Writing Mazateco: Linguistic Standardization and Social Power

Michael R Duke

University of Texas at Austin




In this paper, I examine the numerous challenges faced by indigenous linguists in creating a practical writing system for highland Mazateco, an Oto-Manguean language spoken by approximately 92,000 speakers in southern Mexico. While the goal of these indigenous intellectuals is to create an orthography and codified grammar based upon what--from their perspective-- are practical linguistic criteria, local debates about language and literacy are strongly informed by the historically contentious social and political relations that exist both within and between Mazateco communities.


0.  Introduction.

 Over the last twenty years, subaltern groups throughout the world have become increasingly aware of the critical relationship between language, culture and politics.  Although cultural minorities have long been cognizant of the fact that language, far from being merely a vehicle for cultural transmission, is itself the very embodiment of culture, it has only been fairly recently that linguistic preservation has come to be overtly expressed as a site of struggle in so many places throughout the world.  The reasons for the increasing politicization of culture and language are both varied and contextually-specific.  However, what is clear is that the historical ambivalence-- if not outright hostility-- of nation-states to non-official languages, coupled with the increasing colonization of international mass culture into even the most intimate regions of consciousness and social life,  has caused linguistic activists to recognize the possibility of their languages becoming completely marginalized and devalued not just at the national level, but by native speakers themselves.  This is especially apparent in the case of so-called non-written languages.  Because these languages by definition do not preserve and circulate information in textual form, they are at a distinct disadvantage vis á vis the colonial language of the nation, the latter's hegemony reinforced whenever a book is opened or a pen is put to paper.  Furthermore, the ideological importance afforded written texts as bearers of truth and authority serves to relegate the discourses of non-written languages to the status of noise, articulated by a perpetual Other at the outer edges of mass cultural discourse.  Given that the relationship between codified and non-written languages is one which is inherently structured in dominance, it is perhaps not surprising that the linguistic choices involved in the codification of any language are essentially political choices.  That is because, as Schieffelin & Charlier Doucet point out:   "…the creation of supposedly arbitrary sound/sign (signified/signifier) relationships that constitute an orthography always involve choices based on someone's idea of what is important.  This process of representing the sounds in language in written form is thus an activity deeply grounded in frameworks of value" (Schiefflin and Charlier Doucet 1994:176).


Furthermore, orthographic choices are political in the sense that only a select few are able to make such choices in a way that is likely to have a lasting effect on the way that that language should be written.  In other words, those who are able to influence the orthographic or grammatical conventions for a given language are imbued with that authority based upon their socially recognized role as intellectuals.  For subaltern intellectuals involved in issues of linguistic revitalization, however, this social role can be a double-edged sword: while it gives them the authority to "speak for" a particular community of speakers, that same authority may itself be interpreted at the local level as symptomatic of that person's being out of touch with the actual (rather than ideal) linguistic realities of the community. 


This paper will explore the multifaceted challenges faced by indigenous linguists in creating a practical writing system for highland Mazateco, an Oto-Manguean language spoken by 92,000 speakers in the northeastern corner of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.  These indigenous intellectuals-- at least some of whom have formal linguistic training-- are for the most part school teachers, and therefore view the creation of a standardized writing system as the first step in promoting literacy in the Mazateco language.  However, local debates about language and literacy, far from being limited to strictly linguistic or pedagogical concerns, are in fact strongly informed by the historically contentious social and political relations that exist both within and between highland Mazateco communities.


1.  Indigenous Languages and Organic Intellectuals.

 Attempts to explicate the Mazateco language have been carried out since the late 19th century. (Belmar 1892; Brinton 1892)  Perhaps the most significant contribution to Mazateco linguistic studies, however, were those of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.  Eunice Pike and the brother-sister team of George and Florence Cowan, spent many years in the Sierra Mazateca-- mostly in Huautla De Jiménez and Rio Santiago-- producing numerous scholarly and religious articles, as well as the occasional tract written in Mazateco for local consumption.


