Upper Necaxa Totonac in Context: Exploring the Past, Present, and Future of Northern Totonac

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  • SSHRC Awarded IG 2012: The objective of this research is the continued documentation of Upper Necaxa Totonac (UNT), an endangered Totonacan language of the Sierra Madre Oriental in Puebla State, Mexico, and the expansion of this project to selected sister languages in the Northern Totonac area. Like many minority languages of the world, UNT is in danger of extinction and its disappearance would be a major loss for speakers and scientists alike. A language contains within it an irreplaceable record of a people’s knowledge of their natural environment and their cultural, social, and political history, making the loss of a language a loss of identity. For the scientist, languages encode the unique way in which their speakers organize and understand the world and provide invaluable insights into the cognitive processes of the human mind. The death of a language represents an impoverishment of human linguistic diversity and, as languages such as UNT disappear, linguists of all specializations lose the typological data we need to develop, test, and validate claims about the universal features of human language and its acquisition. In the case of UNT, all but the eldest speakers of the language are bilingual in Spanish, and the language of childrearing in most households has been shifted to Spanish by parents who see proficiency in the language of the larger society as an advantage for their children. Building on materials collected in previous SSHRC funded projects, our research team will collect lexical, textual, and grammatical data that will deepen our understanding of UNT and will carry out linguistic surveys of 3–5 additional Northern Totonacan communities to facilitate comparison and internal reconstruction of the Totonacan family. The project will also collect comparative sociolinguistic data on language attitudes, language use, and language vitality in Northern Totonacan communities, revealing the current state of the languages, which are undergoing differing degrees of language shift, and the factors underlying language loss in indigenous communities in Mexico and around the world. During the course of this project, the research team will spend five summers in the field, recording and transcribing texts and survey material, and will work with native speaker consultants on site at the University of Alberta, transcribing and analyzing this material. The emphasis will be on working with texts from fluent older speakers, whose knowledge of vanishing oral traditions is more profound, making them an important link to the community’s past. The involvement of graduate students in this project is essential, one of our goals being the training of the next generation of North American field linguists. At its most effective, this work will provide motivation and resources for those members of the community who value their language and wish to revitalize and preserve it. Documentation of oral traditions will be especially valuable in this respect, both as archival material and as the basis for pedagogical and popular language publications; the reconstruction of the linguistic history of Totonacan, with its potential to identify links between the Totonacan people and important archeological sites such as Teotihuacán, will help to connect speakers with their cultural heritage. For the local community, this project will create a record of the languages as they are used by the fluent speakers, and of the vanishing traditions of those who speak it. For policy-makers, an understanding of the factors underlying languageshift will help develop strategies for language maintenance and revitalization in minority language communities. For the academic world, it will mean a record of a hitherto undescribed language with many significant and unique linguistic properties.

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    Research Material
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    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International