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  • Mopan in Context:Mayan Identity, Belizean Citizenship, and the Future of a Language
  • Jennifer Carolina Gómez Menjívar (bio) and William Salmon (bio)

mayan communities in belize have been largely excluded from the linguistic inquiry into Mayan languages that began in the late nineteenth century, as well as from the grassroots movements that have promoted the revitalization of Mayan languages in Guatemala more recently.1 In the absence of academic interest, limited attention to grassroots activism, and a lack of publishing opportunities for authors, the issues affecting Mayan languages in Belize have been relegated to the periphery of larger discussions about Mayan languages in Mesoamerica.2 Even as attention turns to speakers of Mayan languages living in the United States, Mayan migrants from Belize continue to be absent from research on the Mayan diaspora.3 As such, the study reported on in this article is the first to look in depth at the ecology in which the Mopan language resides.4 Significantly, it is also the first study to consider the implications of a young generation of ethnic Mayans growing up as native speakers of Kriol. Our findings in this article suggest that a language shift from Mopan to Kriol is underway among the younger generations of Mopan speakers and that if its use among this demographic is not revitalized, it could lead to Mopan's endangerment in the near future. The larger discussion focuses on geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that influence language attitudes toward Spanish, English, and Kriol in Belize, contributing to an ongoing body of work on Belizean languages in general.5

The Mopan Language Family and History

Mopan belongs to the Yucatecan branch of the Mayan language family, which also includes Yucatec, Itza', and Lacandón. Yucatec and Lacandón are primarily spoken in Mexico, with the former having an estimated eight hundred thousand speakers and the latter seriously endangered, with approximately one thousand speakers. Itza' is spoken in the Petén region of northern Guatemala and is also severely endangered. Mopan is one of two Yucatecan languages spoken in Belize, and it is believed to have approximately ten thousand speakers.6 There are an additional five thousand speakers of Mopan in [End Page 70] Guatemala; they are concentrated in in San Luis and in the Lake Petén Itzá road area (an enclave between Dolores and Poptun) within the department of Petén.7 Both of the Mayan languages spoken in this area of Guatemala, Mopan and Itzá, have been identified by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG) as endangered languages and have been targeted for revitalization efforts.8

Over the last few centuries, speakers of Mayan languages in Guatemala, including Mopan, have been subjected to a process of castellanización, or Hispanicization, that parallels the experiences of speakers of indigenous languages in other former Spanish colonies.9 Unlike Guatemala and the rest of Central America, however, the official language of colonial British Honduras (now Belize) was standard British English. Speakers of Mayan languages were subjected to a process of Anglicization. This process has continued since Belize gained its independence in 1981 and become increasingly complex: the American English standard variety has overtaken British English in terms of overt prestige, and Kriol now holds both covert and overt prestige as a lingua franca qua national language.10

Political Setting

While most former English colonies obtained their independence from the British Empire in the 1960s, Belize had to assess three interrelated factors before claiming its independence. It had to consider first the threat of a Guatemalan invasion of Belize during the former's civil war (1960–96); second, the brutal genocide against Mayan populations across the border in the Petén region; third, the ongoing territorial dispute between the countries over the existence and precise location of the Belizean-Guatemalan border.11 The factors remain salient, as their potential threat has not attenuated in the years since the end of the Guatemalan civil war. The territorial dispute is still very much alive, with the territory involved including the southern section of Belize District, most of Cayo District, and the entirety of Stann Creek and Toledo Districts, which are home to the Kekchi and Mopan...


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