Un equipa de linguistas de Harvard sta a documentar le linguas maya.

(Languages of this post: Interlingua, Spanish, English)

Parlante anglese fluentemente ma con un accento legier, Pedro Mateo, qui travalia in le facultate del linguistica del Universitate Harvard e cuje lingua native es le q’anjob’al, un lingua maya que sta a devenir extincte, diceva que quando ille esseva un puero, il habeva insignias ubique sur le muros de su schola dicente “Non parla linguas native”.

Quando ille esseva un puero (e, tristemente, mesmo nunc!) iste linguas esseva symbolos del povressa e de culturas primitive. Le professores de su schola voleva que lor studentes usava solmente le espaniol proque on lo considerava le lingua del progresso e del prosperitate.

“Le major parte de nos voleva evitar le discrimination”, diceva Mateo, addente que mesmo pro parlatores native del linguas maya, lor uso mesmo nunc pote portar un “connotation negative”.

Nunc, con le professor de linguistica Maria Polinsky e plure collegas sue in su laboratorio, Mateo sta a adjuvar a preservar, promover, e comprender melio le linguas del familia maya.

In maio e un altere vice in junio, Mateo e altere membros del laboratorio linguistic visitara Mexico e Guatemala pro colliger datos sur le grammatica e le architectura del linguas ch’ol, chuj, e q’anjob’al.

Linguistas experte como Polinsky e su equipa explora le designo e le structura de linguas in un effortio pro comprender como e pro que certe linguas es simultaneemente multo differente e multo simile. Le studios de linguas como iste dialectos maya adjuva a explicar como functiona le cerebro human mesme.

In le America Central, iste equipa de Harvard travaliara con communitates local pro observar e registrar le linguage de infantes e le manieras que lor patres parla con illes. Adultos sovente parla de manieras assatis differente con infantes que con altere adultos in omne le culturas del mundo, e le linguistas de iste equipa vole cognoscer como iste linguage special adjuva un infante a apprender su lingua materne.

“Sovente on crede que parve infantes parla de un maniera simple e incorrecte”, diceva Jessica Coon, un membro del equipa de Polinsky. “Ma le errores que illes face es consistente e pote inseniar nos multo sur le structura del linguas que illes apprende a parlar–e anque sur le structura general del linguage human.”

Un secunde componente de lor travalio involve le “ergativitate”, un characteristica universal in le linguas maya que es multo differente de lo que on trova in le linguas europee.

“Le ergativitate es un maniera de codificar lo que es subjectos e objectos accusative in le linguas europee”, diceva Polinsky. Illa offereva un exemplo de un traduction de duo asseverationes maya: “Me iva. Io comprava café.”

“Illes ha duo manieras de dicer ‘io’ que se associa directemente con verbos como ‘vader’ e ‘comprar’”, diceva illa.

In ultra, in le major parte del linguas maya le prime parola de un asseveration es un verbo, un characteristica in circa 10% de nostre linguas.

Pro studiar le ergativitate mayan, Polinsky e su equipa disveloppa un serie de picturas create con le adjuta de un artista maya que monstra plure scenas.

In un designo, un serpente morde un pullo. Al latere de illo, un pullo morde un serpente. Le linguistas monstra iste picturas a un varietate de personas e tunc face sonar un asseveration in maya ambigue. Illes tunc nota le preferentia de lor subjectos e le quantitate de tempore que illes necessitava pro seliger un pictura in vice del pictura alternative.

“Nos sta a essayar a determinar lor preferentias inter iste serie de picturas”, dice Polinsky. Lor preferentias nos insenia multo sur le structura de lor lingua.”

Le equipa ha un certe sentimento de urgentia in su travalio. Il ha nunc 30 linguas maya que se parla, ma le numero de iste linguas se reduce rapidemente. In 1976 il habeva circa 50.000 parlatores de Chuj, pro exemplo. Il nunc ha solmente circa 40.000.

