Colonial Latin American Literacy

ddeh_62_3The most recent issue of Ethnohistory entitled “Colonial Mesoamerican Literacy: Method, Form, and Consequence,” is “overstuffed with expertise and insight, corpulent with many lifetimes of immersion in indigenous languages and cultural traditions,” journal editor Matthew Restall writes in the Preface. This special issue edited by Kathryn E. Sampeck includes ten articles in history, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, literature, and art history. The articles illustrate how all kinds of symbolic communication are part of the matrix of literacy and broadens the notions of canonical colonial writing by showing that formulaic texts were in fact variable and entrenched in local dialects and history. Topics include scribal variation and interaction, pictorial texts, Mayan translations of European astrological texts, change in literacy and literature in Guatemala, Maya medical incantations, and alphabetic literacy. The issue also includes a color image gallery to complement the articles.

978-0-8223-3390-6If you find this interesting, you may also wish to read our books, which focus on literacy in colonial Latin America. In The Cord Keepers, the distinguished anthropologist Frank Salomon breaks new ground with a close ethnography of one Andean village where villagers, surprisingly, have conserved a set of these enigmatic cords to the present day. The “quipocamayos,” as the villagers call them, form a sacred patrimony. Keying his reading to the internal life of the ancient kin groups that own the khipus, Salomon suggests that the multicolored cords, with their knots and lavishly woven ornaments, did not mimic speech as most systems of writing do, but instead were anchored in nonverbal codes. The Cord Keepers makes a compelling argument for a close intrinsic link between rituals and visual-sign systems. It indicates that, while Andean graphic representation may differ radically from familiar ideas of writing, it may not lie beyond the reach of scholarly interpretation.

978-0-8223-5044-6Frank Salomon continues his investigation into Andean literacy in The Lettered Mountain. In this book, he and Mercedes Niño-Murcia expand notions of literacy and challenge stereotypes of Andean “orality” by analyzing the writings of mountain villagers from Inka times to the Internet era. Their historical ethnography is based on extensive research in the village of Tupicocha, in the central Peruvian province of Huarochirí. The region has a special place in the history of Latin American letters as the home of the unique early-seventeenth-century Quechua-language book explaining Peru’s ancient gods and priesthoods. Granted access to Tupicocha’s surprisingly rich internal archives, Salomon and Niño-Murcia found that legacy reflected in a distinctive version of lettered life developed prior to the arrival of state schools. In their detailed ethnography, writing emerges as a vital practice underlying specifically Andean sacred culture and self-governance. At the same time, the authors find that Andean relations with the nation-state have been disadvantaged by state writing standards developed in dialogue with European academies but not with the rural literate tradition.

978-0-8223-5128-3In Beyond the Lettered City, the anthropologist Joanne Rappaport and the art historian Tom Cummins examine the colonial imposition of alphabetic and visual literacy on indigenous groups in the northern Andes. They consider how the Andean peoples received, maintained, and subverted the conventions of Spanish literacy, often combining them with their own traditions. Indigenous Andean communities neither used narrative pictorial representation nor had alphabetic or hieroglyphic literacy before the arrival of the Spaniards. To absorb the conventions of Spanish literacy, they had to engage with European symbolic systems. Doing so altered their worldviews and everyday lives, making alphabetic and visual literacy prime tools of colonial domination. Rappaport and Cummins advocate a broad understanding of literacy, including not only reading and writing, but also interpretations of the spoken word, paintings, wax seals, gestures, and urban design. By analyzing secular and religious notarial manuals and dictionaries, urban architecture, religious images, catechisms and sermons, and the vast corpus of administrative documents produced by the colonial authorities and indigenous scribes, they expand Ángel Rama’s concept of the lettered city to encompass many of those who previously would have been considered the least literate.

The 2014 Word of the Year is #blacklivesmatter

american-dialect-society-logoAt the 2015 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Portland last month, the American Dialect Society conducted its 25th annual Word of the Year vote. For the first time a hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, was selected as the overall winner.

Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said, “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message. Language scholars are paying attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags, and #blacklivesmatter was certainly a forceful example of this in 2014.” The hashtag took on special significance after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Erich Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and the failure of grand juries to indict police officers in both cases. Fueled by social media, it became a rallying cry and a vehicle for expressing protest.

In addition to the Word of the Year, ADS also selected words in a number of categories: Most Useful (even), Most Creative (columbusing), Most Unnecessary (baeless), Most Outrageous (second-amendment), Most Euphemistic (EIT), Most Likely to Succeed (salty), and Least Likely to Succeed (platisher). Two years ago, the society voted hashtag Word of the Year. This year, not only was an actual hashtag chosen as Word of the Year, but a special new category, Most Notable Hashtag, was created. #blacklivesmatter also won in that category.

For a full list of American Dialect Society Words of the Year, and a description of the selected words, visit

On the Trail of New Words, from “App” to “Nom”

At its annual meeting last January, the American Dialect Society named a new chair of its New Words Committee: Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and, and until recently the On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine. As part of his duties, Zimmer will take the helm of "Among the New Words," a long-running department in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the ADS published by Duke University Press. Zimmer will also oversee the selection of the ADS Word of the Year, an announcement that attracts extensive media attention. Here Zimmer reflects on his new role.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Among the New Words": Dwight L. Bolinger brought the feature to the pages of American Speech in 1941, after previously writing a new-word column called "The Living Language" for the Los Angeles-based magazine Words. It is a great honor to be carrying on this distinguished legacy, though I wonder what Bolinger would make of the linguistic landscape of the early 21st century, when innovative lexical formations spread like wildfire over Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

As the digital age hastens the rapid circulation of new words and phrases, neologism-watchers can sometimes find themselves playing a more active role in the success or failure of language forms. The American Dialect Society's Word of the Year proceedings are closely watched by the media, and the ensuing coverage can occasionally help to solidify a word's place in the lexicon — even if ADS members might prefer to see themselves as neutral linguistic observers. One notable case where the WOTY choice represented something of a "thumb on the scale" of language came at the ADS annual meeting in Albuquerque in January 2006 (my first). After much debate, truthiness was selected as the 2005 Word of the Year, even though its parodic use by faux-pundit Stephen Colbert was still quite fresh at the time. As I observed in an On Language column celebrating the fifth anniversary of truthiness, the ADS unwittingly played a major role in catapulting the Colbertism into the public consciousness.

Even when the Word of the Year is not so brand-new, the selection can have significant repercussions. That is certainly the case with the 2010 winner, app, an abbreviated form of "(computer) application." Though it can be dated back to 1985, app has been given a new lease on life lately. As I said in the press release accompanying the announcement, "App has been around for ages, but with millions of dollars of marketing muscle behind the slogan 'There’s an app for that,' plus the arrival of 'app stores' for a wide spectrum of operating systems for phones and computers, app really exploded in the last 12 months."

Much to my surprise, just three days after the announcement, my quote from the press release found its way into a brief filed by Microsoft, contesting Apple's trademark claim for the phrase "app store." The selection of app as Word of the Year, along with my comment on the prevalence of "app stores" for mobile devices, served as fodder for Microsoft in its argument that the term "app store" is generic and not distinctive enough for Apple to maintain a trademark. (The fact that I quoted Apple's popular slogan, "There's an app for that," went unremarked by Microsoft's lawyers.)

And just last week, the WOTY choice was in the news again, since Apple sued Amazon for opening up an "Appstore" to sell apps for Google's Android devices. An article on about the "app store" feud quoted me along with fellow ADS members Wayne Glowka (who edited "Among the New Words" from 1997 to 2008) and Bill Kretzschmar (who was responsible for nominating app from the floor at our January meeting). I pondered further on the trademark squabble in my Word Routes column for the Visual Thesaurus, as well as in a piece for The New York Times Week in Review entitled "The Great Language Land Grab."

In my first installment of "Among the New Words" (to appear in the June issue of American Speech) I will be surveying the various nominees for 2010 Word of the Year, including subcategories such as Most Euphemistic, Most Likely to Succeed, and Most Outrageous. In the main category, app beat out another three-letter word: nom, an onomatopoetic form suggesting pleasurable eating, used as an interjection, noun or verb. Nom traveled from Sesame Street's Cookie Monster (whose voracious noises are often represented as "om nom nom nom") to the online images known as "lolcats," and on to wider usage thanks in part to Twitter.

I suspect Bolinger would have appreciated the earthy joys of nom. After all, in a 1940 article in American Speech, Bolinger observed how imitative expressions like humph, ahem, pish, and tsk often get turned into "real words" by "pronouncing them as spelled rather than articulating the sounds they were intended to represent." And among the first batch of neologisms he provided for "Among the New Words" the following year was none other than burp — like nom, a kind of digestive onomatopoeia that can be pressed into service as a noun or verb. Plus ça change!


American Dialect Society Votes ‘App’ Word Of The Year

Last week at its annual meeting, the American Dialect Society voted on the words of the year. The society named "App" the word of the year, though it was a close contest. Many votes were also cast for "Nom," which NPR describes as "a chat-, tweet-, and text-friendly syllable that connotes 'yummy food."

Ben Zimmer, who is the chair of the New Words committee, as well as the "On Language" columnist for the New York Times Magazine said this of the winner in a recent press release from the ADS: “App has been around for ages, but with millions of dollars of marketing muscle behind the slogan ‘There’s an app for that,’ plus the arrival of ‘app stores’ for a wide spectrum of operating systems for phones and computers, app really exploded in the last 12 months…One of the most convincing arguments from the voting floor was from a woman who said that even her grandmother had heard of it.”

Duke University Press publishes American Speech, the official journal of the American Dialect Society. If you're interested in new, or newly popular words, you can read the feature "Among the New Words" in each issue of the journal.

The Life and Death of Texas German wins LSA’s Bloomfield Award

PADS_CoverBLOG We are pleased to announce that Hans Boas’ The Life and Death of Texas German, published by Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society, has been awarded the Linguistic Society of America’s prestigious Leonard Bloomfield Book Award for 2010.  The Bloomfield Award recognizes the title that makes the most outstanding contribution to developing our understanding of language and linguistics. 

The Life and Death of Texas German, a Publication of the American Dialect Society (PADS), number 93, presents the first major study of spoken Texas German in the 21st century, focusing on its formation and the linguistic changes it has undergone.  An important case study for dialect research, Texas German is now critically endangered and will most likely go extinct by the year 2050.

Membership in the American Dialect Society includes a subscription to American Speech and the annual supplement PADS

Truthiness and the American Dialect Society

Ddasp_85_3.cover The New York Times recently featured a piece on the staying power of the word “truthiness,” coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005.  The word has made its way into the New Oxford American Dictionary this year for the first time, but its first validation came in 2005 at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, where it was voted Word of the Year. 

 The words that are in contention for Word of the Year are published in the American Dialect Society’s official journal, American Speech, in a special section based on words or terms that dominated the national discourse.  Recent contenders were Bromance, Obamarama, First Dude, Dracula sneeze, and Sexting.  For definitions of these words or more information about the Word of the Year contest, click here and download the PDF. 

American Dialect Society Announces Words of the Year, Decade

Last week at its annual meeting, the American Dialect Society voted on the words of the year and decade. The vote is much anticipated by word-lovers. The society named "tweet" the word of the year. Speaking to NPR's Lianne Hansen, Grant Barrett, chair of the society's new word committee, said, "A lot of people felt that this was the year of Twitter. Some people
were even speaking of it as becoming so core to the Internet that it's
like a public utility. It just becomes invisible and people build their
Web sites and their applications on top of it." The society voted "google" word of the decade. Barrett had thought it might be blog, but "the argument from the floor from one of our members was that a lot of
people blog, millions of people blog, but everybody googles, young and
old." Duke University Press publishes American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society. If you're interested in new, or newly popular words, you can read the feature "Among the New Words" in the journal.