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Maya Ethnolinguistic Identity

By Brigittine M. French

Publication Year: 2010

In this valuable book, ethnographer and anthropologist Brigittine French mobilizes new critical-theoretical perspectives in linguistic anthropology, applying them to the politically charged context of contemporary Guatemala. Beginning with an examination of the “nationalist project” that has been ongoing since the end of the colonial period, French interrogates the “Guatemalan/indigenous binary.” In Guatemala, “Ladino” refers to the Spanish-speaking minority of the population, who are of mixed European, usually Spanish, and indigenous ancestry; “Indian” is understood to mean the majority of Guatemala’s population, who speak one of the twenty-one languages in the Maya linguistic groups of the country, although levels of bilingualism are very high among most Maya communities. As French shows, the Guatemalan state has actively promoted a racialized, essentialized notion of “Indians” as an undifferentiated, inherently inferior group that has stood stubbornly in the way of national progress, unity, and development—which are, implicitly, the goals of “true Guatemalans” (that is, Ladinos).

French shows, with useful examples, how constructions of language and collective identity are in fact strategies undertaken to serve the goals of institutions (including the government, the military, the educational system, and the church) and social actors (including linguists, scholars, and activists). But by incorporating in-depth fieldwork with groups that speak Kaqchikel and K’iche’ along with analyses of Spanish-language discourses, Maya Ethnolinguistic Identity also shows how some individuals in urban, bilingual Indian communities have disrupted the essentializing projects of multiculturalism. And by focusing on ideologies of language, the author is able to explicitly link linguistic forms and functions with larger issues of consciousness, gender politics, social positions, and the forging of hegemonic power relations.

Published by: University of Arizona Press

List of Figures

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xv

As I will examine several strands of scholarly and quotidian ideologies of language in this book, it is important that I make my own ideologies of language visible. After all, this inquiry, like all anthropological projects, is situated in the experiences and preoccupations of its author. I first came to questions about language, politics, and identity through a keen personal ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

Ideas, like the language we use to give them shape, are products of multiple, overlapping, and conflicting discursive exchanges. Throughout the process of researching and writing this book, I have been fortunate to have several remarkable interlocutors. The linguists of Oxlajuuj Keej Maya’ Ajtz’iib’ (OKMA), Lolmay, Nikte’, Ajpub’, Waykan, B’alam, and Aj’bee, ...


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pp. xix

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pp. 1-18

On May 5, 2003, in an historically unprecedented move, the Guatemalan Congress passed the Ley de Idiomas Nacionales, or National Languages Law. The law formally recognized that ‘‘the right of the peoples and indigenous communities to their cultural identity in accordance with their values, their language, and their customs, should be fundamentally ...

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1: The Paradox of Ethnolinguistic Identity: Essentialisms, State-Sponsored Violence, and Cultural Rights

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pp. 19-39

The former is a commonplace conception of ‘‘Indian’’ identity articulated by a fifty-nine-year-old elite Ladina; the latter is a visionary book dedication to future guardians of Maya culture written by two Kaqchikel linguists. Taken together as emblematic, they underscore the importance of Maya culture in Guatemalan national discourse and highlight its ...

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2: Political Linguistics: Expert Linguists and Modernist Epistemologies in the Guatemalan Nation

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pp. 40-62

As I outlined in the last chapter through a discussion of Kaqchikel neologisms, linguistic analysis can be mobilized for political ends. In the twentieth-century Guatemalan context, even phonemes became politically charged representations. Despite these links to the political, a good deal of anthropological and linguistic scholarship commonly defines a ...

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3: Traditional Histories, Local Selves, and Challenges to Linguistic Unification

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pp. 63-76

Max Weinreich’s famous adage that ‘‘a language is a dialect with an army’’ underscores the role of power in defining some linguistic varieties and not others as legitimate and authentic languages.1 He may have put it better were he to have said, ‘‘A language is a dialect with an army of linguists.’’ Indeed, the last day of the linguistics sessions at the Third Congress of ...

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4: Modernity and Local Linguistic Ideologies in Chimaltenango

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pp. 77-109

While Pan-Maya K’iche’ linguists and local communities like the Achis negotiate ‘‘traditional’’ and modernist epistemologies and their relationships to competing versions of collective Maya identity, neighboring Kaqchikel linguists have similar, yet distinct, struggles. Of all Maya ethnolinguistic groups in Guatemala, Kaqchikel linguists have particular ...

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5: Traditional Maya Women and Linguistic Reproduction

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pp. 110-124

Perhaps the most visible negotiation of modernity, language ideology, and collective identity in the bilingual Western highlands of Guatemala is refracted through the lens of gender, in particular, through representations of the ‘‘traditional’’ Maya woman. Representations of the ‘‘traditional’’ Maya woman, monolingual and brightly dressed, are ubiquitous ...

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6: Conclusion: Vernacular Modernities and the Objectification of Tradition

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pp. 125-134

Having traversed some ethnographic and social terrain of language ideologies circulating in the bilingual indigenous highlands of Guatemala, I want to return circuitously to Bauman and Briggs’s theoretical inquiry into modernity and inequality. Bauman and Briggs propose that the ‘‘traditional’’ and the ‘‘modern’’ are relationally constructed and mapped ...

Appendix: Transcription Conventions

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pp. 135-136


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pp. 137-144


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pp. 145-156


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pp. 157-161

E-ISBN-13: 9780816501137
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816527670

Publication Year: 2010