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6. Overheard on the Web

Ulterior Motives for Indigenous Language Broadcasts in Mexico? - Ricardo J. Salvador

On Fri, 4 Oct 1996, Ricardo J. Salvador wrote to the nahuat-l listserv:

Jennifer Lynn Johnson jljohnso(at) wrote:
FYI: "La Voz de la Montana" radio station funded by the INI and located in the town of Tlapa, Guerrero broadcasts announcements, news, and cultural programming daily in Nahuatl, Mixtec, Tlapanec as well as Spanish. My strong impression is that this operation serves a very practical (as opposed to esoteric) purpose, namely, to provide access to information to the many monolingual peasants scattered in isolated villages around "La MontaÒa" region.

Thanks Jennifer. This is good news, but also interesting that you should provide this as an example. INI, a government agency, has long played a controversial role, even in the judgment of their own personnel, with respect to Mexico's "native" policies. The crux of the controversy is whether the agency ought to foment a native identity, and all this implies, or whether its role is to create conditions and the means for natives to be assimilated into mainstream mestizo culture. In general, INI's actual policies have fallen in line with the latter view.

This is not an entirely unjustified view, and it is premised on the observation that the days when there was a special meaning attached to being native are long gone, and that today all that it means to be native is that you are poor, immiserated and isolated from mainstream society and do not "enjoy" the same access to public services and the material culture that the government is ostensively seeking to provide for all Mexican citizens through its economic development policies. Therefore, to the extent you utilize native languages and send agents (they are called "promoters") to work with and educate folks in their aboriginal villages, you do so with a view to acculturate and assimilate natives to be full-fledged Mexicans. Therefore, INI bilingual education campaigns, native-language broadcasts, and their publication of native-language primers may not be entirely what you suppose them to be if you believe they reflect support for a resurgence, or legitimation, of indigenous identity or an autonomous culture, or cultures, within Mexico. These are all just pragmatic efforts to reach audiences that are targeted for transformation in such a way that you eliminate potential barriers. I'm not necessarily claiming this is an evil plot, as in fact many INI promoters (I have relatives among them), genuinely believe they are doing what is socially and ethically the best for a much maligned and excluded population. Much the same tactic was used by the Catholic missionaries in the post-conquest period. A number of these folks learned Nahuatl, and the other native languages, but (albeit with important exceptions), they did so to christianize and radically alter native beliefs and culture, not because they admired the native languages, belief systems or culture. (This is abundantly clear when you read the editorializing in their writings.)

As you know, the state of Guerrero is currently the hotbed of a genuine guerrilla uprising. A number of factors have led to this, but the most immediate "flashpoint" was a massacre a few years ago of demonstrating peasants, which was clearly ordered by the state's own governor (he is undergoing impeachment proceedings, something unheard of in Mexican politics). As opposed to the Zapatista uprising, which has had worldwide visibility and carries a great deal of moral "authority," but is poorly funded and virtually unarmed, the Guerrero initiative is militarily more sinister from the viewpoint of the government. Since launching their campaign in late August, this group has showed effective organization (they have struck with precision, killing military personel at several garrisons and impounding ordnance), and have carefully orchestrated with media and popular movements in a way that shows that this is a well-planned, well-financed initiative, and, to the government's dismay, it enjoys a great deal of popular support.

As a result, most of rural southern Mexico, I do not exaggerate, has become an armed camp, with high scale mobilization of military personnel and a serious curtailment of individual freedom in indigenous and mestizo rural communities, which are regarded as the sources of both the guerrilla fighters as well as their material subsistence. I'll bet if we could see the transcripts of those INI-sponsored Nahuatl broadcasts in Guerrero these days, they are peppered with "friendly" injunctions to be good little law-abiding Indians, and to resist temptation to support or join the rebels, and such are issued in Nahuatl not because INI, or the state or federal governments want to promote Nahuatl, and the associated cultural aura, but because this is the most effective way to reach and propagandize that sector of the rural population.

I hold it is more than mere coincidence that in each state of Indian Mexico, generally the southern half, there are currently serious armed uprisings in place these NAFTA days. I was impressed this summer to hear a number of radio broadcasts from Oaxaca and Chiapas whose editorial content was clearly independent of government lines, but knowing the history of the country and the mentality of its ruling class, I also thought it ominous.

