One of the best books I have read in recent years is William Hanks’s Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. If you happen to be in Aarhus, Denmark, on June 7 at 1 P.M. you will be able to hear him give a lecture based on the research that created this outstanding work. Here is the abstract:
The formation and spread of colonial Yucatec Maya
This paper examines the historical formation of a new variety of the Maya language of Yucatan, Mexico, during the first centuries of Spanish colonial rule, between the 1540’s to the early 1800’s. I call the new variety Maya reducido because its roots lay in the colonial project of reducción, which entailed military pacification, forced relocation and ongoing missionization led by Franciscan friars. Maya language played a pivotal role in the colonial project and in the society that it produced. It was the language of missionization, town level government and the medium of everyday interaction among Maya people. There were simply too many Maya people and too few Europeans to do otherwise. Maya was a vital instrument of practice in nearly every sphere of life, and the consequences of colonization are nowhere more telling than in the way the language changed to fit the new realities of life under Spanish rule. At the same time, Maya was an object of analysis, described in grammars and dictionaries and illustrated in a large corpus of example sentences. This objectification was a necessary tool in the labor of translation, for it would be impossible to move meaning into or out of Maya without understanding the grammar. Without translation, in turn, it would have been impossible to produce catechisms, sermons or other religious tracts in the native language, to make known changes in the law, to take testimony in Maya that could be glossed in Spanish, or to produce the binding notarial documents maintained in town archives. The practices of translation were pivotal because they joined together the two dimensions of objectification and consequential expression.
The work of fashioning a new language for the colonial world was more subtle than the construction program it accompanied, but it was no less dramatic or consequential. As the missionaries set about to remake social, political and built space, they were also hard at work reducing Maya language to a practical orthography and to a working model of its grammar, creating a vast lexicon of neologisms, and canonizing the new language in catechisms taught to Maya children. Just as they built colonial buildings out of the stones of smashed pyramids, so too they built cathedrals of meaning out of the fragments of sundered Maya. The resulting discourse was in turn engaged by Maya people, who absorbed elements of the new variety and used them in their own writings. There was a florescence of writing, perhaps unparalleled in the last millennium of Maya society. As Maya reducido spread out into the Maya sector, it was appropriated by Maya speakers as their own. Ultimately, it was expropriated from those who had created it, and by the nineteenth century, it was the language of revolution against European domination. The paper will trace the developments that led to this stunning outcome.
Aarhus University, Building 1412, Room 229, Nordre Ringgade, Aarhus.
For more information contact Peter Bakker.