What Secrets Does This 1,800-Year-Old Carved Stone Hold?

In 1902, an Indigenous man plowing a field near the Tuxtla Mountains in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, unearthed a green stone the size of a large mango—a piece of jadeite with carvings depicting a stout human figure with a shamanic bird’s bill. Along its sides was a set of hieroglyphs.

Before long, the Tuxtla Statuette (as it became known) made its way to the United States, and in 1903 to the Smithsonian. At first, archaeologists thought the statuette’s markings were Mayan; southern Mexico rests within the heart of the Mayan civilization, where Mayan dialects are still spoken today. But one observer felt unsure. Charles Pickering Bowditch—a Boston businessman, philanthropist and scholar of Mesoamerica who served on the faculty at Harvard’s Peabody Museum—compared the hieroglyphs with a card catalog he had assembled of all the Mayan characters then available. “I cannot find any real likeness between the two kinds of glyphs,” he wrote in 1907. Bowditch argued that the statuette carried an unknown indigenous language—one with no clear relative. In the 1960s, scholars hypothesized that it was “epi-Olmec,” a late language of the Olmec people, the most ancient known Mesoamerican civilization, which predated the height of Mayan civilization by about 1,000 years. This hypothesis is still subject to debate.

In 1993, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman, both linguists, offered a possible solution to the mystery. Aided by the handful of objects with the same script unearthed since Bowditch’s day, they put forward a translation—the first modern reading, they said, of epi-Olmec. Further, Justeson and Kaufman’s translation of the glyphs seemed to reveal the statuette’s age. Chemical dating was not helpful; sampling the object’s substrate would simply give the age of the stone, not of the carvings. The two scholars held that the writing, in its entirety, gives a year in epi-Olmec—specifically A.D. 162, dating it to the middle period of epi-Olmec society.

Read more: Smithsonian

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

What is killing Mexico’s rich indigenous languages?

“I speak the sounds of the people of the rain” – If you ask the Mixteco people about their first language, the reply is just one example of Mexico’s rich linguistic diversity. Yet linguists, artists and human rights defenders are warning that Mexico is becoming increasingly monotone – and that discrimination, as well as repressive assimilation policies by the state, are partly responsible for their death.

Maya, Mazahua, Zapotec: Mexico’s 68 native languages are under attack. Earlier this week, a letter written to incoming President AMLO by linguists that warns that Mexico’s linguistic heritage, “one of the richest and most diverse in the world”, is increasingly being replaced by Spanish.

However, this is not just a case of a new generation switching to a ‘lingua franca’ for practical reasons. Instead, many accuse discrimination of society but also the state as responsible.

“I was still beaten in the hand for speaking my language at school”, claims Mexican linguist Yásnaya Aguilar. As a member of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, she accuses the state of severe cases of systematic discrimination and violence against children speaking an indigenous language.

“In 2006 a girl was reported to have been hung upside down as punishment for speaking Nahuatl in class; in 2005 an Otomi girl could not be registered with her name in her own language because the civil registry did not allow it; and in 2015 high school students were punished with going to wash the bathrooms if they spoke chantino in school”, Yásnaya Aguilar reported at an anti-discrimination workshop held earlier this year.

While these are very drastic cases, there is a general sense of public discrimination against speaking an indigenous language.

Read more: Aztec Reports

The Mexican art of double entendre

As a Brit living in Mexico, I’ve discovered that many people are intrigued by whether or not I eat spicy food. I once had an entire conversation with a waiter in which he asked me where I was from, what language I spoke, where exactly England was, and finally ended with the question he was really trying to ask: do you eat spicy food?

Having experienced so much curiosity around the level of heat that I can handle, I was well prepared when a friend asked me if I like chilli while a group of us were out for drinks in Oaxaca city. I waxed lyrical about my love of chillies, the great variety found in Mexico, the level of spice of each chilli and just how much I could handle. What began as stifled giggles among the group became full-on belly laughs, with some of the group almost crying with laughter.

I giggled along nervously, like a child who doesn’t understand a joke, while I rapidly ran through what I had said, looking for possible mistakes in my Spanish that could have caused such amusement. Suppressing giggles, one of my friends said, “so you really like Mexican chilli, then?” and the whole table fell about laughing again. At that moment, it clicked: ‘chilli’ must have a double meaning, and it didn’t take long to work out what that double meaning was. My cheeks went puce as I ran back over what I had been saying through their filter, my blushing face making everyone laugh even more.

This was my introduction to albur, a Mexican play on words that would have me both intrigued and confused for years to come.

Most albures have to do with sex. “[It’s a] way of talking about sex without talking about it,” said Dr Lucille Herrasti, professor of linguistics at the Autonomous University of Morelos. Like in many societies, many Mexicans view sex as a taboo subject. “Using albur is a way to generate the meaning behind the words without using the actual words,” Herrasti added, noting that albures have to be funny in order to make the ordinarily prohibited subject more approachable. She explained how objects that have phallic characteristics – such as the chilli – are used to craft double entendres. The result is that one can be innocently talking about making salsa from chilli, and someone else will hear something more salacious.

Read more: BBC Travel

The decline of Chinantec whistled speech in Mexico

The small village of San Pedro Sochiapam, deep in the mountainous region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, is home to the Chinantec people. Here steep footpaths end at chicken coops and cornfields grow on mountainsides, while the villagers clear brush with machetes and children enjoy ice-cream cones from a stall near the town hall.

