Love, Greed, Revenge and Social Good.
August 2, 2013 11:28 AM   Subscribe

The first telenovela broadcast in an indigenous language is about to be broadcast in Mexico.

Baktun, which will debut next month was written in Mayan and features professional and non-professional actors. It was financed in part by the government and in order to respect cultural norms is a lot less steamy than the traditional telenovela.

This is not the first time a telenovela has had more than entertainment on its mind. They've been used to promote the census; talk about important public healthissues; encourage safe sex; and more.
posted by brookeb (14 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm, but there are like at least a dozen languages called Mayan, I wonder which one they're using? I guess prolly yucatec?
posted by elizardbits at 11:43 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

ngl i was hoping for nahuatl
posted by elizardbits at 11:44 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also to learn Spanish.
posted by eviemath at 12:49 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

There was a good interview with the writer/director(?) on CBC last week. He talks about how they used an actual village for the main set and got people involved - I thought it was a very positive story.
posted by sneebler at 1:17 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

One translation stumped them, so they simply avoided it. “New York” is referred to as “the far, faraway town.”

“What,” Mr. Chi Canul asked, explaining the difficulty, “is a York?”
I'm certainly no expert in Mayan but I've had my turn translating things.

It's a proper noun; you either use it wholesale or convert it to the closest thing your phonemes allow. No one knows what a "Iorque" is either but everyone knows what we're talking about when "Nova Iorque" comes up.

Since this is not a dead language what do people in the local community use?! Do they just never refer to anything outside of their region?
posted by pmv at 1:50 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Giuliani and Bloomberg, at Tenagra.
posted by dr_dank at 2:05 PM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

Hmm, but there are like at least a dozen languages called Mayan, I wonder which one they're using? I guess prolly yucatec?

So okay, the language naming situation in Central America is complicated. Most languages have at least two names — one used by the native speakers when they're talking about their own language, one used by the government and by foreign linguists. (Some languages have even more than that. Maybe linguists disagree on what to call it, for instance. Or maybe it has a Nahuatl name in addition to its Spanish and local names.) And then there's also disagreements over how most of these languages should be written, meaning that one language name might have umpteen different spellings, depending on which writing system you use. It's a mess.

The language this telenovela is being broadcast in is called Maya or Maya Than by its native speakers (also spelled Maaya T'aan, Màaya T'àan, etc, depending on which spelling system you use). Historically and traditionally, that was just a name for the one language, and not a name for the whole family. It is still the name for the language that's in common use in Mexico.

But then linguists needed a name for the whole language family. So they borrowed the name of this language, and coined the term Mayan languages. (This is like how we've got a family of Germanic languages named after German.) Similarly, they coined the term Mayan peoples to refer to all the speakers of all the Mayan languages. (This is like how historians will talk about the Germanic tribes who spoke all those Germanic languages.) These are not traditional terms — speakers of K'ichee', Q'eqchi', Mam, etc etc etc did not used think of themselves as "Mayan." But they've caught on in the past few decades, so that younger K'ichee'- and Q'eqchi'- and Mam-speaking people definitely do now self-identify as "Mayan."

But now what if you want to refer unambiguously to The Language Formerly Known As Maya Than? If you say "Maya" around a bunch of linguists, they won't be sure whether you're talking about that specific language, or about the whole family, and that's inconvenient. So linguists made up another term for that language — since it's spoken in the Yucatan, they started calling it Yucatec Maya, or Yucatec for short, to specify that they meant that specific language and not any of the others in the family.

Tl;dr: "Maya" and "Yucatec" are both valid names for the language. "Maya" is the name which the native speakers themselves use more often. "Yucatec" is the name which linguists tend to use.

Since this is not a dead language what do people in the local community use?! Do they just never refer to anything outside of their region?

No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. They'd say Nueva York (or maybe a slightly Mayanized version of it, like Nwéeb'a Yóork). But I've got a guess about what's going on here such that they're not calling it that in the script for this show.

