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By Brendan O'Connell
Contributing Writer

The Spanish language, though offering general unity among the 400 million speakers, has led to the death and endangerment of hundreds of indigenous languages, particularly Nahuatl, Quichua, and Mayan in Latin America. Upon the conquest of Mexico, Spanish influence was woven into the strands of the indigenous roots of “New Spain.” Although a new culturally mixed identity was created when the Spanish arrived instead of a complete displacement of indigenous culture, the Spanish language is largely responsible for the death and endangerment of numerous indigenous languages. Specifically, Nahuatl in Mexico, Mayan languages in Mexico and Central America, and Quichua in South America demonstrate the destruction the Spanish language has wrecked on indigenous culture.

Hill and Hill 1980 discuss the differences in language functions as described by Brown and Gilman 1960, which split languages into either “language of power” or “language of solidarity” (Hill and Hill 322). This concept has been applied to languages all over the world and has been important in understanding the way languages die. For example, Hungarian has become the language of solidarity, making it almost obsolete in general everyday life, since German, the language of power, has replaced Hungarian. Such is the case in the Mexican states of Tlaxcala and Pueblo, where Spanish forces Nahuatl, previously the dominant language, into the position of “language of solidarity.” While the shift to solidarity means the language is being spoken, it is being spoken in fewer social spheres. For example, where previously Nahuatl would be used between mother and father and parent and child, now, children are addressed almost exclusively in Spanish. Parents are opting more for Spanish, since it is the “language of power” which allows their children to have more opportunities for work and social life. Parents see the connections Spanish brings as necessary evils, but ones that will eventually bring their child into the realm of “middle class.”

Another important factor of the Nahuatl revitalization projects is the rejection of the dependency theory of linguistics. This theory proposes that the poverty of indigenous communities results from their “backwardness” and delayed reaction to changing economic forces (Hill and Hill 1980). These communities employ traditional agricultural techniques and speak indigenous languages, thus failing to fit the times and perpetuating lower economic standards. For example, industry leaders are able to pay workers less since they view the indigenous as “backward,” when in reality, their backwardness is a result from this cut in pay. This idea of backwardness is essential is discussing cultural identity. What is seen as backward to the Spanish majority is seen as cultural tradition to the Nahuatl speakers. In “Language Death in Central Mexico: The Decline of Nahuatl and the New Bilingual Maintenance Program,” Kellie Rolstad affirms the decline of Nahuatl in contemporary Mexico but also includes much information about the programs aiming to combat language shift. While the Ministry of Education of Mexico has made steps toward bilingual education and even toward favoring Nahuatl, it is clear that their support must be coupled with the local initiatives of Nahuatl communities (Rolstad 13). Since much of the indigenous population is isolated from the main Spanish speaking population, local action toward linguistic revitalization is essential.

Over 6 million people speak Mayan languages today, though the impact of Spanish on the Mayan language can be seen in the dramatic decline of speakers. The Mayan languages are spoken predominately in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The Proto-Mayan languages branched into over 30 separate branches and now make up a group of languages that some linguists conclude are similar in complexity to the various Romance languages. Nora England's article on Mayan language revitalization projects casts some light on the troubling deterioration of indigenous Mayan languages. England explains that Mayan language and culture are intimately connected perhaps more so than other indigenous languages. The lack of concern for Mayan language survival “results from an ideology held by the dominant society that devalues everything related to indigenous culture, including language” (England 738). She notes that these negative attitudes, which are becoming common not only with Spanish speaking mestizos but even within the Mayan community are keeping the language stagnate. Where Mayans exhibited a profound appreciation for their language and culture in the past, the language shift to Spanish bilingualism is an example of the lack of appreciation, and even shows the way Spanish is infringing on the remnants of the previously omnipotent Mayan empire. To this, England details the scorn some Mayans have for their linguistic identity. Some Mayans see their language as non-evolved, simple, and basic, and therefore opt out of linguistic revitalization in favor of learning Spanish. England also discusses how the economic implications of Spanish make speaking and documenting the Mayan languages to be irresponsible. She describes how Mayans who spend time documenting their language, though contributing to the linguistic knowledge of the world, feel they are spending their time unwisely. While government officials want Spanish monolingualism for economic and political stability, this pejorative view of Mayan languages from the Mayans is especially troubling.

