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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

How Language Documentation is Changing Mayan History



Danny Law


This paper will explore the relationship between documentary work on endangered languages and historical linguistic research from two perspectives:

  1. how new data produced through language documentation can revolutionize our understanding of linguistic history, and
  2. how the history we infer through the comparative method and historical linguistics can impact the endangered language communities with which we work.

It is no great surprise that new data often force analysts to revisit earlier assumptions. Mayan languages have, in the last three decades, been ably described and documented, many for the first time, and in several cases by linguists who are themselves native speakers of these languages. This wave of new data on Mayan languages has led to many major and minor revisions to our understanding of Mayan language history. In this paper, I focus on the history of grammatical aspect in Mayan languages and trace how new insights from improved descriptive data for contemporary Mayan languages have led to changes in our reconstruction of the development of aspect in Mayan. Newly available data for two extinct Mayan language, Ch’olti’ and the hieroglyphic language known as Classic Mayan, have also contributed significantly to our understanding of aspect in Mayan.

Finally, drawing from ongoing language documentation efforts for Ixil Mayan, this paper will discuss how historical linguistic research produces historical insights that can be made meaningful to speakers of endangered languages. The same marginalizing processes that lead to language endangerment also frequently work to erase the histories of communities of speakers of endangered languages. Because of this, even the fairly coarse-grained historical view that insights about language relationships and historical patterns of linguistic contact bring, can fill a gap in the history of indigenous peoples that may not be taught or valued in the dominant society in which they live. I will discuss how scholarly work on the history of aspect, and related historical linguistic details, has been communicated to, and interpreted by community members. While communicating historical linguistic findings to community members requires sometime substantial effort to make that work generally accessible, such community engagement puts historical linguists in a position to change history, not only in terms of linguistic reconstruction, but also in terms of how marginalized communities understand and connect to their own past.

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