Roughly five hundred years before its invasion, the once majestic Maya civilization dissolved into hyperlocal city-states. The jungle swallowed their breathtaking temples and the Iberian colonizers suppressed most of what remained of the pre-conquest culture. In the absence of authentic and comprehensible records, the written accounts of the European establishment arose as the only historiographic and ethnographic sources on pre-colonial civilization. Of course, these official accounts existed to perpetuate a very specific political agenda. Some missionaries, however, secretely documented entirely different accounts of indigenous customs.
In Mexico, Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún endeavored to memorialize Aztec society in his Florentine Codex. The Inquisition strongly denounced Sahagún’s efforts, and Sahagún was several times compelled to prove the truthfulness of his accounts. In Guatemala, Dominican missionary Francisco Ximénez compiled several works pertaining to highland Maya languages, and another which contains the oldest surviving account of the indigenous oral narrative known today as Popol Vuh. In Perú, Jesuit missionary José de Acosta could not understand how Amerindian culture sustained its history when “without [an alphabet] it does not seem possible to preserve long, elegant speeches.”
Fellow Jesuit missionary Joan de Tovar explained that “although they had sundry figures and characters with which they put things in writing, their writing was not as adequate as our own [… I]n order to memorize precise words and copy speeches made by orators […] they had daily exercises in the schools of the principal men who were to be the successors of the orators, and by dint of constant repetition they committed the material to memory, so that there were no inconsistencies […] In this way many speeches were preserved, word for word, from generation to generation, until the arrival of the Spaniards who wrote down in our letters many speeches and poems.”
The seventeenth century statesman George Savile observed that, “nothing has an uglier look to us than reason, when it’s not on our side.” The European intellectual disconnect was largely a result of the Renaissance inversion of the author-function where anonymity diminished the perceived reliability of a written source. A number of social and religious analogues led many colonizers to invent fanciful ideas to explain Amerindian civilization. Some concluded that the Amerindians were the “lost tribe” of Israel. Others believed the Apostle Thomas miraculously teleported to the Americas. In 1562 Diego de Landa claimed to have found a “great number of books” (that is, painted codicies), but in 1722 Francisco Ximénez noted that “it is certain that such [books] never appeared, nor has been seen” and “thus it is plausible [the histories] were conserved by memory.”
Taught properly, twenty-first century language studies are culture- and literature-driven fields that reflect an evolved discipline and an encompassing inquiry—not mere polylingualism. In contrast to observational humanities, literature is an experiential medium driven by context as much as content. Whether one examines contemporary literature that reflects sociocultural dynamics or antiquitous authorship that requires historical decryption, language studies are intended to be an applied discipline.
Language proficiency represents a considerable private-sector career advantage. Where it is deemed an in-demand credential, most corporations readily offer a 10% to 15% salary enhancement for language fluency. And for those seeking to effect social change, language fluency enables politicians, attorneys, medical practitioners, educators, and social workers to better advocate the needs and rights of marginalized persons.
Entry-level language studies are not altogether different than learning a musical instrument. What might be rough and cacophonic at first later gives rise to glorious symphonies and to compelling discourse. In the abstract, language studies would seem peripheral to intellectual pursuits, but it is what a person does with an acquired language that makes it useful, relevant, interesting, and self-actualizing.
John Woodruff is a contract linguist, irregular adjunct professor, digital humanities practitioner, and Alt-Ac colonialist scholar. He holds an earned Ph.D. in Romance Languages and is one of the world’s foremost experts on the periconquest Maya narrative known as Popol Vuh which he examines through the lens of marginalia theory. Other areas of interest and study include Maya anthropology, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Generation of 1927 poets and dramatists. More recently, Dr. Woodruff has taken an interest in gender law and policy. Dr. Woodruff is also the author of various workflow utilities, most notably FormMail++ and Excellent Grades. Full Profile
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