A BusinessWeek Online article by Brian Grow reports on companies that market to the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the US, focusing on the identification card known as the matrícula consular issued by Mexican consulates. What brings it into LH territory is the following bit:

So far, Blue Cross says it may have signed up several thousand Mexicans with the matrícula, although it doesn’t yet track the number. In May it extended the program to matrícula holders from Guatemala, and it’s working on a video-marketing campaign for Guatemalans who speak an ancient Mayan dialect, K’anjobal, so old that it’s no longer written.

“So old that it’s no longer written”—never mind that it’s not true (Ethnologue, Bible excerpt), what does it even mean? If languages somehow lost their writing systems as they aged, you’d think the Chinese, for example, would have been illiterate for many centuries. I wonder if it’s an editing goof or simple absence of thought on the reporter’s part.

(Thanks for the link, Kári!)


  1. Robert Staubs says

    It seems to me that it would be some misapprehension of the history of Mayan languages. The author knows that a bunch of folks with their own writing system used to speak them, and he knows that that writing system was forgotten for centuries. Due to some lapse in reasoning he assumes they couldn’t have just switched to the Roman alphabet.
    Even if it’s that, it’s also an editing problem that no one caught it.

  2. I recently taught two Guatemalan children who just came to the urban school where I work as a bilingual/ESL teacher. Though the schools don’t ask about immigration status, I know they were illegal and had migrated here to work. Their families spoke an indigenous language as well as Spanish and were illiterate in Spanish, English and this indigenous language. I taught them to read in Spanish first, then English. More and more rural Guatemalans are coming to the east coast. Sorry not to intellectualize this. Language for me always involves its speakers.

  3. I’d rather have real life than intellectualizations any day. Thanks for the anecdote.

  4. In response to Toby’s comment: I don’t intellectual language stuff, which is why I call myself a “simple-minded” language lover.
    About the article: I think the author just wasn’t thinking–there are plenty of ancient languages that are written, and there are literate people all over the world learning the oral languages and helping the people who speak them to write them down.

  5. I think one could argue that any language that doesn’t have a writing system is perpetually new, consisting only of the form spoken by native speakers at the present moment. It is only when the spoken language gets written down that it can be said to age. But what ages is the written form of the language, not the spoken form.

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