Writers create a language from the Mayan past

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can8602_40, Chichen Itza, Maya Ruins, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico by jimg944.

Writers create language. (Photo by JIMG944 Flickr)

Writers, archeologists and common people in South America are, at this very instant, ressurecting a language that died in the 16th Century. Those Mayan people of South America are, as they save the old language, writing a new language. A new language, for writing and speaking, will evolve in the 21st Century.

I watched a PBS Nova special over the weekend, Cracking the Maya Code, (a nine minute exerpt is below). The depths of my reaction, from a writer’s perspective, surprised me. I’m not Mayan or of indigenous people of any sort. My ancestors are European. But watching the timeline PBS put together to illustrate the fall of Maya, the loss of their culture, and the extinction of their language, felt personal.

The Mayans had a robust, high tech society more than 2,000 years ago. Their libraries were as extensive as ours are today and yet, only four or five books survive. The Mayan culture, and more importantly, the Mayan language died when Europeans arrived as conquerers to destroy the libraries and force Mayan people to speak another language and embrace another culture. Death was the consequence of non-compliance.

That means an highly intelligent and articulate people made a cultural record, written and also handed from generation to generation, that was as important to them as ours is to us, today. They had science, math, theater, and literature. It’s gone. Wiped out with so few traces that it has taken more than five centuries to do repair and recovery.

For me, the thought of writers’ work being lost forever is abundantly sad. It’s as though all of the medical advances in modern times were to be wirped out. Or all technology disappears. Think about it. If European people had beent he victims, rather than the conquerors, the record of our history could have been destroyed. No bible, no Shakespere, no Davinci, no Bach or Beethoven.

The point underlined for me is how important the written record is. As long as there are people on the Earth, it’s urgent we learn from our mistakes and from our successes. Writers, in every discipline, are the people who provide the basis of that learning. Our work is important and is worth doing well. It’s worth preserving. In the 19th Century, scientists began to unlock the Mayan language – the process has been mesmerizing.

Modern Mayans who still people parts of South America are filled with wonder at the idea of recovering their language and whatever bits of their cultural roots are still here. Because their history was so thoroughly destroyed, the few stelae, books, and artifacts left provide a basis of interpreting the language – they will probably not recover it in total. My feeling is,  if they continue to teach it in their schools, which they are doing at this point, and encourage use of the old language, they will begin to fill in the blanks, thus evolving a new language as they struggle to ressurect the old one.

I wish them all the success in the world!

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  1. Daily News About Writing : A few links about Writing - Sunday, 31 May 2009 12:12 - May 31, 2009

    […] Writers create a language from the Mayan past […]

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    […] Cracking the Maya Code […]