EM2: Cross-mediated endangered language elicitation


Coordinator: Jean-Léo LEONARD (IUF-LPP CNRS Paris 3)

Participants in the LABEX-EFL:

Jean Léo Léonard (IUF-LPP CNRS Paris 3), Alain Kihm (CNRS-Université de Paris 7), Jean-Marie Marandin (CNRS-Paris 7), Sylvaine Schwer (Paris 13), Guillaume Jacques (CRLAO), Antonia Colazo-Simon (PhD., LPP CNRS), Julie Gragnic-Mc Cabe (Ph.D. student, LPP CNRS), Antonella Gaillard-Corvaglia (PhD., LPP CNRS).

External collaborators: Karla Aviles (Ph. D., Ciesas Mexico City & Université de Tours, Fr & Mx), Helios Figuerola Pujol (Ph. D., EREA Centre Enseignement et Recherche en Ethnologie Amérindienne du LESC, Paris 10), Maurizio Gnerre (Università di Napoli, l’Orientale), Vittorio dell’Aquila (CELE, Milan), Bulmaro Vasquez Romero (ENBIO, Oaxaca, Mx), José Antonio Flores Farfán (Ciesas Mexico City), Gilles polian (Ciesas Sureste, Mx), José Aurelio Silvestre Sánchez (ALMG Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala).

Introduction: Though endangered languages (Crystal 2000, Robins & al. 2000) are mostly considered as being passed on through oral tradition, yet many of them are written to a large extent, or have experienced processes of code elaboration. Literacy is no more the only asset of First World or (inter)national languages. In Northern Africa, Tifinagh literacy has been spreading in recent decades. In Central America, all native American languages are being written with a Spanish-based alphabet (see Benton 1999), which proved to be quite efficient to foster bilingual and intercultural education. But indigenous literacy also calls the attention of linguists, mainly phoneticians and phonologists. As native literacy gains ground in indigenous societies, the intricacy of mental mapping of linguistic patterns within the mind of the speaker becomes more available for the linguist, who can elicit written forms as much as spoken forms of speech and grammar. The team involved in this proposal have been developing for over ten years a methodology for Cross-mediated Endangered Language Elicitation (through written and oral elicitation, in collective workshops of native speakers). They wish to pursue on this track within the Labex, in order to link linguistic fieldwork methodology with experimental psychology and literacy studies.

Topics: Data are Phonological and morphological data can be elicited not only orally, in the traditional way, but taking into account the cognitive dimension of literacy. We call this way of eliciting sound patterns of oral languages “Cross-mediated Endangered Language Elicitation” – some would call it “diamesic elicitation”. Otomanguean languages of Mesoamerica deserve especial attention in this respect, because of the high level of phonological and grammatical complexity these languages display – they score the highest degree of intricacy in tone, consonant and inflectional patterns. Mazatec and Chinantec will provide a wide array of empirical data, consulting hundreds of young speakers and teachers, in educational settings such as bilingual schools. Besides these two languages, two other Otomanguean languages will be taken into account: zapotec and mixtec (tu’un savi, see bradley & Josserand 1982 and Léonard 2010b), and Mayan languages such as chol and Kaqchikel, q’anjob’al (Popti’ or Jacaltek – see Grinevald 1979 –, Akatek and Chuj, in Guatemala), for specific patterns, such as the perception and notation of retracted vowels (Chol and Kaqchikel, see Léonard & Tuyuc Sucuc 2009) and of uvular and velar consonants (Q’anjob’al, see Léonard & dell’Aquila 2009). The coordinator of the project already has extensive experience in cross-elicitation – i.e. diamesic elicitation – of all these languages, in Mexico and Guatemala.

Methodology: Basically, cross-elicitation of phonological data (i.e. oral and written) proceeds through literacy workshops, where native speakers of indigenous languages gather for several days of creative writing sessions. These materials are designed to produce teaching materials for education. Bulmaro Vásquez Romero’s EIBI (Educación Indígena Bilingüe Intercultural = bilingual and intercultural indigenous education) network is an expanding working group of bilingual schoolteachers with the aim of sharing experience and practices, supporting one another and reaching out to those teachers placed in isolated regions and communities. Bulmaro Vásquez Romero is a former director of the ENBIO, currently holding the position of professor at the same school. The objective of the EIBI network is to transform and improve indigenous education from the inside, through the teachers and speakers of the languages. Jean Léo Léonard and Julie Gragnic have been involved in intensive cooperation with this network and with the ENBIO since 2008. Hundreds of speakers of all ages can also be involved using question lists in primary and secundary schools. The Academía de Lenguas Mayas du Guatemala (http://www.almg.org.gt/portal/) and the DIGEBI (Dirección General de Educación Bilingüe Intercultural http://www.mineduc.gob.gt/administracion/dependencias/centrales/digebi/iframe.html will be our main partners in Guatemala (see Zavala & Smith-Stark 2007 for a survey of Applied Mayan Linguistics in Guatemala). Moreover, Oaxaca Chontal or Tekistlatek, a highly endangered language of Meso-America, might be experimentally involved in the project, in partnership with the EIBI network.


Goals: The aim will be twofold: i) generate new and reliable data, ii) provide critical insights on phonological systems. As to (i), creative writing workshops have proved to be a most powerful way of not only to elicitate linguistic data, but also to revitalize endangered languages. Sessions are organized in schools or in cultural institutions open to everyone, such as Casas de Cultura, involving children as much as adults and elders (from 10 to 50 participants in each session). Moreover, every kind of folk narrative comes up during the session. As to (ii), most of the data available on Meso-American endangered languages has been recorded and published half a century ago or more, by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, with serious flaws and a bitter need for up to date theoretical insights (compare Pike & Pike 1947 with Golston & Kehrein 1998, 2004, see Benton 1999 as far as literacy in native languages of Mexico was planned by the SIL). See also Léonard 2010a & b; Léonard & Kihm 2010).

Impact and predictions: The cognitive and psychosocial dimension of how data are produced, built up or even construed has been more under the scrutiny of anthropological studies (McNabb 1990, Romney & al. 1986) than anthropological linguistics. Many surveys on endangered language fieldwork techniques, though quite useful and accurate (Gippert & al. 2006), or most sensitive to the informant skills and attitudes (Tamura 2004) simply miss the point. They remain trapped in face-to-face interaction, and rely too much on “spontaneous” and single speech productions (i.e. idiolects “on the spot”). The cross-elicitation technique makes the elicitation process more complex and reliable, providing psychosocial conditions for collective checking and comments of elicited data within the framework of writing sessions, and will provide data that can be processed both experimentally and statistically. From the standpoint of revitalization (Fishman 2001), as intensive and creative work on native literacy with educational goals, this method has proved to be a powerful asset for community empowerment, with a positive impact on the local economy. Language revitalization in Central America is part of a broader process of strengthening social links and making the local population stay in their communities and to foster local development, instead of migrating to urban centers or to the USA.



Main research area

Time frame

Mazatec, Q'anjob'al and Chol Phonological and Morphosyntactical cross-mediated elicitation (work in progress since 2010 and before)

All levels of analysis


Oaxaca chontal (Tekistlatec) and Ombelyiiüts Phonological and Morphosyntactical cross-mediated elicitation (highly endangered languages)

All levels of analysis


Chinantec and Otomi Phonological and Morphosyntactical cross-mediated elicitation (highly complex Oto-Manguean languages)

All levels of analysis