Ricardo J. Salvador
1126 Agronomy Hall
Iowa State University
Ames IA 50011-1010
E-mail: salvador(at)
Voice: (515) 294-9595
Fax: (515) 294-8146

National American Indian Heritage Month, 1996, by the President of the USA - a Proclamation, October 30, 1996

Throughout our history, American Indian and Alaska Native peoples have been an integral part of the American character. Against the odds, America's first peoples have endured, and they remain a vital cultural, political, social, and moral presence. Tribal America has brought to this great country certain values and ideas that have become ingrained in the American spirit: the knowledge that humans can thrive and prosper without destroying the natural environment; the understanding that people from very different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and traditions can come together to build a great country; and the awareness that diversity can be a source of strength rather than division.

As we celebrate American Indian Heritage Month this year, we take note of the injustices that have been suffered by American Indian people. Even today, few enjoy the full bounty of America's prosperity. But even as we look to the past, we must also look to the future. Along with other Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives will face new challenges in the coming century. We can ill afford to leave any of our people behind. Tribal America must figure as prominently in our future as it has in our past.

Let us rededicate ourselves to the principle that all Americans have the tools to make the most of their God-given potential. For Indian tribes and tribal members, this means that the authority of tribal governments must be accorded the respect and support to which they are entitled under the law. It means that American Indian children and youth must be provided a solid education and the opportunity to go on to college. It means that more must be done to stimulate tribal economies, create jobs, and increase economic opportunities.

Our bridge to the 21st century will rest upon the foundation we build today. We must teach our children about our past -- both the good and the bad -- so that they may learn from our successes and mistakes. We must provide our children with the knowledge and skills to permit them to surpass our own achievements and create a stronger, more united American community. We must provide them greater opportunity. It was the Iroquois who taught that in every deliberation we should consider the impact of our decisions on the next 7 generations.

In recognition of the important contributions of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples to our country and in light of the special legal relationship between the tribes and the Government of the United States, and obligations pursuant thereto, we celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, WILLIAM J. CLINTON, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 1996 as National American Indian Heritage Month. I urge all Americans, as well as their elected representatives at the Federal, State, local, and tribal levels, to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-ninth day of October, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty-first.

William J. Clinton



On Supporting Threatened Languages, by Trond Trosterud

The bottom line is that only the speakers themselves can save their language. But as linguists, there are a lot of things we can and should do. The following points are collected on the basis of personal experience, focusing on topics at least I haven't seen that often in the discussion.

Exact information on the state-of-the-art
A bilingual society can change into a monolingual assimilated one very fast, without fluent speakers realising what is going on until it is too late. Thus, in unclear and critical cases, age pyramids should be set up that show the fluency of (each speaker of) each age group. Panu Hallamaa, Helsinki, has done some nice work on both Aleut and Skolt Saami, and he also discusses general methodological questions involved.

Active utilising of intervening majority language borders
Languages always die via a bilingual stage (except genocide cases). With all speakers fluent in the same majority language, "there is no use in speaking the minority language". Contact across majority language borders should thus be encouraged. In cases where the minority language spoken on the other side of the majority language border is a different, but related language, both passive (speak own lg - understand other lg) and active bilingualism (speak-understand both) should be encouraged. A "useless" minority language can be turned into an important device for international communication if it is used as a basis for learning a related language in a neighbouring country. Minority language speakers may end up as much-needed interpreters, and multilingualism within the ethnic macrogroup will also strengthen own ethnic identity. Thus, both active and passive bilingualism should be taught.

The right to positive identification with own ethnic identity
School education in and on one's mother tongue is more and more seen as a part of linguistic human rights. In addition to that, I will emphasise the right to learn the language of one's ethnic group, also when it is no longer the mother tongue for the pupil. This is of central importance for the self-identification of the pupil.

Dictionary FROM the majority language
Every minority language should have a dictionary from the majority to the minority language, a dictionary giving the speakers back words in exchange for all the words that are stolen as a part of assimilatory language policy. Such dictionaries will provide a (common) vocabulary for phenomena outside the domestic and traditional sphere, and they will function as guidelines when borrowing new concept from the majority language. Today, minority language dictionaries are all too often made by linguists in order to understand collected text material, thus, they are FROM the minority language, they contain only words found in the text collections (hence no neologisms), and they are typically not written in any official orthography.

