Where My Languages Sit

“I was asked by a Norwegian national (an amazing woman who is a fluent Welsh speaker and recent learner of Sami, the language of her father’s inuit tribe) ‘Where in your body do your languages sit?’ She told me stories of elderly Welsh people who would make a gesture of a cupped and strangling hand over their mouth when asked where their Welsh was, representing the years of oppression of their native language. We agreed that English lived in the front of our heads. I always found it puzzling that it was so hard for me to express myself with a proper English grammar – the words and the ideas come easily, but the structure remains a mystery to me. Writing in English is a constant act of translation. With sadness, I recounted to her that my Scots is in the back and base of my spine. It’s deep within me at the core of my being and my memories, but it’s so long since I’ve had people to speak it with me on a day-to-day basis it’s become neglected, and to speak it I have to concentrate to free my memory and my muscles and channel it to my mouth. I have the best success at this when I’m emotional, drunk, or giddy with the flytin and the banterin o a faimly gaithrin.”

-Laura Cameron Lewis, “Ootland”

Like Laura Cameron Lewis, English sits in the center of my forehead. Where we differ in this is the purpose of it’s place there. Hers sits in her forehead because she must constantly translate it, but my English is placed like a third eye. It comes fluently to my tongue without conscious thought. It’s the language of open doors, of privilege, of being white, cis/het-passing, and American.

Spanish lives in my heart. To me, it is the language of lost love and infinitely sad songs. It draws up images of European conquest, indigenous cultures giving up their mother tongues, and weary travelers in the desert moonlight. I struggle with the finer points of grammar and with specialized vocabulary, though sometimes my dreams are in Spanish. I feel proud of the fluency I’ve achieved in Spanish; I do occasionally manage complex grammar, usually when I’m shouting angrily at an ex. What is it about strong emotions that make my Spanish come through so clearly? I think that it’s a state-induced learning thing- I learned Spanish with emotions running high, so when I’m angry or sad or joyful the Spanish comes to mind more easily.

American Sign Language sits (terribly obviously, I’m afraid) in my hands. I have to work at remembering the vocabulary and forming coherent sentences. It represents a great deal to me academically, as so many experiments I’ve formed in my head involve bimodal bilingualism (using a spoken and sign language from an early age) or cognitive benefits for late learners of ASL. I’ve watched so many ASL videos slack-jawed, doing my best to absorb the fascinating visual poetry in the fleeting hand movements. It conjures up memories of sore fingers and knuckles from practicing finger-spelling, teaching my co-workers my favorite signs (HANDSOME), and volunteering to sit in the next semester’s class as a teaching assistant twice because I had so much fun the first time. My pre-verbal daughter used baby sign to communicate her needs with me, signing “milk” and “change diaper” and “want orange juice!”. Now she demands “Use hands, Mama!” when we sing the ABC’s; she tries to sign along and does pretty well, though she’s stopped signing herself except when prompted.

German sits in the soles of my feet. I know so little of it that it barely counts as one of my languages, but it’s at the top of my list of languages to learn. My grandmother’s family immigrated from Stuttgart in the mid-1800s. Small pieces of vocab from childhood flit back to me, taught by my father who took two years of German in high school. I think I say “danke shön” more often than I say “gracias” or even “thank you”. It’s the language of my roots, hidden underground but still there keeping me tied to my family and to my heritage.

The Health of the Chatino Language

I wrote this for my ANT 3610 Language & Culture class at UWF. I thought I did pretty well on it and did in fact manage a 100%, so I thought I’d share it.

Cha’cña, or “difficult word”, is what the Chatino people call their language. They’re certainly not wrong. The Chatino people have apparently been told that their language was unwritten and unwritable (Cruz and Woodbury 2014). A group of graduate students at the University of Texas Austin finally developed a tonal writing system in 2006 (Cruz and Woodbury 2006). A member of the extremely internally diverse Oto-Manguean language family (postulated to be as diverse as Proto-Indo-European), Chatino has six mutually intelligible dialects; Tataltepec, Zacatepec, Panixtlahuaca, and Eastern, Western, and Nopala. Oto-Manguean languages are unique in Central America in that most languages in the group are both Verb-Subject-Object and all are tonal; indeed, Chatino boasts ten distinct tones and has a variety of both voiced and nasal vowels.

Though Chatino is recognized as a national language in Mexico along with most other indigenous languages in the country, it is still marginalised in some communities. In several communities (San Marcos Zacatepec, Taltaltepec de Valdés, and San Juan Lachao among others) have stopped speaking Chatino at home in hopes that their child will learn Spanish instead. According to personal communication with one native speaker, the school in San Juan Lachao teaches in Spanish and the test to get into high school is in Spanish (mandatory education ends at 8th grade in Mexico, though many students in Oaxaca don’t make it past 6th). Young Chatino people often leave school early due to not passing the entrance exams for high school, but others are pulled out by their families to do farm work.