But, in its day to day routines of life, this community is struggling to maintain a unique and important cultural tradition – whistling.

“Chinantec whistled speech is a form of communication where people can really whistle whatever they can say in the spoken language, even though there’s more ambiguity in the whistled channel,” explains Mark Sicoli, a linguistics professor at the University of Virginia, noting that the presence and absence of glottal stops, tones, and stress patterns make it a particularly productive form of communication.

The sounds carry across canyons better than a shout in sharp, birdlike chirps that allow people to make plans, negotiate, and chat without ever saying a word.

The whistled speech, which can convey past and future tense, comprises seven tones and can be understood at distances of up to one kilometre away.

It can also be transmitted even further, with messages said to wind through the Sierra Madre mountain range to reach a recipient.

Fascinating as it may be, however, the Chinantec community is facing an inescapable reality: Whistled communication, practised since pre-Hispanic times, is slowly falling out of use.

Read more: Al Jazeera

Mexican women lead initiatives to rescue native tongues

When Gabriela Badillo traveled to Mérida, Yucatán, more than a decade ago, she encountered children who were timid about speaking the Mayan language. As she later came to understand, fear and discrimination were factors that affected the home teaching and use of the region’s native tongue.

“Children were a bit embarrassed to speak Mayan. … Some mothers opted to not teach them the native tongue to avoid discrimination,” Badillo recalled.

Badillo leads a nonprofit multimedia project to promote Mexico’s 68 native tongues, work she first became interested in as a university student and that has now taken root as a 37-year-old professional graphic designer. “68 Voces” is a series of animated shorts that showcase myths, poems and oral traditions in each indigenous language.

The formal initiative began in 2013, inspired in part by the passing of one of Badillo’s grandfathers, who was of Mayan descent. The event changed her way of thinking, motivating her to “have more consciousness of everything that a person entails, for one part the human being and for the other, all the traditions, culture and words that leave with that person or that are lost when one is gone.”

Under the premise, “No one can love what they don’t know,” the project has received help from several entities, including the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, INALI, to travel to specific indigenous communities and encourage youth to help design the short films.

This new phase, which began almost a year ago, quickly revealed the role women play in preserving indigenous languages. “It was very clear to see who were the ones around the children trying to instill in them the desire to learn about their native tongues,” “68 Voces” producer Brenda Orozco said.

Read more: PRI

UCLA historian brings language of the Aztecs from ancient to contemporary times

The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, is undergoing a renaissance in Los Angeles, thanks in part to the efforts of a genial UCLA historian.

Once the lingua franca of Mexico, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat] was eventually overtaken by Spanish. Today, the indigenous language is spoken only by 1.5 million people in Mexico, many of whom live in the state of Veracruz on the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

But a modern version of Nahuatl resounds in L.A. At UCLA, students can enroll in beginning and intermediate classes of the language, with an advanced class slated to launch next year.

A few miles north of the Westwood campus, historians and art experts at the Getty Center are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in classical Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. Only one copy exists. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico.

Last fall, an entire scene of a popular television show was shot with actors speaking Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had been heard on an American broadcast.

And this September, a charter middle school in Lynwood will begin offering modern Nahuatl classes taught by a UCLA graduate student.

Read more: UCLA Newsroom

One Man’s Mission to Keep Aztecs’ Ancient Language Alive

There’s no dearth of culture and language in Southern California. The Census Bureau rates the 40 most common languages spoken by Americans — and 39 of them are spoken in L.A.

At a church in Santa Ana, you’ll hear sounds that have resonated for thousands of years. Each Saturday morning, people gather to speak and learn the ancient language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl.

Five centuries after the Aztec culture was crushed by Spanish conquistadors, the language survives, still spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly in central Mexico.

Read more: KQED

Indigenous lawmakers fear loss of languages

Mexico’s indigenous languages are at risk of being lost, warn several indigenous members of the Chamber of Deputies, who also see a major threat in persistent racism and discrimination against their culture by the greater Mexican society.

Campeche Deputy Miguel Ángel Sulub is a native Maya speaker who believes that first languages should be taught both at home and school.

If indigenous languages are to survive, he told the newspaper El Universal, discrimination against those who speak them must stop.

“I inherited the Maya language from my parents, who taught me without any method, just by communicating in it. [But] many children in my state don’t want to speak it; they are embarrassed and discriminated against when they do,” he said.

He lamented that when addressing school children in Maya many don’t understand, but if greeted in English everyone replies with a “Good morning.” This, he reckons, indicates a lack of interest by society.

Even bilingual teachers have forgotten their duty to teach in the indigenous languages, brushing aside the goal of preserving them, he added.

A major handicap suffered by native language speakers is the prevalence of a Spanish-only justice system.

Read more: Mexico News Daily

Mexico performs first Mass in indigenous Nahuatl language

MEXICO CITY — The first Mass conducted in Mexico’s most prominent indigenous language has been held in the country’s most important church.

Roman Catholic Bishop Felipe Arizmendi said during his homily Tuesday at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City that rather than accept and respect the culture of the country’s original peoples, they have been scorned.

He pointed out that Nahuatl was the language of Juan Diego, the first indigenous saint, who Catholic tradition says saw the Virgin of Guadalupe nearly 500 years ago. Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in the same basilica in 2002.

Arizmendi spoke in Spanish and his words were translated to Nahuatl.

He told the congregants that God wants to speak to them in their own language.

Read more: Sun Herald