Can Indigenous Language Comics Save a Mother Tongue?

Tlaloc is a tempestuous deity: provider and withholder. The god of rain, he looms large in the belief system of the Ñäñho people*, who reside in the seasonally parched plateau region of Central Mexico. In the heavens above, Tlaloc lives within a paradise of lush vegetation and endless water in clay pots. If only he’d share.

In recent years, a comic book, Ar Metlaloke(The Tlaloques Hunter), has reimagined Tlaloc’s domain with a twist. The comic weaves in a traditional story from the Mexican state of Querétaro about the spontaneous rainfalls of the mountain Pinal del Zamorano. In the creative adaptation, Tlaloc’s haven includes the Tlaloques, goblin-like helpers who are prone to pranks. They playfully break containers—crack!—and rain pours down unexpectedly onto the arid landscape around Zamorano.

The book is the first of its kind written in Hñäñho, the language of the Ñäñho people, as well as in Spanish and English. It represents a larger, ongoing effort to preserve the people’s culture, which is under threat as speakers decline and cultural bonds erode from centuries of colonial policies.

The language—sometimes called Otomi, from the Spanish name for the community—is imperiled. Today it is one of several regional dialects of a mother tongue with fewer than 300,000 speakers, a figure that’s been dropping for decades.

Limited written Hñäñho has been a challenge for preservation. When linguist Ewald Hekking began researching it 40 years ago, he recalls, “I’d heard there was a local language called Otomi, but I couldn’t find any books.”

Hekking, of the department of anthropology at the Autonomous University of Querétaro, has been working to address that absence ever since. The Dutch-born researcher helped translate the comic, and more recently, he co-authored an anthology of Ñäñho oral traditions and beliefs.

The hope is that telling Ñäñho cultural stories in a contemporary format can help preserve them, and the language, for generations to come.

Hñäñho is one of 68 ancestral tongues still spoken in Mexico, and the seventh largest by number of speakers. But many of these languages are endangered.

Read more: Sapiens

A New Language Could Help Bring Comic Books to the Blind

Thanks to advances both high- and low-tech, more experiences previously inaccessible to the blind are now moving within reach: This past spring, for example, Twitter added a feature that translates tweets into Braille or audio text; an iPad app makes it possible to type emails in Braille from a tablet; and visually impaired kids have their own picture books, with images printed in 3-D beneath Braille words.

But there are still some pockets of sighted life that neither Braille nor text-to-speech technology can reach. One of them is comic books: Words, whether spoken or Braille, can describe setting and action and dialogue, but they can’t fully convey what it’s like to read a comic.

“Comic books have a language,” says comic artist Ilan Manouach. “They have specific devices” to convey certain actions or emotions, like “a lightbulb, [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][or] a drop of sweat,” that get lost when a visual story is translated into a fully language-based one.

But Manouach believes he’s found a way to overcome that particular hurdle: His latest project is Shapereader, a tactile language designed to give the blind their own comic books. Unlike Braille, it’s rendered in visuals rather than letters and words: Shapereader is made up of 210 “tactigrams,” distinct textures that each evoke a different person, action, emotion, or other story element. “Dogsled,” for example, is a series of interlocking diamonds; “to rest” is a pattern that looks a little like wheat; “anxiety” is a zigzag; one character is represented by a patch of horizontal lines. (You can check out more tactigrams on the project’s home page.)

Read more: NY Magazine[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]