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Aug. 21, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU linguist documents dying Mayan language with $315,000 federal grant

LAWRENCE — Ch’utyaty. Uj-ch’ujña’. Chan.

These words for sun, moon and sky may sound unusual to native English speakers, but for children living in Tila, Mexico, the Chol language is first nature. The language is at least 1,000 years older than English, but it is dying along with an estimated 3,500 other human languages.

To begin efforts to document those languages, Clifton Pye, professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, has received a $314,999 grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Documenting Endangered Languages project will allow Pye to use video and sound technology to record Chol and two other languages spoken by children in Mayan communities in Guatemala: Mam, in San Ildefonso Ixtahuacan, and Q’anjob’al, in Santa Eulalia.

“The documentation of children learning these endangered languages will preserve a unique product of human intellectual achievement as well as support a deeper understanding of how children acquire language,” Pye said while on expedition in Guatemala.

Pye said those communities are undergoing rapid political and economic changes. Those modern influences are leading to the extinction of their language.

“At present, many men between 17 and 40 years of age have migrated to the United States from towns and villages throughout Mexico and Guatemala,” said Pye. “The last decade has brought a greater intrusion of Spanish into remote Mayan communities in the form of satellite and cable television programming.”

Pye said the research presents challenges for him and his group of researchers, often in danger of bandits and major storms.

“We persist in this endeavor because each investigator recognizes the inherent scientific importance of documenting language development for the first time in their communities,” he said.

The National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities gave more than $5 million in awards in 12 fellowships and 22 institutional grants to document more than 50 languages.

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