From what I heard from my Chatino-speaking acquaintance, I do not believe that the number of speakers is stable. Lacking opportunities besides farming or getting involved in a cartel, many young Chatinos make their way into larger cities within Mexico for work or make their way to the border. 9%~ of households in Tataltepec have a family member in the United States, a number not far out of the average in Oaxaca as a whole at 4% (Fox and Rivera-Salgado, 2004). Out of the range of their idioma natal, many of these immigrants go without speaking Chatino for years except perhaps during phone calls home. This is in sharp contrast to speakers of the closely related though mutually unintelligible Zapotec languages; they tend to cluster together post-crossing and keep in close contact with their home communities (Cruz 2013). Speakers of Chatino are also reviled among their fellow immigrants; my acquaintance was spoken of with disdain among his peers and referred to as “el indio”. He would not speak Chatino in my presence after I expressed interest and would make sure all calls to his family held in the language were out of my ear shot. He taught me only one word, xni’, pronounced “schnEH” and meaning “dog”. He referred to his mother tongue as ugly, useless, and difficult to learn.

Many communities are in a state of advanced language shift to Spanish. Speakers resist the revitalization of Chatino within their communities (Villard and Sullivant, 2013). They idealize English and Spanish as global languages, and ask why linguists do not instead give English classes. Since so many of the adolescents are leaving the community to make their fortunes, they believe that learning English would be much more beneficial than learning their ancestral languages. They also believe that being bilingual (Chatino and Spanish) would make it harder to learn English afterwards. Signs in the villages written in Chatino are being taken down and replaced with Spanish and even English ones (Cruz and Woodbury, 2014).

According to the INALI data from 2012, two of the Chatino varieties are in “high” or “medium” risk of disappearance. The variant listed as “muy alto riesgo de desaparecer” is Chatino de Zacatepec, which has 453 speakers found in one single village and only 8% of those speakers aged under 14. The variant at mediano riesgo is Chatino Occidental Bajo (2640 speakers). Others are at no immediate risk due to sheer number of speakers, with a range of speakers from 3000 to 16000. All told, there are about 45,000 speakers of Chatino, inclusive of all dialects.

Though they are listed as not at immediate risk, I fear for the future of Chatino. Efforts at revitalization are falling flat, it’s not being passed on to the next generation, and its speakers are marginalized for their language use. In villages with high numbers of migrants, Spanish and English are closing in. Unfortunately, unless Mexico begins to enforce its indigenous language policies, Chatino will be lost.


Chatino. (n.d.). Retrieved February 10, 2016, from https://www.ethnologue.com/subgroups/chatino

Chatino Language Documentation Project. “Chatino Language Documentation Project Collection” The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America: www.ailla.utexas.org.

Cruz, E., & Woodbury, A.C. (2006). El sandhi de los tonos en el Chatino de Quiahije. In Las Memorias del Congreso de Idiomas Indígenas de Latinoamérica-II. http://www.ailla. utexas.org/site/cilla2/ECruzWoodbury_CILLA2_sandhi.pdf [Accessed 2 February 2014]

Cruz, E., & Woodbury, A.C. (2014). Collaboration in the context of teaching, scholarship, and language revitalization: Experience from the Chatino Language Documentation Project. Language Documentation and Conservation. 8. 262-286. http://hdl.handle.net/10125/24607

Cruz Manjarrez, A. (2013). Zapotecs on the move: Cultural, Social, and Political Processes in Transnational Perspective. Princeton: Rutgers University Press.

Fox, J, & Rivera-Salgado, G. (2004). Indigenous Mexican migrants in the United States. La Jolla, Calif: Center for US.-Mexican studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, UCSD.

“San Juan Lachao”. Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México. Instituto Nacional para el Federalismo y el Desarrollo Municipal. Retrieved February 8, 2016 from http://www.e-local.gob.mx/work/templates/enciclo/oaxaca/municipios/20202a.html.

Osario, A.E., & Alarcón, O.Z. (2012). México: Lenguas indígenas nacionales en riesgo de desaparición. Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas. http://site.inali.gob.mx/pdf/libro_lenguas_indigenas_nacionales_en_riesgo_de_desaparicion.pdf

Pérez Báez, G. (2013). Family language policy, transnationalism, and the diaspora community of San Lucas Quiaviní of Oaxaca, México. Language Policy. 12. 27-45.

Villard, S. & Sullivant, J.R. (2013). ¿Por qué no das clases de inglés? Obstacles to language revitalization in two Chatino communities. Paper presented to the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA). Boston, MA.