Re: stuff (Was: Re: tribes)

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 03:23:18 -0500

On Sun, 18 Aug 1996, thomas w kavanagh wrote:

> Sorry if I offended you with my rush to judgement about the 19th century.
> But still, the 19th C ethnographic materials need a lot of massaging to
> be useful. [Having just spent a good portion of 586 pages looking at the
> 18th and 19th C "Observers of the Comanches," I found very little that
> could be used 'straight' and without a 100% increase in commentary.]

Which is why I tried to contextualize the work of the folks you dismissed:
"for their time", etc. I'm repeatedly dazzled by how good a job those
DWEMs did, given when and where they were working. But if we haven't
learned a helluva lot about how to manage the job more effectively in the
succeeding century or more, WE are a lot dumber than we give ourselves
credit for. What's worse, trying to step back and actually use their
materials for our purposes could take more time than going out and
collecting new stuff with our present-day eyes.

I leave the Comanche references to your expert knowledge. Let me talk
about some sources dealing with my area.

>From time to time, I find it useful to go back to the 16th century Spanish
friars who reported on local linguistics and ethnography immediately after
the Conquest. You're right, using what they said takes a lot of massaging
to get the messaging. But they were absolutely astounding in their
ability to record clearly things they had no known tools to lead them to
try. Two examples are so anachronistic that sometimes I think that
there's been some time travel, and those texts were written by 20th
century anthropologists who happened to be on the scene during the 1500's.

When you look at the better linguistic texts recorded in European
alphabets between about 1530 and 1600, their recording of such languages
as Nahuatl is actually clearer than the Spanish that appears on the same
pages. That was a century of major changes in Spanish orthography, which
is why you find the letter X in Mexico, Oaxaca, Tuxtla (=Tochtlan), and
stacks of other place names representing at least four distinct phonemes
when those place names are cited in documents that otherwise are in
Spanish. The same sources are much more consistent in their way of
representing the Indian languages when the text is written in a local

There is no earthly reason explaining how a European could have been
consistent in hearing and recording the difference between a glottalized
vowel and a vowel followed by a glottal stop, or short and long vowels, or
lip-rounding and its absence in the environment of stop consonants. Of
course, you can't do a decent phonemicization of these languages unless
you do a good job of recording precisely those details. Those friars had
nothing resembling articulatory phonetics available for this game -- but
they got those wild sounds right! ("Wild" to European ears, that is.) If
Sahagun indicated a glottal stop or vowel length or lip rounding, you can
be darned sure it was there. Comparing what he and those he trained wrote
with Whorf's description of 20th century Milpa Alta Nahuatl and more
recent studies by others, you learn that Sahagun rarely missed recording
features that *were* present. You come to depend on his failure to write
down his symbolic representation of one of these sounds as good evidence
that it wasn't there in the utterance he was transcribing. Without
training in phonetics or phonemics, he shouldn't have been able to do it.

The other example I have in mind is an extremely curious document. It is
an appendix to a late 16th century dictionary of whatever language was
spoken at Copanahuaxtla (alternatively recorded as Copanabastla) in
highland Chiapas, Mexico. It says it dealt with "Tsendal", as I recall.
I never had the time or the inclination to do a linguistic analysis of the
original dictionary itself. The mss. is handwritten, and I have enough
trouble trying to read 20th century cursive script. (I have dysgraphia, a
specific learning disability.) So I don't know whether the language was
Tzeltal or Tzotzil, spoken today in different communities located within
15 miles of the site of this town, abandoned in 1608.

Aside: People in the nearby Tzotzil community I studied claim that Tzeltal
and Tzotzil are mutually intelligible, anyhow. They've proved it to me
time and again, to the utter amazement of the Tzeltal speakers they
translated. (Some people from other communities go the other way and
claim that what linguists take to be highly similar dialects of Tzotzil
are, in fact, separate and mutually unintelligible. They used to insist
on speaking Spanish to my informants, even when their Spanish was very
bad, on the grounds that nobody outside their own community could possibly
understand them. But my folks understood all the side comments those
outsiders were making to each other, and in the old days so did I.)

What's odd about that dictionary appendix is that writing it should
simply have been beyond the capabilities of anybody who could have
been writing in 1570/1580. In effect, it is both a complete listing of
all the kinship terms in use in that community, a very good genealogical
specification of the referents for each term, and (on the side) a lesson
in how to elicit precise kinship information from "Tsendal" speakers.

It's good enough that you can make a full componential analysis of the
system it represents. Most modern descriptions of Mesoamerican kinship
systems are so incomplete that you can't make a similar analysis.

The anonymous author recognized that what sounds like the same term,
phonemicly speaking, had different referents according to whether the
speaker was male or female. He recognized the necessity of going well
beyond normal Spanish terminological distinctions. He described perfectly
a difficulty which persists in the local cross-language situation today,
in my experience of Tzotzil: when you get a mostly bilingual informant,
you find that the Spanish words for "brother", "cousin", "uncle", and
"nephew" may be used interchangeably to refer to the same individual. And
when you are absolutely certain that your informant is talking about two
full siblings, children of the same father and mother as ego, the two are
called by totally different terms.

This difficulty is not at all surprising: the Tzotzil terms, bankil and
kits'in, both include individuals WE would call by our own separate
brother, cousin, uncle, and nephew terms, and don't make our distinctions
at all. Bankil and kits'in are both used for any male consanguineal
relative, with the exception of ego's father and sons, whose age falls
more or less between the ages of ego's father and ego's sons. The terms
do NOT distinguish among generations, as such. Why two words, then?
Because age *relative to ego* is always distinguished in the core terms of
this system. The relevant distinction is "older than I am" or "younger
than I am". This is the same cross-generational relative age criterion Al
Coult analyzed for Samoan. He and a co-author whose name I forget seem to
be the first to publish a clear analysis of the phenomenon. As far as I
know, I was the first anthropologist to have published on the direct
implications of this way of organizing kinship terms for any Maya language
community, despite the fact that I have since been able to show that it is
a basic feature common to nearly all of them. (My componential analysis
of San Bartolome kinship terms was written in the 60's, but not published
until the early 70's.) The ONLY earlier, full description of this key
feature is back there in that 16th century appendix to a dictionary.

My best bet for explaining the linguistic excellence of those Spanish
friars is that they had to be that good if they were going to produce
translations of churchly things that 1) could be understood by their
audiences of monolingual speakers of Mesoamerican languages and 2) would
be doctrinally sound in Catholic terms. It was their job.

The kinship thing is even easier to explain. I think the author was in
charge of determining whether a couple was eligible to marry in the
church, or whether their kinship prohibited such marriage. Indian custom,
both today and in the 16th century, would prohibit marriage with some
classes of people where the Church would see no bar, and would permit
marriage with certain relatives proscribed by the Church's extension of
incest prohibitions.

That's a problem in cross-cultural communication I've seen present-day
priests try to handle without the success they're supposed to seek. You
can't tell, in Spanish (and there haven't been a lot of priests working in
the area who speak Tzotzil), whether ego's alter is brother, uncle,
cousin, nephew, or not what the Church would call a relative at all until
you learn to ask "is this man your 'hermano' because he has the same
mother and father you do?" (The equivalent question is "normal" in
everyday Tzotzil conversations.)

Members of the community play fast ones on their priests by consistently
calling people who have the same parents "cousins" to each other. A few
key relationships represented this way in Spanish make it possible to get
permission for that which the Church would forbid if it knew the full
facts. Getting a good genealogy is the only dependable way out, as that
anonymous 16th century friar knew full well.

Taken in their own historical context, the feats I just described are just
about beyond belief. Those 16th century works are demonstrably better
than anything done for several succeeding centuries, until the very recent
past. That's why I'll never relegate the good work of previous centuries
to the dump.

But I don't live in those past centuries. My anonynmous friar of
Copanablasta uses spelling conventions for Tsendal that are so complex
that they confuse me every time I go back to them, and his Spanish
spelling is inconsistent from one phrase to the next. Using a printed
version of his appendix, I know I'm going to develop a headache any time I
try to extract all the data I know are in there somewhere. So far, it has
just been too damned much work for me to do.

Similarly, the linguistic reliability of Sahagun's transcriptions does
very little to resolve questions of what the stories he recounts really
represent. Documents contemporary with his, drawn up in defense of land
claims presented to Spanish courts but with lots of content in
Mesoamerican languages, show genealogies and descriptions of the past that
seem to make ancient Mesoamerica a full duplicate of peri-Conquest Spain.
There are the "nobles", the "estates", the "commoners" -- but is a local
Tlatoani really the equivalent of a Spanish Hidalgo? Did he have the full
rights of a medieval noble? And were the macehualli really so short on
individual rights, particularly rights to property, as to make them
equivalent to Spanish commoners? I doubt it. Spanish chroniclers were all
too eager to accept totally different statuses derived from mutually
unintelligible cultural sources as the operational equivalents of what
they knew from Spain, and sorting out where they looked in the mirror from
where they looked at the Indians is nearly impossible. The Spanish
scribes weren't interested in those questions, and what they wrote is
wrong on its face much of the time.

Using the work of these people I so greatly respect is tremendously
difficult. It may even be beyond us, since we are creatures of our own
time and culture.

I just didn't fell like letting you pick on people from an illustrious
past. Maybe the reason was apparent in my next comment, as you cited it.
My students often make it clear that they think of me as a living link to
the fossil past anyway, when all I think I'm doing is talking about my
professors and their colleagues of "recent" times.

> On another matter:
> On Sun, 18 Aug 1996, Mike Salovesh wrote:
> > Nonetheless, I have decided not to formulate any long-range plans that
> > require me to survive past May 6th, 2031 on the grounds that after my
> > 100th birthday I won't NEED any long-range plans.
> That would be my 82nd. :-)
> tk

OK, from now on I'll think of you on our mutual birthday. Ain't it hell
having been born on a day whose major historical claim to fame, aside
from our births, is that May 6th was the day the Hindenberg Zeppelin blew
up at Lakehurst, New Jersey?

-- mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !