Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Hofling, Charles

Second Advisor

Hill, Jonathan


This dissertation explores the nature, purpose, function and role of language documentation in order to further our understanding of mechanisms of language transmission and maintenance in the face of language endangerment and the repression of indigenous identity. Beyond its traditional use for generating linguistic data, I argue that the act and the process of language documentation can be understood as a comprehensive means to evaluate the interactions between speakers and researchers and as the stage where various beliefs and emotions are displayed. Extending the notion of “sites” developed by Silverstein (1998) and Kroskrity (2009), I argue that the act of language documentation can create “sites” of linguistic transaction, of self recognition, and of ideological and emotional stance shift. To attain this goal, this project linguistically and ethnographically documents and describes Belizean Mopan, an endangered Mayan language spoken in the southern Petén region of Guatemala and in the Maya Mountain region (Toledo District) of Southern Belize as a case study. Ethnographic and linguistic observation suggest that characteristics of Belizean Mopan do not simply stem from its linguistic features but rather are derived from ethnic complexity, language ideologies, identity politics, the history of Belize and speakers’ awareness of the self. Linguistic biographies, interviews, participant observation, and ethnographic accounts indicate that the individual’s emotional attachments to the language and the sense of belonging to one’s linguistic community are crucial keys for effective language documentation and revitalization. Discourse and grammatical analysis of sound symbolic words in narratives suggest that speakers’ linguistic affects can be evoked through sound itself. The devices used during language documentation, such as voice and video recorders can be understood as “signifying instruments” (J. D. Hill 2014), which amplify or evoke speakers’ and researchers’ linguistic ideologies and/or affects. Tzik ‘respect’ plays a pivotal role in distinguishing Mopans from other Maya groups and many stories and personal narratives either explicitly or subtly demonstrate the concept and importance of tzik for regulating and maintaining the traditional community and for having a successful life, which resembles the secretos ‘secrets’ described in Hofling’s (1996: 109) account of Itzaj Maya lives. Focusing on tzik gained through being a ch’ija’an kristiyanojo ‘the grown-up people’, I argue that storytelling is a primary device to transmit and circulate traditional knowledge, worldview, ideologies and memories of Maya people from the present, the immediate past, and the mythological past and that in a sense, the role and meaning of dream divination and my language consultant, Orlando Sho’s musical performances can be equated with the practice of storytelling. The act of language documentation is a portal to the site of linguistic and cultural transaction and of world learning, in which I see a key to successful language renewal and revitalization.




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