Not only small languages are threatened
For us, as linguists, the "worst case", is when the last speakers (of a lg without close relatives) dies. But large-scale language shift can as well start on million sized languages (the Mordvinian languages of Russia are a bad example), and happen more or less simultaneously (and fast). Shifting the perspective to the speaker, it is sad to loose the lg of the community, even though it is spoken by a Diaspora group some hundred kilometres away.

Internet and the number of graphemes in the character set standards
Internet and interactive Text-TV will soon become widespread. Radio has proven useful for minorities, it is cheap and does not require literacy. Internet poses some additional problems, that must be addressed by us linguists at once, especially since we are the ones to blame in the first place: Often, we were the ones that invented good, phonemic or syllabic writing systems, utilising a large number of graphemes not contained in the A-Z English (or in the A-JA Russian) alphabet. I prefer the Czech solution (one-phoneme graphemes) to the Hungarian and English one (digraphs) myself, but having invented these graphemes we must now make them available on the net. To do this we need code table standards and information on how to use them. Cf.

Work on the S·mi languages , especially .Funny characters on the net. What information technology can (and cannot) do to support minority languages, by Trond Trosterud.

To be specific: We must make sure that every grapheme of every written language of the world (including tone and length diacritics if in use) is found in the 32-bits ISO/IEC 10646-1 standard. There are holes there, and we are the ones that should fill them. Today, 3/4 of the space in part 1 of 10646 (16-bits Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP), or the first 65536 character positions) are being filled by Korean and Chinese characters. After having had their basic (some tenths of thousands of characters) in BMP, the Chinese should be satisfied, and given a whole plane of their own (koreans should have used only the basic components of Hangul, but the accident already happened..). What is left of the BMP should then be reserved AT LEAST for phoneme- and syllabic-based symbols of all the worlds written languages. Raising the number of Cyrillic positions from the current 256 to e.g. 512 would make no difference whatsoever to the space consideration of Chinese, but it will solve ALL problems for the Cyrillic-based scripts (today, not even the stress-marks of Russian are included, which will come as a great surprise to text book providers). Also, minority languages should have local 8-bits standards while waiting for 10646-1 to be implemented. In the Saami community, it has been (and still is) hazardous to transfer electronically (by exchanging discs, sending e-mail..), thus making all publication and communication slower and more expensive. When minority languages are claimed to be ´difficultª to read or write (even though we as linguists know that their orthography are incredibly much better than the ones of e.g. English or Norwegian), it is due to the fact that their languages are never seen in print. This is one of the most important ways of making them visible.

Minority language road signs
Road signs and public other public sign in the minority language is a very important measure, as seen by the strong reactions of the majority population against them wherever they are introduced. Sometimes minority group members that have lost their language are among the strongest opponents to introducing minority language signs, perhaps because they in a way feel betrayed by the country administration to whom they gave their language loyalty. Making minority languages visible is the most important effect of these signs, but they also teach how to write local place names, and they show the official name of public institutions in the minority language.

As a result of the work of philologists and comparativists, huge bodies of fairy tales, mythological texts, legends on the creation of the world, etc., are compiled and published, often with a parallel translation. These test should be translated from the phonetic transcription they probably are written in, and into the official orthography that hopefully exists for the language today, and then published. Simultaneously, the syntacticians among us get searchable, machine readable corpora to work with. Thus, such work can be financed by university grants. The publications will tell about traditions before the cultural suppression set in, and it give the peoples in question back their own cultural heritage. Linguists visited the peoples and got their stories, now is the time to give them back.

Passive bilingualism in families
Many parents that otherwise are motivated to pass their language to the next generation will eventually give up speaking their mother tongue to their children when the children (always/often/more and more) answer them in the majority language. But why should they? As long as both participants in the conversation understand each other, they can talk like that for the rest of their life. The child will learn the majority language anyway, and by knowing the minority language well passively, it later on will have a chance to activate it.

I recently heard about a case like this, where the child in question mixed the two lgs (as they of course do), but got teased and hit in kindergarten, and with no support from the staff there. These problems (not relevant for bilinguals with high-status 2nd lg) should be anticipated and addressed in advance.

Attending a meeting of S·mi and Norwegian officials, one of the S·mi participants was asked: Do you need an interpreter? No, she answered, I don¥t. But I will give my talk in S·mi, so it might be that you will need one.

Trond Trosterud
Barentssekretariatet, P.O.Box 276,
N-9901 Kirkenes, Norway
work: +47-7899-3758
fax: +47-7899-3225
home: +47-7899-2243
email: trondt(at)