England documents the linguistic revitalization through the writings of Sis Iboy, a Mayan linguist, whose writings have been influential in the revitalization project of Mayan language. Sis Iboy describes the importance of the unification of the Mayan language. Previously mentioned, the Mayan languages have a huge number of dialects and for linguists concerned with preservation, this fact is troubling. Unifying the Mayan dialects is one way to resist the imposition of Spanish on the indigenous community. Instead of differentiating between dialects of Mayan, unifying them will give all community members a similar linguistic nationality. This work by Sis Iboy is monumental in the preservation of Mayan language because it gives a centralized linguistic identity to an already existing cultural identity. The centralization of Mayan language is a step towards not only resisting Spanish influence but also reaffirming the Mayan cultural traditions.

Despite being one of the most highly spoken indigenous languages of Mesoamerica, Quechua, one of the many Andean dialects, only has around 10 million speakers, most of whom are bilingual in Spanish. Linguists generally recognize the emergence of Quechua I, spoken mainly in Peru, and Quechua II, which is spoken predominantly in Ecuador and Bolivia. It is Quechua II that is also known more specifically as Quichua. Quichua is a dialect of Quechua, one of the most documented and widely used languages still today in Latin America. In these countries, Spanish is the national language whereas indigenous languages are national languages but do not possess the same official status, except in Peru where Quechua has been official since 1975. Reinstedt and Aronsson’s case study brings us to a remote village in the mountains of Ecuador named San Antonio. San Antonio is home to a large community of Quichua speakers and has long been considered a strongly bilingual community due in part to the isolation within the Andes. This dialect of Quichua is considered widely important to both rituals and daily interactions. The speakers say that they must speak it with pride since it has survived despite the proliferation of Spanish throughout Ecuador. While Spanish is Ecuador’s de facto national language, Quichua and other dialects of Quechua are so widely spoken that they too have received a national status. However, the lack of official of indigenous languages suggests that Spanish has strong roots in the colonial history of the Americas, thereby pushing the indigenous languages into the periphery. The Spanish influence in the institution of government, church, and education directly endanger the indigenous Quechua speakers.

Yet indigenous groups are creating alternatives that keep their linguistic identity alive. Reinstedt and Aronsson declare that Quechua revitalization in the Andes has been successful insofar as it has slowed the language shift from Quechua to Spanish monolingualism. Schools have played an instrumental role in impeding the spread of Spanish monolingualism throughout Latin America, but the real impetus for the retention of Quechua is the continued speaking at home. All too often, communities exhibit paradoxical tendencies in terms of language pride. For example, the fieldwork of Reinstedt and Aronsson shows that though the Quechua language is thought of as essential to the culture and traditions of the community, adults often address each other in Quechua but exclusively address children in Spanish, contributing to growing Spanish monolingualism. This paradoxical nature of language revitalization in Ecuador can be seen as part of the confusion relating to the idea of language shift in Latin America. Often times pride in an indigenous community is expressed through a renewed appreciation of the language and instituted with strictly monolingual education in Quechua. On the other hand pride in community is seen as wanting your community’s youth to have access to steady work and educational opportunities, which would mean being mainly monolingual in Spanish. This is an example of the spectrum of ideologies on linguistic revitalization, making it a complex and debatable subject. Spanish education will kill off the Quechua language and cultural identity, while Quechua education will keep the group isolated socially, economically, and politically.

