The State and Indigenous Languages in Twentieth-Century Latin America

AHA Session 242
Conference on Latin American History 67
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Adam W. V. Warren, University of Washington, Seattle
Frank L. Salomon, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Session Abstract

This panel will discuss how indigenous languages became a key area of state intervention, and of conflict and negotiation between governments and non-governmental institutions and movements, in twentieth-century Latin America. As national governments sought to extend and deepen their influence among the population, and as questions of national identity and culture assumed a new urgency, linguistic diversity became a major concern by the early-to-mid-twentieth century. At the same time, modern linguistics was entering the scene via US experts and institutions, transforming understandings of what could be done with (and to) indigenous languages. Governments sponsored the study and codification of indigenous languages and their orthographies, developed indigenous-language literacy programs, and produced political propaganda and educational materials in indigenous languages. Government interest gave rise to, and was shaped by, new movements and organizations that used indigenous-language expertise to make rival claims on the state seeking influence, recognition, and resources. This interdisciplinary panel may well be the first attempt to discuss these issues in a perspective that is both historical and comparative. It is aimed at modern Latin Americanist historians but may also attract historians interested in language politics in other parts of the world.

The panel brings together four papers discussing three distinct languages or language groups in three countries: Mayan in Guatemala (Brigittine French), Mixtec in Mexico (Michael Swanton), and Quechua in Peru (Serafín Coronel-Molina and Alan Durston). Chronologically, these papers range from the 1920s to the present day, but with an overall concentration in the middle decades of the century. French and Swanton examine the interactions between national governments and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a US missionary organization that successfully aligned its agenda of indigenous-language literacy with state projects in several Latin American countries. Coronel-Molina and French examine the more conflictive terrain of relations between native-speaker language activism and the state. Durston’s paper deals with a period prior to the appearance in Peru of linguistic institutions such as the SIL or the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua (studied by Coronel-Molina), but examines how state involvement affected an existing field of indigenous-language expertise and debates – as do the papers by Coronel-Molina, French, and Swanton. Taken together, the papers cover a wide geographical and chronological range of cases, revealing some startling contrasts – for instance, the very different social milieus and agendas of grass roots Mayan and Quechua linguistic activism, and the very different ways in which they interacted with the state. At the same time, the cases examined are similar enough for significant points of overlap and coincidence to emerge, for instance in how the SIL inserted itself in host governments preoccupied with “their” indigenous languages. All four papers suggest that seemingly arcane linguistic debates reveal strategic contests over national, regional, ethnic, and class identities and power relations.

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