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.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
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.

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

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.

“Many young people have told me, ‘I want to learn!’” says Cruz of the evolving written system. “My idea was to create the Facebook page and write phrases: buenos días and 'it’s hot out.' But our challenge is that we still need to create an alphabet that is visually, aesthetically, better.”

The role of education

Before Yasnaya Aguilar was born, the Mixe people of southern Oaxaca state had accomplished most of the work of creating an alphabet and writing system. Aguilar, a linguist and native speaker of Mixe, says the work today is in teaching people to read and write in the language.

That many indigenous languages lack a writing system has little to do with their antiquity and more to do with historic patterns of education, she says. Until recent decades, the government’s education policy was to teach only Spanish in schools, discouraging or even prohibiting students from speaking their native tongue.

In the past, “in Mexico, few people knew how to write,” Ms. Aguilar says. “There was discrimination against these languages. With these movements, there has been a recognition of their value.”

Online revival

Twitter offers a clue to the global interest in putting indigenous languages to use online – historically the domain of English, Spanish, Chinese, and other major languages.

“The idea [of whether] the language is suited for modern technological media like Twitter – that’s an obstacle for a lot of endangered languages,” says Kevin Scannell, a professor in the department of math and computer science at Saint Louis University.

He has studied the use of indigenous languages on Twitter and advised the social media company on how to make its coding more friendly to the symbols sometimes used in indigenous tongues.

He says there are more than 140 indigenous or minor languages in use on Twitter today. Nahuatl, a language native to central Mexico and beyond, has 17 users. Other indigenous languages are used by more than 300,000 users or as few as one.

“Part of it is just a conscious effort to keep the language alive and promote the language and encourage other people to use it,” says Mr. Scannell, who tweets in English and Irish Gaelic. “It’s a statement that says, ‘We’re here, and we’re proud of the language.’”

The use of native Mexican languages online, even in doses of 140 characters, is part of a broader phenomenon in Mexico, says Swanton, the linguist.

“I see it as part of a larger issue, which is the emergence of a very sophisticated generation of young people,” he says, “many of whom are professionals and move in the world in sophisticated ways. They are incorporating those experiences into an indigenous identity.”

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