Ultra acquirer nove cognoscimentos sur le linguas maya e le linguistica in general, le membros de iste equipa anque spera inspirar le communitates de mayas in le quales illes travalia. Per inseniar a lor informantes a colliger e traducer le datos linguistic que illes collige, iste linguistas spera inspirar in illes un sentito de feritate, demonstrante a illes que lor linguas es vehiculos importantissime de communication.

Polinsky diceva que illa e su equipa spera que lor exemplo de studiar seriemente le linguas de iste gente les inspirara a recognoscer le valor de illos e a preserver los.

A team of Harvard linguists is documenting the Mayan languages.

Speaking English fluently but with a slight accent, Pedro Mateo, who works at the department of linguistics at Harvard University and whose native language is Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language that is becoming extinct, said that when he was a boy, there were signs everwhere on the walls of his school saying “Don’t speak native languages.”

When he was a boy (and, sadly, even now) these languages were symbols of poverty and and of primitive cultures. The teachers at his school wanted their students to use only Spanish because it was considered the language of progress and prosperity.

“Most of us wanted to avoid discrimination,” Mateo said, adding that even for native speakers of the Mayan languages, their use even now can carry a “negative connotation.”

Now, with the linguistics professor Maria Polinsky and several of her colleagues in her laboratory, Mateo is helping to preserve, promote, and better understand the languages of the Mayan family.

In May and once again in June, Mateo and other members of the linguistics laboratory will visit Mexico and Guatemala to collect data on the grammar and the architecture of the Ch’ol, Chuj, and Q’anjob’al languages.

Expert linguistis such as Polinsky and her team explore the design and the structure of languages in an effort to understand how and why certain languages are simultaneously very different and very similar. The studies of languages like these Mayan dialects help explain the workings of the human brain itself.

In Central America, this Harvard team will work with local communities to observe and record the language of children and the ways their parents speak with them. Adults often speak in rather different ways with children than with other adults in all the cultures of the world, and the linguists on this team want to find out how this special language helps a child learn his mother tongue.

“It is often believed that little children speak in a simple and incorrect way,” said Jessica Coon, a member of Polinsky’s team. “But the errors that they make are consistent and can teach us a lot about the structure of the languages that they are learning how to speak–and also about the structure of human language in general.”

A second component of their work involves “ergativity” a universal characteristic in the Mayan languages that is quite different from what is found in European languages.

“Ergativity is a way of codifying subjects and accusative objects in European languages,” said Polinsky. She offered an example of a translation of two Mayan sentences: “Me went. I bought coffee.”

“They have two ways of saying ‘I’ that are associated directly with the verbs ‘to go’ and ‘to buy’,” she said.

Also, in most of the Mayan languages the first word of a sentence is a verb, a characteristic of about 10% of our languages.

To study Mayan ergativity, Polinsky and her team are developing a series of pictures created with the help of a Mayan artist that show several scenes.

In one drawing, a snake bites a chicken. At its side a chicken bites a snake. The linguists show these pictures to a variety of people and then play an ambiguous Mayan sentence. They then note the preference of their subjects and the amount of time that they need to select one picture over the other one.

“We are trying to determine their preferences between this series of pictures,” Says Polinsky. “Their preferences teach us a lot about the structure of their language.”

The team has a certain sense of urgency about its work. There are now thirty Mayan languages that are spoken, but the number of these languages is rapidly going down. In 1976 there were about 50,000 speakers of Chuj, for example. There now are only about 40,000.

Beyond getting new knowledge about the Mayan languages and linguistics in general, the members of this team also hope to inspire the Mayan communities in which they are working. By teaching their informants to collect and translate the linguistic data that they are collecting, these linguists hope to inspire in them a sense of pride, showing them that their languages are important vehicles of communication.

Polinsky said that she and her team hope that their example of studying seriously the languages of these people will inspire them to recognize their value and to preserve them.

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