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The Life of Our Language

The Life of Our Language
Kaqchikel Maya Maintenance, Shift, and Revitalization

How a Mayan language changes and is maintained within its culture.

August 1998
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255 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 maps, 1 figure, 18 tables |

The native Maya peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize have been remarkably successful in maintaining their cultural identity during centuries of contact with and domination by outside groups. Yet change is occurring in all Mayan communities as contact with Spanish-speaking Ladino society increases. This book explores change and continuity in one of the most vital areas of Mayan culture—language use.

The authors look specifically at Kaqchikel, one of the most commonly spoken Mayan languages. Following an examination of language contact situations among indigenous groups in the Americas, the authors proceed to a historical overview of the use of Kaqchikel in the Guatemalan Highlands. They then present case studies of three highland communities in which the balance is shifting between Kaqchikel and Spanish. Wuqu' Ajpub', a native Kaqchikel speaker, gives a personal account of growing up negotiating between the two languages and the different world views they encode. The authors conclude with a look at the Mayan language revitalization movement and offer a scenario in which Kaqchikel and other Mayan languages can continue to thrive.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction (Susan Garzon)
  • 2. Indigenous Groups and Their Language Contact Relations (Susan Garzon)
  • 3. A Brief Cultural History of the Guatemalan Highlands (R. McKenna Brown)
  • 4. Case Study One: San Marcos La Laguna (Julia Becker Richards)
  • 5. Case Study Two: San Antonio Aguas Calientes and the Quinizilapa Valley (R. McKenna Brown)
  • 6. Case Study Three: San Juan Comalapa (Susan Garzon)
  • 7. Mayan Language Revitalization in Guatemala (R. McKenna Brown)
  • 8. Language Contact Experiences of a Mayan Speaker (Wuqu' Ajpub' [Arnulfo Simón], Translated by Michael Dordick)
  • 9. Conclusions (Susan Garzon)
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Susan Garzon is Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma State University. R. McKenna Brown is Associate Professor of Foreign Languages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Julia Becker Richards is Education Specialist for the Agency for International Development in Guatemala. Wuqu' Ajpub' (Arnulfo Simón) is Director of Bilingual Curriculum Design for the Guatemalan Ministry of Education.


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This book is about Kaqchikel Maya, a language spoken in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, and about its prospects for survival. More broadly, it is about the speakers of Kaqchikel, their history of contact with other groups, and the paths they have chosen or been forced to take in their struggle for survival as individuals, families, communities, and a people. Three of the authors draw on ethnographic and sociolinguistic research to describe the shifting balance in the use of Kaqchikel and Spanish in three Mayan communities, examining the way individuals adjust their linguistic behavior to current conditions and the expectation of future changes. The fourth author describes the difficulties Mayas face growing up in a community and a nation divided not only by different languages but also by competing value systems. These accounts of language shift and the conflicts accompanying it are balanced by a description of the steps being taken to maintain and revitalize the Kaqchikel language.

The discussion of linguistic behavior in the Kaqchikel area is framed by two different perspectives. The first is universalist, demonstrating commonalities to be found in the way indigenous peoples of the Americas have responded to recurrent kinds of language contact situations. The second is more particularist, presenting the historical events, trends, and policies that have affected the Kaqchikels and resulted in their linguistic behavior. By shifting the focus from universal patterns to historical circumstances and from the regional level to the community to the individual participant, one can view linguistic behavior in the broadest possible perspective.

Like many other indigenous groups around the world, the Mayas face increasing pressures to discard or modify traditional beliefs and practices, even to the extent of losing their cultures and ethnic identities. Languages are particularly susceptible to loss because speakers often feel compelled to shift to languages which are more useful in the larger society. Among the Mayan languages, Chikomuseltek has already been lost, and others are at risk, as their speakers increasingly shift to Spanish. When a language dies, it takes with it the world view encoded in its vocabulary and semantic categories and expressed through the interaction of grammar and spoken discourse. Centuries-old oral literature also dies or is greatly transformed as the formal and poetic forms of the language fall into disuse and older forms of knowledge are denigrated and forgotten. No dictionary or grammar can possibly store the wealth of information possessed by a body of fluent speakers; nor can a group of recordings preserve the aesthetic potentiality of a living language.

