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Mayan tongues: key to learning for Guatemalan majority. Alphabet debate includes political, economic issues

By Wallace KaufmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1988



Guatemala City

Almost a thousand letters and telegrams from people in rural villages, mountains, and valleys sit on Jos'e Sanic's desk at the Academy of Mayan Languages in Guatemala City. Many warn of serious consequences if a new alphabet for the country's 22 Mayan languages changes the letters used to represent ``w,'' ``q,'' and ``k.'' Mr. Sanic smiles wryly and says he is confident that the law will stick and that it is the beginning of a resolution to Guatemala's ``Indian problem.'' Mayans, who prefer the term indigena (native) to Indian, are the majority of Guatemala's 8 million people. No more than 600,000 Mayans can read and write in any language at any level. In schools where teachers used Spanish, indigenous children were thrown into what Eliu Cifuentes, Guatemala's director of bilingual education, calls ``a violent encounter with literacy, being taught a foreign language by a teacher who doesn't speak their tongue.''

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With President Vinicio Cerezo's election in 1985, the government announced a radical change in policy. Spanish will remain the official language, but Guatemala will have at least 22 protected languages. As a symbol of its commitment to Mayan culture, the government published its new Constitution in the languages of the four largest Mayan groups - Mam, Kaqchikel, K'iche', and Q'eqchi'.

The bilingual education program, begun as an experiment with funds from the United States Agency for International Development, now includes 400 schools with bilingual classes up to the fourth grade. Mr. Cifuentes expects 260,000 students to be in the program by 1990. This would represent more than one-third of all rural primary school students.

The prospect of so many new readers and writers inspired activists to push for what they hoped would be a truly Mayan alphabet. Past efforts to teach Mayan were hobbled by a variety of alphabets, most invented by Europeans and North Americans. Many used symbols not found on a typewriter or in a print shop.

Shortly after the election, Mayans and their friends in Congress created the Academy of Mayan Languages within the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The academy's first project was to create a unified Mayan alphabet.

During several meetings organized by the Academy most of the debate focused on the letters ``w,'' ``k,'' and ``q.'' In the new alphabet, ``w'' represents sounds previously written with ``cua,'' ``gu,'' ``qu,'' and ``v.'' Sounds previously assigned to ``q'' and ``k'' in most alphabets were reversed, and the European ``qu'' has disappeared. The Aguacateca are now the Awakateka. The Quiche are now the K'iche' (the apostrophe indicates a glottal stop).

Many find no fault with the new alphabet's method of equating one letter to one sound - a generally accepted principle among linguists concerned about teaching. But debate over the new alphabet is only one part linguistic; it's also political and economic. At the academy, Sanic says, most of the mail on his desk comes from members of evangelical Protestant churches, which claim almost 20 percent of Guatemala's population as members. In many communities, evangelicals and their Mayan congregations have a large economic and public relations stake in materials published using earlier alphabets.

Some consider the rapid adoption of the new alphabet a violation of human rights. A K'iche'-speaking senator, Diego Velasco Brito, lodged a formal complaint with Guatemala's attorney general for human rights. Abraham Garc'ia responded for the Association of Mayan Writers of Guatemala (AMEG), a 10-year-old indigenous group that includes many teachers. He said AMEG had already begun to publish and teach the new alphabet. Its quarterly bulletin also uses the alphabet, and ``to date it has had a wonderful reception by readers,'' he said.

While a few proponents of the new alphabet worry about the evangelical preachers, they are disturbed by what they feel is professional opposition from the best-known organization of linguists, one that has translated most of the Christian materials used in evangelical churches as well as religious and secular material sold in AMEG's small bookstore. Linguists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics have done by far the largest amount of scholarly work on Mayan languages. Most of the dictionaries, school texts, and books of Mayan stories published in indigenous languages bear the institute's imprint.

Mayan activists say it is more important to seize the political opportunities than to worry about what they consider nit-picking. Virgilio Ajenal, director of the Association of Mayan Writers, contends, ``The fight is mainly among intellectuals. ... Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of all indigenous people are still illiterate, so they will not have to learn anything over.'' He says Mayans have listened to outsiders too long. ``We don't want outsiders to think, to decide, and to act for us.'' As for the value of the material already printed, most of it religious, he says, ``The people in the countryside cannot eat those things.'' It is time, he says, to write practical, how-to-do-it things about agriculture and health.

Stephen Elliot, director of the Center for Mesoamerican Investigations in Antigua, Guatemala, says the need to get on with the new alphabet is exemplified by three proposals he received during one week in May. Each asked help to publish a dictionary of Kaqchikel, each in its own alphabet. Mr. Elliot says, ``If the energy invested in opposing the alphabet were invested in promoting the transition, it would be over with.'' He sums up the debate saying, ``It's a matter of what's important to us - the past or the future.''

Cifuentes says the country is ``trying to find a new national identity.'' The new alphabet is an important part of the process. He says, ``We are beginning to end the colonization of the language that began 400 years ago.''