Linguistic lifeforms

In a sense, everybody in this town speaks his or her own version of Tz’utujil.

Languages are like living organisms. Some living things hardly change from generation to generation. Human being are an example. As a species, we’re relatively stable. Generally speaking, you’re not going to see drastic changes between generations of human beings. Bacteria and viruses, on the other hand, are able to mutate and evolve drastically even within a single lifespan, adapting to changing environmental conditions and sharing the bits and pieces of DNA with each other.

Tz’utujil and the Mayan languages spoken along the lake are like a microbial lifeform. With every generation that passes, they evolve signficantly, absorb new vocabulary and even change their basic grammatical structure. The Tz’utujil that is spoken in San Pedro, while only a kilometer and a half away, is distinctly different from the Tz’utujil that is spoken in San Juan. The Tz’utujil spoken by the elders of San Juan is distinctly different from the Tz’utujil spoken by young adults. The languages, or dialects depending on your perspective, spoken along the lake bleed into one another. Where does Tz’utujil end and Kaqchikel begin? Well, uh… actually in San Pablo.

San Pablo, the most lampooned of all the towns, is a special case. San Pablo is raggedy kid in school that the other kids make fun of but never to his face because they’re afraid they’ll get beat up. While its reputation for being a violent, unhygienic, dirt-poor and generally “backwards” place, it is, in a sense, the most true to its roots of all the towns on the lake. San Pablo has been the most resistant to outside influences, and the language spoken there is reflective of that. You won’t hear Spanish words mixed in with peoples’ sentences, and it’s likely that what they speak is closest to the ancient Mayan languages. Despite all that, they and the San Juaneros can still communicate fairly well. The folks on the streets of San Pablo appear noticeably tougher, and there is really no tourism to speak of in San Pablo, except for “massage parlors.”

They’re closing the Internet cafe, so I am going to have to continue this post another day…How did American English, by comparison, become so stable and homogenized? Which case is more normal or more natural? I believe these are big beautiful questions.

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4 thoughts on “Linguistic lifeforms

  1. Wondering if any of the various Tz’utujil dialects are documented. How would you begin to learn them all other than spending time with people in each different region? Fascinating and beautiful! Will be interested to hear more of your thoughts on the comparison to American English.

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