In recent years there has been a worldwide movement among indigenous groups to renew and revitalize their cultures, and this movement has found strong support among Mayas. Historically, Mayas have been one of the most successful groups in the Americas at resisting the intrusions of the dominant society, and today many Mayas recognize the importance of their languages as repositories of cultural knowledge and symbols of ethnic identity. Consequently, groups from all over the area are making efforts to reinforce the status of their languages. An examination of language shift in the Mayan area and the efforts undertaken to contain it should be of interest to speakers of endangered languages and to policymakers working in the field of language maintenance as well as to anyone concerned with the maintenance of diversity in the world's cultures.

This study of language use also provides insights into the structure and dynamics of indigenous communities which have withstood nearly five centuries of domination. Community members now find themselves in the process of redefining themselves as Mayas while at the same time becoming progressively more integrated into the dominant society. The contradictions involved in this transformation are reflected in the choices people make about which languages to learn, use, and pass on to their children. Mayas today operate in a complex social environment in which they must reconcile the competing demands of two often opposing cultural systems. For some bilinguals, knowledge of two languages serves as a tool allowing them to adapt to both systems.

The Kaqchikel Language

Kaqchikel is one of thirty Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. It belongs to the K'iche'an branch of the eastern division of the Mayan family, its closest relations being Tz'utujil, spoken in the area of Lake Atitlán, and K'iche', spoken over a large area extending north and west. The Kaqchikel linguistic region comprises numerous municipalities in the mountainous region of central Guatemala, and Kaqchikel speakers number approximately half a million. This places them among the four largest Mayan language groups of Guatemala: K'iche', Main, Kaqchikel, and Q'eqchi', in order of number of speakers.

Ethnic Groups In Guatemala

The majority of the Guatemalan population of roughly ten million can be divided into two groups, Indians and Ladinos, with African Americans making up about 4 percent. Together, the Mayas plus a small group of Xincas account for about 53 percent of the population, making Guatemala one of the few nations in the hemisphere with an Indian majority. Ethnic identity is based on both descent and culture. To be recognized as an Indian one must be a descendant of the indigenous population and claim identity as an Indian. To be recognized as a Ladino, one must have inherited or adopted the language and culture of the European colonizers and their descendants. This means that Indians may choose to become Ladinos by rejecting or ignoring their former identity and taking on the outward signs of Euro-American culture, including exclusive use of the Spanish language. It should be noted that although the term "Ladino" is used widely by social scientists and by the indigenous population, those individuals who would be considered Ladino rarely use it to describe themselves, as members of the majority culture of the United States do not customarily refer to themselves as Anglo or Euro-American.

A Historical Overview

For many hundreds of years, the Maya people have been one of the major population groups in the Mesoamerican culture area. From their original Highland homeland, the Mayas spread out over a large geographical region. They erected major cities in the Lowland areas of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, some of which had been abandoned by the time the Europeans arrived. The remains of public architecture, including massive stone pyramids and ball courts as well as monuments inscribed with glyphs, testify to the advanced state of Mayan civilization. Some groups remained in the Highlands, extending their territories and sometimes competing for power. Over the years, the Mayas exchanged goods and cultural practices with other prominent cultures of Mesoamerica, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, in interactions that were sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent.

The Spanish Conquest of Guatemala had an almost apocalyptic quality, with disease and warfare ravaging the population. However, in contrast to North America, where Europeans pushed Native Americans off their land, often removing their means of subsistence in the process, in Mesoamerica the Spaniards found ways to exploit the Indians, often making use of their skill as farmers. This meant that there was some continuity in daily life and in the traditional social structures and cultural practices underlying it, although in many areas, such as the religious sphere, activities were greatly modified. During the Colonial Period the Kaqchikels, like other Highland groups, endured resettlement and Spanish demands for goods and labor. The national period brought new abuses as Mayan communities lost much of their land base, forcing individuals and sometimes whole families to migrate to coastal plantations to perform seasonal labor.