Basically all of the Mayan languages have a bazillion Spanish loanwords in them. But in a lot of Mayan communities, this is seen as a Bad Thing. People who are interested in their community's language, and proud of speaking it, tend to be sort of irritated and embarrassed that they're speaking an "impure," "mixed up" version of it instead of the "real," "pure" language that their great-great-great-grandparents would have spoken. Language activists have put a lot of effort into coining new, "pure" words to replace Spanish loanwords. Some of those neologisms have caught on in everyday life; some haven't. But in the context of a language revitalization project, people are going to go way out of their way to avoid the loanwords.

Think of it as cultural resistance. If your language is dying out due to pressure from Spanish, and you want to fight back, it's gonna be really tempting to go all the way with it, and try to stamp out the Spanish influence altogether.

And this business about calling New York "the faraway town" really sounds to me like an example of that. There's a perfectly good name for New York that people in the community would use. But it's a loanword, and the scriptwriters are probably language activists who don't like to use loanwords; so in the context of this show, where they're trying to show off the "best" and "purest" form of the language, they're probably not gonna call it that.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2013 [41 favorites]

(Wheee sorry that was unnecessarily pedantic. Guess who's in grad school studying this shit! I have been super-thrilled about this show and I am super-thrilled about this post and everything is awesome.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:50 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Now there are two: Is this why they had a hard time with "I am falling in love with you", as well? I understand that Maya may not have had continuous verb tenses originally, but I guess I just assumed that the language would have evolved to include them over the 500 years of exposure to Spanish.
posted by KGMoney at 3:10 PM on August 2, 2013

Yeah, from the article I can't really tell what's up with that. Yucatec definitely does have a way of expressing present-progressive type meanings. (In fact, it's got a tense/aspect/mood system that's much richer than the one Spanish has.) It sounds like what they're trying to say is, "Instead of a literal verb meaning 'love,' the script uses an idiomatic expression." But if that's the case, then framing it like it's some sort of gap in the expressive power of the language is pretty weird. So I don't know.

(Er, I should mention that Yucatec isn't the language I'm actually studying. I can read it a little, but I really don't speak it at all. So beyond the absolute basics I'm not gonna be able to tell you much.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 3:28 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

But in the context of a language revitalization project, people are going to go way out of their way to avoid the loanwords.

Yeah, the hispanization of native languages in former spanish colonies is A Big Thing and I'm glad that the efforts being made to combat it are growing. Language death doesn't have to be inevitable.
posted by elizardbits at 3:37 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is so cool. I hope they show the proper way to sleep in a hammock. The way most people do it is like shooting vertical video on your phone.

And I really hope that some time in the near future non-Spanish speaking Mexicans start having a positive presence in the media. If you pay attention to Mexican movies, TV and music you would never know that 7 million Mexicans speak a native language as a first language.

When I was travelling in Southern Mexico about 20 years ago, most kids were trying very hard to speak Spanish and some English, which makes total sense given the racism and opression.

My sister is way more adventurous than me, and she spent a few years in the Chiapas highlands teaching English and Spanish composition to kids.

I went to visit her 2 years ago, and things had started to change. All the kids spoke Tzotzil, which is the lingua franca in that area, apart from any other mother tongue, mostly Tzeltal and Tojolobal.

Since most of their parents work the tourist corridor that goes from Oaxaca to the Yucatan peninsula, most of the kids know a little Lacandon and Yucatec Maya. And they were proud of the languages they can speak. There were multilingual signs outside doctors' offices, and many government publications are printed in at least two languages.

I have never felt so foreign in my own country, specially since I look way more like Diego de Mazariegos than Bartolomé de las Casas. And it is the way it should be, I think.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 2:00 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

What is a York?

Well, the original Celtic inhabitants thought of it as The Place of the Yews. Then the Saxons got into the act, and reinterpreted it as Boartown. Finally, the Norse arrived, to whom it was Horse Bay. (If they hadn't, we'd be calling it Eaverwich today.)

So here I am, Son of One Born from the Yew (Mac Eoghain > Cowan), whose family is from the Land of the Yews (Maigh Eo > Co. Mayo), living in the New Place of the Yews.
posted by johnwcowan at 7:26 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

In other Mayan news: Amazing Maya Facade Exposed in Guatemala
posted by homunculus at 4:09 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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