In the 1980s, several Mazatecos from both the highlands and lowlands began attending an academic program in ethnolinguistics at the Center for Investigations and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in  Apetatitán, Tlaxcala, as part of a broader government initiative to train bilingual teachers and linguistic professionals.  The purpose of this course of study was specifically:  to mould intellectuals from Mexico's different ethnic groups, the objective being to incorporate them into a process of self-knowledge (autoconocimiento) and recognition of values and traditions, and with a view towards an integral ethno-development (etno-desarrollo) of the indigenous peoples within their communities. (Dalton 1990:72)


Thus, one of the goals of the ethnolinguistics program at CIESAS was to foster the emergence of a class of indigenous intellectuals who would use the analysis, promotion and preservation of language as vehicles for transforming the specific indigenous cultures of Mexico into what Antonio Gramsci calls a historical bloc, a dialectical unity of social, cultural, political and economic relations. (Gramsci 1988:192-194)  Gramsci is elicited here not just because of his contribution to our understanding of emergent social movements, however.  Many Mazateco linguists and school teachers, particularly those trained at CIESAS-Apetatitlán, identify strongly with Gramsci's writings as a vehicle for theorizing and politicizing their work as cultural and linguistic revivalists, so much so that many  rather self-consciously refer to themselves as intelectuales orgánicos (organic intellectuals).


While many of the Mazateco ethnolinguists admired the linguistic work carried out by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, they found their orthography, with its complex proliferation of linguistic symbols, to be of little value in establishing a practical writing system.


It is true that foreign researchers have carried out a number of investigations of the (Mazateco) language, but unfortunately these have never benefitted us because they don't propose an alphabet that is in accordance with the needs of the Mazateco people. (Aguilar Mata, Carrera González et. al. 1983:22)


These "needs" include a writing system that is "simple and systematic, and above all practical-- manageable (and) understandable in all cases." (Ibid:21) Concurrent with the creation of a practical orthography, a major goal of the ethnolinguists and their allies is to establish a curriculum for teaching Mazateco grammar and composition in the schools:


The importance of the Mazateco language having an alphabet like any other language corresponds with fundamental educational needs, and it should act as a vehicle for guaranteeing and consolidating the ethnic identity of its speakers. (Ibid:2)


Their efforts have at least the potential to bring about these changes because, while virtually all of the ethnolinguists are active in opposition politics, many in fact exercise considerable authority within the school system, predominantly through their positions within the regional offices of educational institutions such as the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) or the National Pedagogical University. For example, a number have been actively  involved in the publication of educational materials in Mazateco. (Carrera González & Cerqueda García 1989; Instituto Nacional para la Educación de los Adultos 1987; Secretario de Educación Público 1991) While the pedagogical and cultural political goals of the organic intellectuals are similar, there are differences of opinion as to the mechanics of the writing system itself.  These disagreements are mostly concerned with the ways in which particular phonemic values should be textually represented, and which orthographic symbols (if any) should be used to represent the four tones of the Mazateco language.


In contrast, the linguists have been dismayed at the degree to which local and regional opposition to their endeavors--even when expressed in strictly linguistic or pedagogical terms-- are shaped by an ensemble of socio-political factors that at first glance seem only peripherally related to language.  In the following section, I will discuss three factors which influence this often contentious debate: 1) the relationship between dialect and power; 2) the degree to which linguistic purity should be the goal of a Mazateco-based curriculum; and 3) the complex relationship between education and politics in the Sierra Mazateca.


1.1  The Relationship Between Dialect and Power. 

 Throughout much of the Sierra Mazateca's history, the town of Huautla de Jiménez has exercised considerable economic, political and social influence over the region.  Huautla is the largest community in the Sierra, with a population of 8,232 people, according to the 1990 census.  In the religious sphere, for example, Huautla was declared a bishopric by the archdiocese of Oaxaca in 1972, thus giving the Bishop of Huautla considerable authority over the religious affairs of the predominantly Roman Catholic Mazatecos.

