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EL SALVADOR: An Indigenous Language That Refuses to Die

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Oct 13 2009 (IPS) - “Yek shiajfikan” reads a sign hanging above the gate of the “Dr. Mario Calvo Marroquín” elementary school in the Salvadoran town of Izalco, welcoming pupils in Nawat, the language that was spoken by the area’s native communities.

A small group of no more than twelve boys and girls are gathered in a small classroom in the southwest province of Sonsonate, singing the national anthem, in a scene that could be set in any other school in the country – except here they’re not singing it in Spanish, but in Nawat, the language of their ancestors.

In 2002, teachers at this school took it upon themselves to begin teaching their pupils the language that was spoken by the Nahua-Pipil communities when the Spanish colonialists arrived in the sixteenth century – a language that is now on the brink of extinction.

The language was brought to Central America in pre-Hispanic times by groups that migrated from the central region of present-day Mexico in the tenth century, anthropologist Ramón Rivas explained to IPS.

Nawat, or Pipil as it is also called, is a Uto-Aztecan language descended from Nahuatl, which is still widely spoken in many parts of Mexico. The Salvadoran variety, however, is endangered, and has already vanished elsewhere in Central America.

Today, there are only around 200 Nawat speakers left in this country of 5.7 million, according to the 2009 edition of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The Atlas, launched early this year just prior to International Mother Language Day (Feb. 21), contains updated data on about 2,500 endangered languages around the world, ranking them in five categories, which go from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘extinct’, according to their degree of endangerment.

Nawat is classified as ‘critically endangered’ – the category prior to extinction, which corresponds to languages in which the only speakers are elderly people who moreover speak the language only partially and infrequently.

When these speakers die they will be taking to their graves the language of an ancestral culture, which was spoken not only in what is now El Salvador but also in other parts of Central America.

The initiative implemented by the teachers in Izalco has not received any official support, although the arrival of the new government of left-wing President Mauricio Funes, who took office on Jun. 1, has raised new hopes.

On Sept. 1, 50 children from the school were invited to sing the anthem in Nawat at a ceremony commemorating El Salvador’s 188 years of independence from Spain, in 1821. The celebration was broadcast live on national television.

“I went to see the undersecretary of education and told him, ‘I want you to support our project,’ and he was interested,” the school’s principal, Juliana Ama, told IPS.

According to Ama, it was at that meeting that they came up with the idea of having the schoolchildren sing the national anthem in Nawat.

IPS tried to contact undersecretary Eduardo Badía to learn what the government’s views are on this, but was unable to arrange a meeting.

As in the case of so many other indigenous languages, Nawat started down the path of extinction when the Spanish conquistadors disembarked in 1524, and the process of transculturation took off. But it was accentuated by political and social processes that got underway towards the end of the colonial period.

One of these processes involved the transfer of indigenous lands to large landowners, which among other factors spurred a number of uprisings in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Rivas said.

This social upheaval culminated in a major insurrection in 1833, led by indigenous chief Anastasio Aquino, followed by the Salvadoran state’s systematic persecution of anything connected with the culture of the country’s native people, including their languages, well into the next century.

In 1932, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez ordered the massacre of thousands of Indians in western El Salvador who had taken part in a revolt along with peasants and university and labour activists with links to the Communist Party.

The exact number of victims is unknown, but estimates range from 6,000 to 40,000, according to Rivas, who holds a PhD in anthropology from the Dutch university of Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.

Fearing for their lives, indigenous survivors tried to conceal their ancestry, stopped speaking their language and abandoned their traditional dress. That same year, Feliciano Ama, chief of the Náhua-Pipil nation, was hung in the central plaza of Izalco to serve as an example for anyone who dared to rebel.

“Things got worse after 1932, when General Hernández imposed a ban on speaking Nawat to further his vision of the nation, in which there was no place for Indians,” said Rivas, who has studied the indigenous populations of El Salvador, and Central America in general, in depth.

Another indigenous language of El Salvador, Chortí, has been extinct since the early nineteenth century, he noted.

According to the UNESCO Atlas, “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.”

Half of the 6,700 languages currently spoken in the world are in danger of disappearing before the end of the century, UNESCO cautions.

Some recently extinct languages include Eyak, in the U.S. state of Alaska, which disappeared with the death of its last remaining speaker, Marie Smith Jones, in 2008, and Ubyh, in Turkey, lost with the death of Tefuic Esenc, in 1992.

According to the study – which is in its third edition and is the result of an international collaboration of more than thirty linguists from around the world – not only can an endangered language be saved from extinction, it may also be possible to revive already extinct languages, provided there is adequate documentation and a strong motivation within the ethnic community.

But to keep a language from disappearing it’s essential “to create favourable conditions for its speakers to speak the language and teach it to their children,” says the report, which adds that the process of extinction “can be slowed only if urgent action is taken by governments and speaker communities.”

In El Salvador it’s not yet clear if the government will take action to promote the preservation of Nawat, but grassroots efforts are being made.

An example of these efforts is the Intercultural Education programme implemented by the Fundación Círculo Solidario, a Christian NGO that works to recover the country’s ancestral cultures. A major component of the programme is Nawat instruction in the Sonsonate towns of Nahuizalco, Izalco and Santo Domingo de Guzmán, where there are still some speakers of the language.

Teresa Tepas, 70, is one of the students benefiting from the project. “I didn’t learn to speak it when I was little, and now at my age, it’s harder. But little by little, I’m learning,” she told IPS.

“My parents spoke it, but they never pushed us to learn,” she said.

Carlos Cortez, 25, learned to speak Nawat from his grandmother, Teodora Pérez, when he was 16. Now he’s one of the few Salvadorans who are proficient in the language, and he is training the Nawat teachers at the Izalco school, as part of the Nawat Language Revitalisation project, promoted by Don Bosco University since 2004.

“Most people used to see Nawat as kind of embarrassing, because they saw it as an old people’s thing; but now people are beginning to accept it,” Cortez told IPS.

Cortez is developing a web site for the project, and a great deal of material describing the learning and teaching process has already been put together. Also, a basic alphabet has been devised to begin writing in Nawat.

Rivas views all these efforts as positive, but fears that nothing will be achieved without firm support from the state aimed at fully including indigenous peoples “in a nation-building project.”

For Cortez, that’s precisely what the project he works in is about. It not only seeks to spread the language, but aims to promote indigenous culture in general.

“The emphasis is on seeing how ancestral cultures can survive despite the processes of transculturation,” he said.

The new generations may represent the greatest hope for reviving the language. As they leave the classroom, where they just finished singing the national anthem in Nawat, the schoolchildren call out their freshly learned word for goodbye: “Shawan tiuk!”

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  • jen

    I am a current student at UCLA and would like to get involved with the project. How do I do this?