Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tectitec: My First Mayan Language

May 31, 1984. I flew into Guatemala City for the first time in my life. A new country, a new language family. I was 23, a bit too full of self-confidence, but raring to go.

I knew that I would be investigating some Mayan language for my Masters thesis, but I didn't know which one and I knew virtually nothing about Mayan languages. In fact, when I arrived in Guatemala, the only two facts I knew about Mayan languages were:

1. They had a glottalized "b".
2. They were ergative (whatever that meant).

Well, I was soon to learn a lot more. I had been training to do linguistic investigation in the field for almost three years. I was dying to actually get a chance! I arrived in Guatemala as a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington, and also as a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the "field division," so to speak, of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

I was looking forward to a career as a linguistic consultant, helping others do the groundwork necessary to produce high quality translations of the Bible in various minority languages around the world. My long-term goal was to work in the area then known as Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia, on the western half of the island shared by the country of Papua New Guinea. However, because of my knowledge of Spanish, the assignments committee of SIL had decided to recommend that I do research for a thesis in a Latin American country, as there were many needs for consultant work there. Through a series of twists and turns, Guatemala wound up being the country where I went. It's truly amazing what kind of effect on one's life a seemingly fortuitous choice like this can have.

Within a few days of arriving in Guatemala, I met Ed Beach, who was working hard to translate the New Testament into the Tectitec language (these days the official spelling is Tektiteko). Ed was eager to find a linguist to do a detailed analysis of the grammar for him. I was looking for a project just like this to do for my thesis. A match made in heaven!

Within a few days, I was headed for the remote town of Tectitán with Ed, his wife Elenore and their three small children. Tectitán was on the extreme western edge of Guatemala, bordering on Mexico. In those days it was a long, difficult trip, much of it over rough, narrow, twisting dirt roads (now the road is paved the whole way!). Even though I had had a course in field methods and another in anthropology, and Ed told me a number of useful pieces of cultural information before and during the trip, I still found myself undergoing severe culture shock. I was also under considerable stress at being separated from the first girl I had ever been serious about: Anne Munz. We had met in field training camp just before I went to Guatemala. At the end, though we had decided we were seriously interested in each other, I had my two years in Guatemala planned and she had her support-raising time back in New England planned. There was no practical alternative for either of us at the moment. I'll spare you the details, but we survived, and we will soon celebrate 23 years of marriage!

But back to Tectitec. I was severely stressed, but also very excited finally, at long last, after so much longing, hoping and praying, to actually be doing what I had been dreaming of doing since I was a senior in high school! I remember sitting there in Ed's office that first morning, taking my first look at the texts he had transcribed and glossed as best he could. How did all those morphemes and words fit together? This was what I had prepared for and what I was eager to do: figure out a new language!

I worked with native speakers, transcribed a text from a recording, tried to learn to speak at least some Tectitec, but above all, I tried to write a careful, coherent description of the grammar of the language. No one had ever done this before. I did have some help from a good grammar of a neighboring, related language called Mam (pronounced like "Mom"), written by Nora England. But Tectitec was its own language and I had to figure out a number of things on my own. I also devoured linguistic literature on other Mayan languages.

I learned what ergative meant, and also antipassive. I learned about relational nouns, possessive prefixes that varied depending on whether the word began with a consonant or a vowel, and so on and so forth. I learned about a third person singular prefix that was usually zero but was occasionally ts
or ts' (that is, glottalized ts). More challenging was learning about the very complex system of directional verbs that were tacked on before many, if not most, other verbs, or functioned as the main verb themselves. Up to three directional verbs plus a fourth one that meant "finish" could precede just about any transitive or intransitive verb. They had a wide range of effects on the meanings of verbs: up and down, in and out, up-entering and down-leaving, etcetera.

In the middle of my research, in May 1985, Anne and I were married. She went up to Maine two weeks before our wedding to see to all those last-minute preparations, and I went up one week later. We went through a crash-course of premarital counseling usually done over six weeks, we got married, and two weeks later we were back in Guatemala! (She had come down three months earlier to live and work in the capital, where I was then doing research and writing.)

Finally, after a year and a half of research and writing and even getting help from an eminent linguist, Dr. Kenneth Pike, I had a reasonably good thesis put together. Anne and I went back to Dallas in December 1985, and the following spring I took my last courses and completed my thesis. Shortly after I graduated, we returned to Guatemala to participate in a sociolinguistic survey of the area where various dialects of the Quiché language (now written K'iche') were spoken. But that's a story for another day...

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