Huautla is also the most important commercial center in the region.  Its large Sunday market is visited by buyers and sellers from all over the Sierra, and campesinos needing to purchase particular goods and services --either in cash or on credit--must invariably do business with the town's large merchant class, whose stores line the town's main street.  Whether deservedly or not, these merchants have a reputation for being condescending toward their serrano customers, particularly those who speak neither Spanish nor the Huautleco dialect of Mazateco.  Reportedly, some of their customers even affect a Huautleco accent to avoid being identified as a provincial.


Perhaps most importantly for this discussion, Huautla is the home for the vast majority of the region's schoolteachers, many of whom either commute or spend the school week living in the community in which they teach.  Until fairly recently, schoolteachers were for the most part monolingual Spanish speakers from outside the Sierra.  However, reforms in indigenous education over the last twenty years have led to a proliferation of indigenous, bilingual educators at all scholastic levels.   However, given the Mazatecos decidedly ambivalent attitudes toward Huautla, the fact that so many schoolteachers are Huautlecos has sometimes been a point of contention in the communities where they work.  This is particularly problematic when, as is often the case, teachers consciously or unconsciously privilege the Huautleco dialect as the "proper" way to speak Mazateco.  The ethnolinguists are not unaware of this problem.  Although himself a Huautleco, one remarked that he was completely opposed to privileging one dialect of Mazateco over another "because I am opposed to all types of hegemony."  Consequently, he felt that there the ultimate goal should be to create an orthography which establishes a single writing system applicable to all Mazateco speakers, but which also allows the integrity of individual dialects to be preserved.


1.2  Linguistic Purity versus Word Borrowing.

 An additional point of contention concerns the degree to which Spanish loan words, as well as Mazateco's apparent shift toward Latinate syntactical structures, should be incorporated into Mazateco dictionaries and grammars.  Like all Mexican indigenous languages, Mazateco contains a considerable number of Spanish loan words.  Among at least certain organic intellectuals, a principal goal in revitalizing the language should entail the elimination of all "foreign" elements.  One way of accomplishing this is to historically reconstruct the form of the word that existed prior to being overtaken by its Spanish equivalent.


This sometimes made a muddle of my attempts to learn Mazateco. For example, one of the linguists with whom I worked most closely translated the word for song as 'jnda'.  However, my using the word 'jnda' met with considerable laughter and confusion among native speakers, and I was made painfully aware of the fact that in many dialects of highland Mazateco, the word for 'song' is derived from the Spanish. (In Eloxochitán de Flores Magón [formerly San Antonio Eloxochitlan], for instance, the word is 'so', presumedly derived from the Spanish 'son, while in Huautla the word is equivalent to the Spanish: 'canción').  My consultant later explained to me that, while it is true that people use a variation of the Spanish loan words to express the word 'song', these were in fact not really proper. In contrast, through historical reconstruction he ascertained that the word for song should be 'jnda', derived from the irregular verb 'se', to sing.


A similar problem emerged when I attempted to learn the rules for Mazateco syntax.  I was taught by this same consultant that declarative sentences must follow a strict verb-object-subject word order, and that other syntactical structures reflected an improper drift toward a Latinate syntax.  The evidence for Mazateco syntactical drift toward a word order more in line with that of Spanish is inconclusive at this point.  However, the fact remains that, at least in the contemporary Huautleco dialect, there is considerable syntactical leeway. The concern of the ethnolinguists and their allies in promoting "correct" ways of speaking even extends to the way in which Mazatecos refer to themselves.  On the relatively rare occasions when Mazatecos refer to themselves as an ethnic group, they use the term yoma, which literally means poor person or invalid.  The organic intellectuals, on the other hand, insist that the proper gloss for 'Mazateco' is yama or 'indígena', a word which has met with considerable opposition from many Mazateco speakers.  (González Carrera &  von Doesburg 1993:14) Thus, the "intelectuales orgánicos" are placed in a contradictory situation.  While trying to codify the Mazateco language in a manner which is both radically inclusive and "in accordance with the needs of the Mazateco people", (Aguilar Mata, Carrera González et.

al. 1983:22) they have become painfully aware of the degree to which any attempt to codify a language--whether through creating a writing system or establishing a standard grammar-- is inherently a hegemonic process, one of whose outcomes is the diminution of the parameters of acceptable modes of speaking and writing.  