As in most places in the Americas, the Europeans who invaded and colonized Guatemala maintained a position of dominance. Sure of their own superiority on moral and political grounds, they isolated themselves socially from the people they had conquered. The Mayas, impoverished and cut off from any avenues to power, were subjected to personal and institutionalized discrimination by the Europeans and their descendants. Those individuals who wished to gain access to the rewards of Guatemalan society had to discard their Mayan identity and adopt a Ladino lifestyle.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Mayan population began to take its first steps toward enfranchisement and full participation in Guatemalan society. However, all public life was severely curtailed in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a period of violence erupted, with the military government and its affiliated death squads pitted against rebel groups and their presumed sympathizers. Although all sectors of the population were affected, Mayas bore the brunt of the government's anti-insurgency programs, as community leaders and ordinary civilians were killed or forced to flee. By the mid-1980s the violence had largely subsided in the Kaqchikel area, although fighting continued in other areas and the possibility of further violence loomed over villages and towns. In spite of the obvious dangers of participation in public life, new Maya leaders have emerged, and organizations aimed at promoting Mayan language and culture flourish under a more benign national government. Attitudes prejudicial to Indians have slowly begun to change; but after centuries of oppression Mayas still face obstacles to full participation in Guatemalan society.

Traditional Kaqchikel Culture and Environment

The Kaqchikel area is lovely to behold, with gently curving mountainsides beneath clear blue Highland skies. Gracefully contoured volcanic cones add to the beauty, particularly at Lake Atitlán, where they ring the smooth, crystalline waters. However, they are also reminders of the geological volatility of the area. There have been recurrent earthquakes in the region throughout the historical period; the latest occurred in 1976, when most towns in the Kaqchikel area were damaged and a few were leveled, including San Juan Comalapa, one of the communities discussed in this volume.

Corn has been the principal grain underlying Mesoamerican culture since the advent of large-scale agriculture, and it is a central symbol of Mayan religion as well as the basis of the Mayan diet, along with beans and squash. Traditional Mayas continue to cultivate corn in winding rows that cross the mountainsides and stretch across the valleys below. Men and women share the workload; the men are responsible for cultivating crops, while the women process them. This division of labor results in an interdependence between husband and wife which fosters marital stability.

Women often spend part of their day weaving on backstrap looms. The intricately brocaded blouses they design and weave are mainly worn by women of the household, although they may be sold. Each town is known for the unique colors and designs of the women's clothing, though in recent years women have begun to borrow styles from other communities to supplement their own. Children learn to work alongside their parents from an early age: girls make their first crude attempts at tortillas and small weavings and boys accompany their fathers to the fields.

Increasing Integration with the National Society

In recent times economic pressures caused in part by a growing population have forced Mayas to search for new ways to enter the cash economy. In some cases, Mayas have sought new markets for traditional products, such as textiles. In other cases, they have gained supplementary skills or migrated to larger urban areas to find work. Guatemala City, with a population of about one million, is a common destination, since it is only a few hours by bus from some Kaqchikel communities. Educational opportunities have expanded in Indian communities, particularly the larger ones, allowing students to acquire primary and sometimes secondary schooling without leaving their hometowns. Major towns also have bus service connecting them to the capital and other cities. The language and culture of the dominant society have entered homes through radios, which offer programming exclusively in Spanish. More affluent families also have television, which broadcasts Latin American shows and North American shows dubbed in Spanish.

Under these changing conditions, individuals must balance their need and desire to participate in Ladino society with their wish to maintain traditional Mayan culture. One of the areas of contention is language use. Parents must decide whether they will continue to speak Kaqchikel among themselves and pass it on to their children. Their children, growing up in an increasingly Spanish-speaking environment, must decide whether they will try to achieve and maintain full mastery of Kaqchikel or drop the language in favor of Spanish.

Overview of the Chapters

Chapter 2 begins by surveying the types of language contact relations that have prevailed in the Americas. I examine the conditions fostering different levels of multilingualism with varying degrees of stability. Although most data come from the Western Hemisphere, occasional examples are included from outside the region. This discussion provides a framework for understanding the different types of contact relations that have evolved in the Kaqchikel area during its history. The section dealing with language shift looks at both causal factors and characteristics of the process.

In Chapter 3 Brown presents a history of the Kaqchikel Maya area, examining the influence of historical trends and events on language use. In his discussion of pre-Conquest Guatemala, Brown focuses on contacts between the Kaqchikels and other groups, looking at the probable extent of outside influence on language use among both commoners and the elite in Kaqchikel society. For the post-Conquest period, he discusses the often contradictory language policies in effect during the Colonial Period and places language policy within the context of the ruling power's efforts to control Mayan land and labor.

Case studies are presented in Chapters 4 through 6. The first is a study of a small town at the stage of incipient bilingualism: San Marcos La Laguna, situated on the banks of Lake Atitlán. Richards describes the chronic difficulties and periodic disasters Marqueños have faced over the last four hundred years and recounts their successive attempts to create a viable space for themselves in an often inhospitable environment. As townspeople begin to add Spanish to their speech repertoire, this change can be seen as one in a long series of adjustments aimed at achieving economic stability for individuals and the community at large. Richards's discussion of language use includes an analysis of the way Marqueños perceive language variation in the region and a look at traditional Kaqchikel ways of speaking. She also examines the increasing use of Spanish within the community and the role of schooling in language spread.

The following two case studies deal with communities at intermediate to late stages of shift. Brown's study of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, presented in Chapter 5, actually deals with four communities in the Quinizilapa Valley: San Antonio, two villages, and an adjacent town, which are experiencing different levels and rates of language shift. San Antonio has been closely associated with Spanish society since colonial times, and Brown examines the strategies employed by Mayas to survive in the shadow of Ladino society. In his analysis of language shift, Brown utilizes survey data to identify correlations between language use and factors such as educational level and economic activity. He focuses on the crucial role of adults in the "shift generation"—Kaqchikel-speaking parents who switched to the use of Spanish with their children.

Chapter 6 is a case study of San Juan Comalapa, a large Mayan community. Many young adults in the town are children of the shift generation, and I report on a small but increasing group of these young adults—individuals with a secondary education. I analyze their employment and residence histories to determine the likelihood of their maintaining strong ties with their community and continuing to use Kaqchikel. I also focus on the language histories of young women in the group, assessing the extent of language shift in the community by examining the ability of those who were raised in Spanish to acquire Kaqchikel later.

In Chapter 7 Brown describes the development of the language revitalization movement in Guatemala, focusing on four areas important to revitalization: the use of Mayan languages within homes, literacy programs in these languages, the role of bilingual education, and the resurgence of Mayan religion. In his discussion of literacy, Brown reports on an informal literacy program in Comalapa and the unique ways it has benefited those involved. He also highlights the special contributions of Kaqchikel speakers to the revitalization movement. Finally, Brown discusses the role played by Maya scholars in framing provisions of the Guatemalan Peace Accords dealing with the status of the Maya people.

Wuqu' Ajpub' (Arnulfo Simón) provides a Mayan perspective on language change in Chapter 8, describing the varying language contact situations he has experienced as a Maya growing up in Comalapa and advancing through the Guatemalan educational system. He depicts in concrete terms the conflict and pain experienced by an individual coming to maturity in a society that systematically denigrates his language and culture. As a Maya educator, he challenges policymakers to create the necessary conditions for developing a truly multicultural nation.

In the concluding chapter I suggest that modern language relations between Kaqchikel communities and outside groups differ qualitatively from earlier types of language relations, in which an accommodation was made to other languages without placing Kaqchikel at serious risk. I discuss the course of shift from Kaqchikel to Spanish in San Marcos, San Antonio, and Comalapa, focusing on the replacement of Kaqchikel by Spanish in Mayan homes and public contexts and looking at the role this shift has played in an ongoing transformation of attitudes and values within the community, especially among young people. The chapter concludes by presenting a possible scenario in which Kaqchikels and other Mayas take active steps to maintain their languages for themselves and their descendants.


“This is a very readable book, which, without sacrificing accuracy, will be understandable, useful, and interesting to the general reader; and it will be vital reading for students of Maya studies, both with linguistic and social interests.”
Brian Stross, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin


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