In times where Maya predictions on the end of the calendar cycle are being pointed up, where pre-Hispanic Maya gems are being admired in the largest international museums, it might be worth noting that the Maya are still very much alive, and live in an area reaching from their native lands to the North of the American continent.
A resilient people
The resilient and dynamic Maya people, in spite of five centuries of brutal colonization and oppression, in spite of the power and attractiveness of heedless modernity, have managed to recreate ever-new aspects of their own identity. Crisis that have run along centuries of Maya civilization are the witnesses of a deep form of resilience.
Very ancient and diverse languages
The Mayan languages, which are dated back to some 4,500 years, have diverged and evolved each in their own way along the centuries. There is no mutual understanding between most of them, although they do bear common lexical roots and phonological and grammatical features. Such linguistic diversity, adding to a large variety of dialects, is rarely observed on such a relatively limited area, concentrated over 340,000m2 of high and lowlands in the northern part of Central America.
The locations of Mayan groups in this area, however, have never been stable. The Maya have gone through significant migration movements, often due to dramatic events. The most recent followed the mass slaughters of Indian populations in Guatemala during the 1980s, the crushing repression of the Zapatista movement in 1994 in Mexico, the depletion of the lands and soils, and the violence of drug cartels.
Hundreds of thousands of Maya people bearing different origins (Mam, K’anjobal, Q’iche’, Tojolabal, Q’eqchi’, Popti, Kaqchikel…) have fled from Guatemala to Mexico; from Chiapas (Tseltal, Tzotzil, Chol…) to the Yucatan peninsula; from rural areas to the greater urban and tourist centers; from Cancún to the USA. Hence there are about 250,000 speakers of Mayan languages in USA at this point. And cities and villages where over half a dozen of these languages actually coexist.
Out of the thirty or so Mayan languages we know about at the time of the conquest, 29 are still spoken by a near total of 6 million speakers. But their vitalities seriously differ: Itza’ and Tz‘utujil are dying out with a handful of elderly speakers, while around 800,000 people speak Yucatec and over 400,000 Q’eqchior Mam – although these high figures may in fact be shadowing a clear decline.
Indeed, even languages showing an increasing number of speakers – due to demography – end up weakening. Actually, the proportion of Mayan language speakers, and more broadly indigenous language speakers, happens to be shrinking: their languages are ever less taught as mother tongues, and ever less spoken to the children.
Besides, the environments where these languages are the most vigorous are often torn between poor and isolated populations on one side, and the Maya intellectual elite on the other. The former experience Mayan monolingualism as a problem, a source of racial misconceptions, and a social anvil; the latter are growing, although having trouble offsetting the decline of their native languages despite the efforts, a decline growing sharper everyday as the young generations wanting out of poverty get snatched by the sparks of modernity.
Promising yet troubled progress in Guatemala
Preserving and reinvigorate linguistic wealth implies actual recognition in the official, educational, cultural, political, and legal areas.
In Guatemala, where over half of the population bears Mayan origins, the creation of the Academia de Lenguas Mayas in the 1990s helped the Maya handle the languages themselves, and contributed to train linguists and cultural players known for the quality of their academic research and their involvement in programs of linguistic and cultural revaluation. Their endurance, however, is threatened by the profound unrest the country is currently going through.
An ambivalent situation in Mexico
A bill was approved in 2003 in Mexico implying the recognition and protection of the individual and collective linguistic rights of indigenous populations, as well as the promotion of these languages’ use and development. This framework led to different types of progress: the creation of a specific official Institute, language inventories and descriptions (led by Maya scholar F. BriceñoChel), the production of multimedia equipment for teaching and diffusion, pilot projects in training teachers and translators, etc.
The aim here is to respond to both huge and very practical needs both on the education and legal level: helping a Maya person avoid having their knowledge mistreated by formal education, gain literacy in their mother tongue, understand and be understood in justice so as to be able to guarantee their own defense.
Still, the road is long and official support much to fragmentary and ambivalent. In spite of the law, most administrations scorn and refuse to listen to whoever comes in speaking Tseltal, Tojolobal, or Chol; literally misunderstood Maya people suffer an unbalanced form of justice, and certain supposedly bilingual schools still have a sign at the entrance forbidding use of the mother tongue.
So enough with keeping the Maya locked in their pyramids. Let’s learn how to hear their voices in their own languages – living languages which, in their daily or ritual usage,convey and recreate timeless cultural traditions, sophisticated languages in which a poignant form of verbal and literary art is always renewing itself, rich and complex languages which, thanks to the involvement of their speakers, have contributed to the analysis of crucial phenomena in the understanding of linguistic processes and diversity.
See our videos in Kaqchikel and in Tektiteko
To learn Mayan languages:
INALCO (France) – Mayan languages and cultures degree
INALI: InstitutoNacional de LenguasIndígenas (Mexico)
Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala