Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


A 'like' for linguistics: Can social media save Mexico's unwritten languages?

Many indigenous languages alive in Mexico today don't have formal written systems, but a growing number of computer-savvy young people want to Facebook and tweet in their native tongue.

By Correspondent / April 1, 2013

A sign with Facebook's 'Like' logo is posted at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Many indigenous languages alive in Mexico today don't have any formal written system, but a growing number of young people, computer savvy and sometimes far from home, want to Facebook, tweet, and chat in their native tongue.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

Enlarge

MEXICO CITY

When Hilaria Cruz chats online in Texas with friends back home in Mexico, she switches effortlessly between two languages: Spanish and her native Chatino.

Skip to next paragraph

The trick is that, until recently, no formal writing system existed to represent the sounds and tones of eastern Chatino, an indigenous language spoken by 20 small communities in rural southern Oaxaca. Ms. Cruz, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, had a hand in creating the alphabet she now uses to post messages on Facebook.

Social media have become a crucial bridge between the academics, activists, and young people who want to preserve the more than 360 variants of indigenous languages alive in Mexico today and the communities who actively use them. Many of these don't have any formal written system, but a growing number of indigenous young people, computer savvy and sometimes far from home, want to Facebook, tweet, and chat in their native tongue. Both through social media, and perhaps because of it, they're joining a burgeoning movement to create alphabets and a way to write previously unwritten languages like Chatino.

In past years, the creation of a writing system was left to academics or local committees who were prone to interminable debates over minutia like whether there is a “p” in the Mixtec alphabet, says Michael Swanton, linguist and director of the Oaxaca-based San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center, a hub of language study. Young people learn from those efforts but seem more interested in practicality, Swanton says. “It’s taken the issue of writing a language out of the committees and the classroom and put it more and more into the hands of the people writing everyday.”

One word at a time

“wa2 nkeq3 lo4 sa24 a?”

In other words: “Is lunch ready?”

That’s one phrase posted on the Facebook page Cruz created for Chatino speakers as a meetup to learn and practice the evolving writing system. The numbers represent tones, given that the same word can have different meanings depending on whether it is pronounced in a higher or lower tone.

Although there is no formal data on how many indigenous Mexican youth have been involved in tailoring an alphabet, the Chatino Language Documentation page offers an estimation of interest in one small community: The page boasts 335 members, a mix of academics as well as speakers, who post questions about how to use the numbers – which represented a range of tones, from low to high – or how to say “I love you” or how to translate the word “respect.” 

Cruz is a bridge herself: a native speaker of Chatino who learned Spanish in elementary school and is fluent in English. She went to Texas in 2004 with the dream of studying her native tongue and creating a written system that could be taught and promoted back home.

Permissions

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Endeavor Global, cofounded by Linda Rottenberg (here at the nonprofit’s headquarters in New York), helps entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Linda Rottenberg helps people pursue dreams – and create thousands of jobs

She's chief executive of Endeavor Global, a nonprofit group that gives a leg up to budding entrepreneurs.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!