a little sprout of what’s to come.” Read more: Audubon

Students Assist with Mayan Language Revitalization Project

May 24th, 2020 by MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – “Saqarik!” (sah-kah-REEK!) “Good morning!” So began presentations to grade schoolers in Nahualá, Guatemala, given by four Middlebury students as part of a Mayan language revitalization project this past January. The project was led by Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies Brandon Baird. “The school kids would always laugh when they heard us speak in K’iche’,” said senior James Finn. “A lot of the kids and just people in general see Americans and expect them to speak English, so when they heard us speaking in Spanish they were surprised. And then when they heard us speaking, you know, K’iche’, it was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here!’” Baird says that part of their revitalization work is overcoming a social stigma. “People there have been raised hearing—and it has been supported by the government—that speaking a Mayan language makes you less of a person, makes you inferior. It means you’re not as smart as someone else who speaks another language, particularly, in this case, Spanish.” To counter such myths and attitudes, Baird and his students presented at local grade schools, distributed posters, and recorded live on the national K’iche’ radio station, Nawal Estéreo, in Nahualá. The topic: current research on the benefits of bilingualism in terms of neuroscience, linguistics, and psychology. Bilingual speakers, for example, are better at critical thinking and problem solving; better able to adapt to social situations; and better at speaking and understanding both languages. Research even suggests they are less likely to develop dementia, have more gray matter in their central nervous systems (making them “smarter”), and can earn more money. January’s project grew in part, said Baird, out of his desire to give back to a community that’s been so welcoming to him. He has been conducting research on indigenous language aspects of Spanish linguistics in Guatemala for over a decade. Since 2012, he’s focused on Nahualá, a town of some 60,000–70,000 in Guatemala’s western highlands. Concerns about losing their language is something that residents have shared with him from his earliest stays. Read more: Middlebury

A Rare Public Display of a 17th-Century Mayan Manuscript

May 21st, 2017 by When you take a close look at the flowery but meticulous lettering in the 17th-century book, you can see that many people wrote the script, at different times. The book includes everything from sermons to poems, and there’s a dedication to Pope Urban IV. The Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche, from 1690, is the oldest manuscript in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. It provides not only a fascinating look at the evolution of the Maya K’iche’ language, but it also tells a stark tale of religious history. “When I see a document like this it just blows me away to see the care with which the language was put on paper by so many different people,” says Gabriela Pérez-Báez, curator of linguistics in the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History. She says the book is written in four different languages, including K’iche’, Latin, Spanish and Kaqchikel. “The paper is thicker, the book smells differently, it is really amazing to see the care with which it was written,” Pérez-Báez marvels. The Libro de Sermones is part of the Objects of Wonder exhibition now on view at the National Museum of Natural History. The book has also been digitized so that scholars can peruse the book both to answer questions about history, but also to document the changes in the K’iche’ language as the Spanish were taking over the Maya empire in the 16th century. The text in the Libro de Sermones is very similar to the K’iche’ language that was spoken before contact with the Spanish. The book was given to one Felipe Silva by Pablo Agurdia of Guatemala in 1907, and Silva apparently donated it to the Smithsonian Institution sometime after that, but there are no documents explaining exactly how that happened. Today, Pérez-Báez says the book is quite relevant and important to scholars. Read more: Smithsonian

Revealing the mysteries of the Maya script

November 3rd, 2015 by EPFL researchers have come up with an algorithm to analyze Mayan writing. This project could one day contribute to translating this complex and still partially unknown language. While some five million people still speak a language that evolved out of Mayan civilization in South America, the written language has suffered a different fate. The secrets of the classical Maya were lost with the destruction of most works during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Only three codices have been preserved, and they are in museums and institutions in Paris, Dresden and Madrid. These documents contain precious data for the researchers who are seeking to discover the secrets of this pre-Columbian writing, much of which remains obscure (10 to 15% of the symbols are not known). Researchers at Idiap, a research institute affiliated with EPFL and with the new Digital Humanities Laboratory of the College of Humanities, are harnessing the power of computers to help archeologists and epigraphers make significant progress in their work. Read more: