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In the World: Murmurs of Mayan

MIT undergraduate travels to Mexico in hopes of documenting and preserving ancient linguistic phenomena — and the culture behind them.
Murmurs of Mayan: MIT undergraduate travels to Mexico to study underdescribed language.
Murmurs of Mayan: MIT undergraduate travels to Mexico to study underdescribed language.

Along with its stunningly accurate calendar and majestic pyramidal architecture, the Mayan civilization deserves recognition for another unique feature: its language.

Mayan languages are a rich source of data for linguists aiming to develop a universal theory of language, but like many of the world’s tongues, their speakers are steadily dwindling in number. MIT undergraduate John Berman spent the past summer in a remote village in Mexico studying Chol — a Mayan language spoken in the southern state of Chiapas — in the hopes of capturing some important features of its grammar and vocabulary. Working first with a team of researchers led by Jessica Coon PhD ’10, and later for several weeks on his own, Berman immersed himself in a Chol-speaking community to document and understand some of the language’s unique attributes.

“With Native American languages, they’re dying fairly quickly — whole families of languages, even,” Berman says. “It’s important to do this research now before it’s too late.”

Berman, a junior majoring in linguistics and math, says his interest in “underspoken languages” was kindled by studying Latin before coming to MIT, and reinforced in linguistics classes here at the Institute. He worked extensively with Coon, now an assistant professor at McGill University in Canada, who wrote her dissertation on Chol: The various syntactic phenomena she’d characterized piqued Berman’s interest in learning and extending her analysis. This summer, he got a chance to formulate his own research questions and collect data by working directly with native Chol speakers; he’ll present his findings at the University of Texas at Austin’s Conference on Indigenous Languages of Latin America early this month.

Lost in translation

Chol has several elements that differentiate it from English and other well-documented languages, including its manner of expressing possession and the structure of its nouns and verbs.

One particularly interesting feature of Chol is that it distinguishes between what’s called “alienable” and “inalienable” possession. Inalienable possession is for things that can’t be dissociated from their owners; it’s usually reserved for things such as body parts — “Tom’s nose” — while alienable possession describes things that can be separated from their owners, such as “Maria’s backpack.”

Confused as to why a language might want to make this distinction? Consider the phrase “the butcher’s liver”: In English, such a phrase is ambiguous as to whether “liver” refers to the butcher’s own internal organ, or a piece of meat he’s trying to sell. But Chol has a special way of marking the former case by adding a suffix, “-el,” which denotes inalienability, making it clear that the liver in question is firmly inside the butcher’s own body.

Berman was interested in “-el” not just as a syntactic phenomenon — where it fits into the structure of phrases, what kinds of words it can attach itself to, and so on — but as a window into psychology.

“As an English speaker, it’s sort of interesting to ask, ‘Why are these two things different?’” he says. The question, he adds, gets at a more fundamental concept of language as a lens through which to see the world, enriching our knowledge of “what other cultures care about.”

Striking a balance

One of the challenges Berman faced in collecting data was the extent to which his speakers’ vocabulary was mixed with Spanish. Even though it was a Chol community, he says, there was an obvious generational continuum in the “purity” of people’s speech.

“With the kids, if I asked how to say something, they would give me the Spanish word. If I asked the adults, they’d sort of think for a minute and then be able to come up with the Chol word. It was really only the oldest people who used Chol exclusively,” he says.

And yet compared to other Mayan variants, as well as endangered languages around the world, Chol is actually faring pretty well — it still has about 100,000 speakers, and the community Berman was in boasted several native-language resources, including a radio station. Berman says all the support just serves to underscore the difficulty of keeping an indigenous language alive in the face of social, political and educational pressures from a more mainstream one.

Ultimately, though, Berman believes that preserving languages can’t be done in a vacuum; any linguistic considerations must be taken together with native people’s rights and desire to be included in modern society.

“There’s this dilemma for governments where, on the one hand, they can try to modernize these people, put them in national schools and teach them English or Spanish and help them get along in the world,” Berman says. “Or they can avoid doing that — meaning those communities won’t have as much access to things like infrastructure and education — and then maybe they’d retain their language and way of life. People have disagreements on where to strike the balance.”

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