This case study on Quichua in San Antonio, Ecuador is an example of the complexity in dealing with language shift and revitalization. Reinstedt and Aronsson state that in this “communidad” of Quichua speakers, “ethnic consciousness has risen during the past 10 years” (Reinstedt and Aronsson 724). For example, the celebration of the influential Puruhas and Incan ancestry of the Quechua ethnic community is seen in their appreciation of their roots, and many speakers state that their language choice of Quichua is part of their attempt to salute this heritage. In addition, this community boasts its achievements in the political sphere, as they are responsible for many of the area’s education and land reform policies. Several ethnic Quichua speakers are even involved in the somewhat radical political movements around Ecuador and have even joined liberation movements. Nancy Hornberger details the very general shift in the 20th century from strictly Spanish to increasing involvement of indigenous languages in Latin American classrooms. She describes how this shift toward inclusion of indigenous language is part of the reaffirmation of the multi-cultural identity of Latin America (Hornberger 176). Celebrating their mestizo origins entail honoring the indigenous roots in addition to the Spanish roots. This shift is part of this ethnic revitalization of indigenous culture and language. The revitalization of the Quichua identity seems to be especially vibrant in San Antonio, perhaps due to its isolation and large ethnic population. Quichua is seen as essential to the history and maintenance of the Quichua ethnic identity and almost all of the bilingual adults stress the importance of transferring Quichua culture and language to their children. However, as a sociolinguist, it is important to look at what people do rather than what they say. Often, people will appear more benevolent and passionate when the reality is different. As is the case in San Antonio, though parents express the urge to transmit Quichua, they simply are not following through on this front. Reinstedt and Aronsson describe that despite advances to promote Quichua ethnic revitalization, “[o]n the level of actual local speaking practices, though, there seems to be a language shift underway in which Quichua-Spanish bilingualism is giving way to Spanish monolingualism….there thus exists what we will call an ‘Ethnic Revitalization Paradox’” (Reinstedt and Aronsson 725). A similar inconsistency is documented in other areas of Central and South America in the way communities express their honor for their heritage but simultaneously do not speak to the youth in the corresponding language.

The case studies of Latin American countries offer a distressing but complex tale of language shift from bilingualism in Spanish and indigenous languages, such as Nahuatl, Quichua, and Mayan, to Spanish monolingualism. While it is clear that the Spanish language has been resisted by many indigenous community members, the benefits of learning Spanish in finding steady work and attaining social services from the national government which operates in Spanish often times outweigh the negatives of losing one’s linguistic cultural identity. However, many case studies display the efforts of linguists of indigenous central and South American languages to combat the spread of Spanish monolingualism, often succeeding in slowing the language shift. Study of language shift in Latin America displays the role Spanish has played in the death of these languages, but these same case studies offer hope through a renewed appreciation of indigenous cultures and through the revitalization of indigenous languages.

Works Cited
England, Nora. “Mayan Language Revival and Revitalization Politics: Linguists and Linguistic Ideologies.” American Anthropologist 105.4 (2003): 733-43. UC E-Links. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
Hill, Jane, and Kenneth Hill. “Mixed Grammar, Purist Grammar, and Language Attitudes in Modern Nahuatl.” Language in Society 9.3 (1980): 321-48. UC E-Links. Web. 22 Nov. 2010
Hornberger, Nancy. “Bilingual Education Policy and Practice in the Andes: Ideological Paradox and Intercultural Possibility.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 31.2 (2000): 173-201. JSTOR. Web. 25 Nov. 2010.
Rinstedt, Camilla, and Karin Aronsson. “Growing up Monolingual in a Bilingual Community: The Quichua Revitalization Paradox.” Language in Society 31.5 (2002): 721-42. UC E-Links. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.
Rolstad, Kellie. “Language Death in Central Mexico: The Decline of Nahuatl and the New Bilingual Maintenance Programs.” The Bilingual Review 26.1 (2002): 3-18. UC E-Links. Web. 25 Nov. 2010.

Photo Courtesy of Maggie Wolff


  1. It says “For example, Hungarian has become the language of solidarity, making it almost obsolete in general everyday life, since German, the language of power, has replaced Hungarian.”

    This is completely false.


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