August 19, 2005

Cal State San Marcos Linguist Receives Grant to Help Guatemalan Women Save Language and Stories

“It is a sad truth that the endangerment of a language often implies the endangerment of a population,” states Jule Gomez de Garcia, an assistant professor of cultural linguistics at California State University San Marcos.

The researcher and two colleagues have received a $160,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help a women’s collective in Guatemala to document, translate, and keep alive their endangered Mayan language—Ixil. There are approximately 50 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala.

For many communities in the highlands of northern Guatemala, Ixil is the only language spoken, but literacy rates are low. According the Gomez de Garcia, approximately 50,000 speakers of Ixil remain, many of whom are female survivors of genocidal attacks targeted at indigenous populations during the country’s civil war in the 1980s.

Pictured: Jule Gomez de Garcia (far right) and Ixili women in Nebaj, El Quiche, Guatemala, work together on translation project.

Gomez de Garcia is working with linguist Melissa Axelrod, University of New Mexico, and graduate student Maria Luz Garcia (also Gomez de Garcia’s daughter), University of Texas at Austin, to increase literacy rates and document the language and stories of 30 women in Nebaj, El Quiche, Guatemala. According to Gomez de Garcia, these women share the same tragic past—their sons and husbands were murdered in the war, and they have been left with little property and few rights.

To make money, which is shared equally, the women create and sell traditional weavings—including clothing and wall hangings—locally and abroad. They also raise and sell vegetables in the local market.

With the NSF grant, the researchers will work side-by-side with the women to create a web-based, multimedia database of spontaneously occurring conversations and oral histories. Members of the collective, who have been training in transcription for the last few years, will assist with the program. Before the program began, many of these women had never picked up a pencil, let alone used (or even recognized) a computer.

According to Gomez de Garcia, the information they are compiling will include text versions of the women’s narratives along with voice and video files, “which will provide a rich database of linguistic information for students of Mayan languages and cultures.”

The resulting database will be formatted in different ways, so that it can be used as a resource for other researchers as well as learning and teaching tool for native speakers and learners and teachers of Ixil.

The women of Nebaj, says Gomez de Garcia, are committed to building the database, preserving their language, and above all, sharing their stories.

The Multimedia Database of Ixil Mayan Narratives project is part of a larger program funded by NSF and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Thirteen fellowships and 26 institutional grants were granted as part of the agencies’ joint Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) project—a new, multi-year effort to digitally archive at-risk languages before they become extinct. Experts estimate that almost half of the world’s 6000-7000 existing languages are endangered. The DEL awards, totaling $4.4 million, will support the digital documentation of more than 70 of them.

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