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Missing Tongues

Posted On August 30, 2018 | 09:05 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Mary Kate Kelly examines language variation among the ancient lowland Maya

Mary Kate Kelly, a PhD candidate in linguistic anthropology at Tulane University, is a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her recent research report, “Speech Carved in Stone: Language Variation among the Ancient Lowland Maya,” looked at the geographic distribution of lowland Maya languages and the political and institutional ramifications of regional variation in stone inscriptions.

Q&A with Mary Kate Kelly

What are some of the limiting factors of your study?

Preservation is a big issue. As in any archaeological situation that deals with excavated material remains, only a small percentage of the total number of documents have been preserved. The texts we’re looking at aren’t the entire corpus—monuments have been broken, looted, or eroded, and presumably a large number of bark paper books existed that have been entirely lost to the wet jungle environment. And that corpus, as it existed, was only written with the elites in mind. We’re really only seeing the upper echelons of society; it’s not going to give us a view down through the different social classes.

Additionally, as this is an elite, prestige language, scribes were generally limited in their linguistic choices in the texts. A good parallel would be to Latin in Europe, which was used as a prestige written form that in Roman time was already different from the Vulgar Latin people were actually speaking. However, from time to time there are instances where the vernacular language influences scribal decisions—be they phonetic, morphological, or lexical choices—that signal a dialect or variation that would have been the native language of the scribe.

There are four Ch’olan languages we know of today. Eastern Ch’olan is divided into Ch’olti’, which is now extinct but was recorded colonially, and Ch’orti’, while Western Ch’olan has Chontal and Ch’ol. But there were likely many more varieties of Ch’olan languages spoken during the classic period. I’m hoping that studying writing might give us some clues as to exactly what spread of diversity we could anticipate.


Talk about the relationship between Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras.

That relationship stands out as a unique example, because what we would anticipate socio-linguistically from two towns, cities, or sites relatively close to each other is that their linguistic preferences and traditions would be relatively close. The people inhabiting these cities, the commoners, were probably speaking very similar linguistic varieties, but for whatever reason the elites at these sites chose to do very different things in their writing. What’s interesting is that we know, based on the historical information in the inscriptions, which subsidiary regional centers were affiliated with Piedras Negras and which with Yaxchilan, and whether they changed affiliation over the course of time. What’s really interesting is if you follow these smaller sites, the divergent linguistic features pattern along the same lines as their affiliation. One contrastive example, Laxtunich, seems to have switched affiliations. While its texts, likely all produced by one scribe, proclaim political affiliation with Yaxchilan, its style and linguistic preferences tie it more closely to Piedras Negras, suggesting that the site changed alliances within the life of the scribe responsible for the texts. So using the proxy of linguistic features helps us to understand a little bit better what’s going on politically in this region.


Talk about a specific example of a history embedded in the linguistic record. Maybe the blood scrolls on cartouches?

The day sign cartouche is basically a circle that goes around a day sign—a round-cornered cartouche either has blood scrolls below it, or it doesn’t have them. It really depends on the scribal tradition; some allow the scribes to drop those little blood scrolls on the bottom of the cartouche, and some don’t. Yaxchilan doesn’t allow the dropping of the blood scroll, and Piedras Negras does, so about half of the time at Piedras Negras those blood scrolls aren’t written, but they’re consistently written at Yaxchilan. It’s an orthographic design feature, and would be comparable to writing in cursive versus writing in print; it doesn’t actually signal a change in how they’re pronouncing the words. This feature shows up dozens of times at each site because they’re used in dates, which occur frequently in these texts. Blood scroll dropping is a feature that does seem to have regional distribution that could tell us a bit more about the scribal tradition. It won’t necessarily tell us about the linguistic tradition of those peoples, or what linguistic features from the common spoken languages of that region are affecting the text, but it can tell us a bit about what political or social institutions might exist that allow for this variation to show up.