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Indians 1, Bureaucrats 0

5 May 2007

(What’s even more fun about this the newspapers tried to write this without even the basic “Ñ” . C’mon, Ña-ñu is not THAT weird a language).

Ña-ñu speakers are said to pick up English by ear because it uses the same weird sentence structure and vowel sounds as English (we get around the accents by having incomprehensible spelling… but maybe a bunch of accent marks would make English easier). I had a student whose family still used the language in Hidalgo State. She really never had to study the language in order to speak relatively fluent English. Vicente, the diswasher at the all-night Chinese restaurant across from the PRI headquarters, was also a native Ña-ñu speaker who mastered English just from the few foreign reporters and lost tourists who’d wander by.

My guess is that the Otomi peoples (who speak Ña-ñu) have always been a minority everywhere they live, and it’s just that the speakers are used to being multilingual.  Otomis, having been porters and market runners in Tenochtitlan, are still working in Tepito.  I get the feeling a lot of the incomprehensible slang used in that district is Ña-ñu, or based in Ña-ñu… like their brethern in discount merchandizing, London’s Cocknies (who mix in Yiddish with their English, it’s not a bad strategy for preserving your independence and for group solidarity to develop your own private language.   

Los Angeles Times May. 2, 2007 

MEXICO CITY – The daughter born to Cesar Cruz Benitez and Marisela Rivas has no official name. Which is rather strange considering the girl is almost 2 years old.

Her parents live in Tepeji del Rio, a town in an arid corner of Hidalgo state north of Mexico City. Speakers of the indigenous language Hnahnu, they call their little girl Doni Zänä, or “flower of the world” in Hnahnu.

But Cruz’s attempts to register the baby name with the authorities have been rebuffed. The state’s computers, officials say, don’t accommodate the characters – including an underscore – that represent the distinctive sounds of the Hnahnu language.

For Cruz and other Hnahnu, the case has become a human rights issue highlighting what they say is discrimination against their people, an indigenous group of several thousand people in central Mexico. To some outsiders they are known as the Otomi, a name given to them by Spanish conquistadors five centuries ago.

“My daughter doesn’t have a name yet, but I’m not going to give up,” Cruz, an artisan, said in a telephone interview. “If necessary, I’ll go to the international organizations to help me.”

Like Cruz and his wife, three of their four other daughters have official names not from the Hnahnu language. The girls are Jocelyn, Perla and Antonia.

But in Hidalgo, as in other corners of Latin America, indigenous pride is growing. And the Cruz-Rivas family has been looking to embrace the language of their ancestors.

“This isn’t some whim of mine,” Cruz said. “This has become a struggle to preserve our traditions, our culture and our language. … I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to understand and respect our customs.”

Cruz said members of his community are often pressured to change the names of their children to Spanish names, or at least something that sounds more Spanish. Often, he said, the pressure comes with an ethnic slur.

When Cruz’s sister went to register her son’s indigenous name, she too was rejected, he said.

“They told her at the registry that those names weren’t allowed because they were Indian names,” Cruz said. “They recommended another name – Alfred. That’s a foreign name. So that boy is indigenous but he’s now called Alfred.”

Hidalgo officials said the problem is related to the computer system installed when the state retooled its information technology in 1999 to guard against the so-called millennium bug. The new system, used to produce identity cards, won’t accept characters outside the Spanish alphabet.

“The two dots over the A’s and the underscore … won’t go through the computer,” Jose Antonio Bulos, director of the State Family Registry in Hidalgo, told the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.

“That means the child won’t be able to get a Unique Population Registration Code,” the equivalent of a Social Security number, Bulos said. The code is derived, in part, from the first letters of a person’s given name and surname.

The case has been taken up by the Human Rights Commission of Hidalgo.

“We believe that it’s the right of the parents to give their daughter the name they want,” said commission spokesman Fernando Hidalgo Vergara.

The commission is pushing the state to update its computers.

Cruz has won one battle with state officials. He has a daughter called Yohoki, which means “rebirth.” At first, state officials rejected the name because they thought it was “Japanese.”

“They really are ignorant,” Cruz said.

State officials suggested to Cruz that he simply drop the two dots and the underscore from Doni Zänä ‘s name on official documents. But if he did so, the name would no longer mean “flower of the world” in Hnahnu, he said. Instead, it would be “stone of death.”

“Of course, we don’t want that,” Cruz said.

Meanwhile, Nahuatl, which has very few accents, and is much more widely spoken (I think the BBC underestimates the number of speakers. I’ve heard it used in the street… I couldn’t figure out why I was having trouble understanding the guys at a torta stand one afternoon outside the old Cituadela until I realized they were speaking Nahuatl. They were discussing a futbol game, and what threw me was that the names of the teams are going to be the same, no matter what language they spoke. “Cruz Azul” in Nahuatl is … Cruz Azul. A winner on one of the “You can be a star” shows a few years ago was a Nahuatl math teacher.

Nahuatl is an official language in Mexico, and there are at least 1.5 million speakers in the country, with more in the United States (it’s also related to several U.S. languages, being part of the Uto-Azeca linguistic family). By contrast, Welsh (an offical language in Great Britain) only has about 750,000 speakers world-wide. I’ve put up a few guides to Nahuatl on my “Resources/Recursos” page.

It’s a difficult language and it’s hard to find a teacher.  I tried a self-taught course (which amused a parrot I had at the time no end), but never got very far.  Anyway, I just wanted to be able to pronounce basic Mexican names and locations — Xochitl, Cuauhtémoc, Xola, Tezacatlapolcatl — with some semblance of comprehensibility. 

Mexico City to teach Aztec tongue

By Emilio San Pedro
Americas Editor, BBC News

The official language of the ancient Aztec empire, Nahuatl thrived throughout Mexico until the Spanish conquistadores of the 16th Century.

Like many indigenous traditions, it persisted through the centuries.

Indigenous roots

The language continued even despite attempts by the continent’s European colonisers to erase it from the cultural landscape.

The decision, five centuries later, by the local authorities in the Mexican capital to make the teaching of Nahuatl compulsory is an attempt – to some extent symbolic – to recapture Mexico City’s indigenous roots.

The new law says teaching the language will become a compulsory part of the curriculum in the capital’s schools by the start of the 2008 academic year.

In the longer term, the authorities hope that it will also be taught in universities, as a way of increasing the number of Nahuatl speakers.

At the moment, it is estimated that the language of the once-mighty Aztecs is spoken by less than 1% of the more than 20 million people who inhabit the Mexican capital.

However, although we may not know it, many of us use words borrowed from Nahuatl, on a daily basis.

Words like avocado, chocolate, coyote, tomato, and even tequila, that most potent of Mexican alcoholic beverages, are all based on the Nahuatl language.

¡Palehoia nimanic!



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