1.3  Politics and Education.

As we have seen previously, a particular point of antagonism in terms of initiating a writing system has to do with a history of distrust and antagonism between Mazateco communities.  However, Mazateco communities are also notorious for the level of factionalism within them as well. Although the particular characteristics of these antagonisms are communally and historically specific, they are in most instances articulated through a complex intersection of religion, social class, political affiliation and residence within particular barrios or hamlets.


This has a number of implications for the development and promotion of a Mazateco writing system and teaching curriculum.  Nearly all those who are actively involved in this process, for example, are members of the opposition Popular Socialist Party (PPS) as well as the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), a dissident wing of the national teacher's union.   For this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the resistance to the proposed curriculum comes from parents and teachers who are members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and/or the party's government-allied teacher's union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE).  The opinions of those who are in opposition to the proposed curriculum vary considerably.

Many teachers, for example, recognize the need for some form of bilingual education, particularly in those communities whose students speak little Spanish. Many in fact already utilize some type of system for writing Mazateco in the course of their teaching, albeit one which is largely improvised.  However, these teachers see bilingual education as a mechanism for educating students in their native language while concurrently teaching them Spanish, rather than a means of promoting cultural and linguistic revitalization.


Other teachers have a decidedly more negative view of the ethnolinguists' efforts.  Although they, too, are involved in bilingual education, they see attempts to teach writing and grammar as a waste of time, for it merely teaches students a language in which they are presumedly already fluent.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that many of these opponents are members of the PRI and the SNTE, some have even gone so far as to suggest that the proposed bilingual education program is part of a government plot to keep indigenous people in ignorance.  For one primary school teacher, the fact that the proposed bilingual program necessarily takes valuable classroom time away from other subjects, and because it presumedly (albeit incorrectly) privileges the teaching of Mazateco over Spanish, it is obviously part of a government scheme to maintain the marginal status of indigenous people, as well as keep them too ignorant to rebel. Furthermore, according to this teacher, despite the leftist credentials of the ethnolinguists, they are in fact dupes in this process, having sold out to the government long ago by accepting grants to study linguistics in Tlaxcala.


While the views of this particular teacher may have had little basis in fact, it is one which is shared in one degree or another by a number of his colleagues, as well as some of the parents of school-age children.  It is included here, however, because it points to two factors which continually threaten to erode the efforts of the organic intellectuals.  Like many highland Oaxacan communities, there are few beliefs or social practices in the Sierra Mazateca not informed by envy (Baird 1991).  As a form of social control par excellence, the anxiety that one's neighbors might undeservedly get ahead, or that they may in turn become envious of you, is a factor which most highland Mazatecos must carefully weigh whenever they enter into a particular social interaction.


As was apparent in the views of a school teacher opposed to the proposed bilingual curriculum, part of the opposition to the ethnolinguists' efforts had to do with jealousy.  (Later in the same conversation, he expressed his chagrin in never having had the opportunity to study at the university.) One linguist described the problems he faced when he returned to the Sierra after completing his studies at CIESAS:


The problems that we had in the region when we returned were those of jealousy

and egotism.  Some had the impression that we had come to take something away

from them.  Others thought that we weren't going to do anything to help our

people. (Dalton 1990:75)


A more complex, and perhaps more significant impediment to promoting a Mazateco curriculum, however, has to do with the contradictory role of indigenous intellectuals in Mexico.  Because indigenous intellectuals, whatever their political orientation, act as mediators between particular non-local institutions and members of their ethnic group, they must typically fulfil two requirements. First, they must acquire sufficient social capital to be credible across a number of social fields, primarily through the earning of credentials.  In the case of Mazateco intellectuals, for example, the acquiring of academic degrees and bureaucratic positions in institutions like the Public Education Ministry and the National Pedagogical University, have given them the credibility to address issues of "lo Mazateco" (including the codification of the Mazateco language) to an audience beyond the Sierra Mazateca.  However-- and this is precisely how they differ from other types of intellectuals like anthropologist and linguists-- indigenous intellectuals must also have sufficient cultural capital within their own ethnic group to be able to "speak for" the interests of that group.


However, as Bourdieu has pointed out, the emergence of a spokesperson for a particular group necessarily entails a "political dispossession" (Bourdieu 1991:42) of the members of that group, since the latter's discourses must now be filtered through those of a relatively small number of group members.    


Furthermore, the social position of indigenous intellectuals as mediators may itself reduce their credibility within the social group.  As we have seen, for at least certain opponents of the organic intellectuals' efforts, the fact that they are so closely tied with institutions of non-local origin automatically calls into question their ability to speak for the pedagogical and orthographic interests of the Mazateco people.  In sum, the social role of Mazateco intellectuals must be recognized by state and national institutions, and within their own cultural group.  However, as was discussed above, the latter necessarily entails that the organic intellectuals be given the authority by the Mazatecos themselves to organize and speak in the name of their culture, educational system and language, something which many in these communities are hesitant to do.


2. Conclusion.

This paper has shown how something as seemingly value-free as orthography can serve as a point of intersection for all manner of social, cultural and political antagonisms.   The ethnolinguist-intellectuals' attempts to create both a Mazateco writing system, and a curriculum to teach it in the schools, met with a considerable range of opinion as to their linguistic, educational and social value.


However, the views of particular groups of Mazatecos were shaped not so much by linguistic criteria, but by how they conceptualized the relationship between regional and national culture, as well as their particular willingness to allow the ethnolinguists to speak and act on their behalf.  Thus, the Mazateco case has shown us how all attempts to codify a language-- through the creation of grammars, writing systems and the like-- are necessarily political acts, and are hence saturated at every level with relations of power, not the least being the power to determine the parameters of "proper" writing and speech.





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1989. Conchjúne en titonna: mi libro Mazateco, primer grado.  Mexico: Secretaria de Educacion Publica.


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The Mazateco language is often divided into two broad dialect groups: highland speakers occupy the Sierra Mazateca mountain range in the district of Teotitlán de Flores Magón, while the approximately 17,000 speakers of lowland Mazateco reside in the area surrounding the Miguel Alemán Dam in the district of Tuxtepec, along the Oaxaca-Veracruz border.

For the latter, see Instituto Lingüistico de Verano 1970.  I use the term indigenous intellectual here, and in the remainder of the paper, to refer to those social actors who are actively engaged in the linguistic, cultural, and/or economic promotion and preservation of their ethnic group.


 Organic intellectuals, according to Gramsci, are those members of particular social groups whose role is to "give (that group) homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields." (Gramsci 1988:301) The primary role of organic intellectuals is thus not solely to theorize those ideological positions which promote group solidarity, but to educate and organize that group as well.  The apparent contradiction that educación indígena may actually  privilege certain forms of speech is perhaps most acute in the municipality of San Juan Coatzospan.  An island of Mixteco speakers within the Sierra Mazateca, Coatzospan's students are taught by Mazateco instructors who have little if any knowledge of the Mixteco language.


Currently, he and a group of colleagues from other communities are involved in a project with the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) to design a curriculum in four dialects of Mazateco.  For example, the sentence "My father picks (literally cuts) oranges" can be correctly expressed in the following ways:


(1)        bate láxa n'aina  "cuts oranges father (my)"

(2)        láxa bate n'aina   "oranges cuts father (my)"

(3)        n'aina láxa bate    "father (my) oranges cuts"

(4)        n'aina bate láxa   "father (my) cuts oranges"


 Except for the relative few who act as intermediaries between outsiders and Mazateco society-- politicians, merchants, shamans, bureaucrats-- the subjectivity of  Sierra residents is rarely tied to their membership in a particular ethnic group, but rather to social factors such as occupation, kinship, residence in a particular community, etc. (Duke 1995:19-20) As of this writing (May, 1995), support for the PPS in Huautla, one of its traditional strongholds, has fallen precipitously due to the ineffectiveness of its leadership, as well as the widely-held perception that its national leaders were bribed by the PRI to refuse to support the leftist coalition which formed around the presidential candidacy of Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas.  Many of Huautla's so-called "pepinos" are now members of Cardenas' Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD).