tirsdag den 11. februar 2020

Introducing: The Nahuatl Space Project

In this blogpost, I want to introduce the research project that I am currently engaged in: The Nahuatl Space Project. This is a project I will be writing more about over the next year, since me and my colleagues will be carrying out fieldwork in Mexico all through 2020. 
Landscape in Mexico, just lying there, looking great. 

The aim of this project is to understand how speakers of different Nahuatl dialects use grammar in different ways to refer to spatial relations, and to see whether some of those differences are related to the fact that they are spoken in very different environments. The thing is, that previous studies have demonstrated that speakers of different Mesoamerican languages have similar preferences when it comes to how they describe space and spatial relations, and that the general preference is to use features of the environment rather than oneself as the anchor when describing such relations. For example speakers of European languages often prefer to use themselves as the anchor for describing spatial relations (leading to frequent statements a long the lines "no, no, I meant my left!" when both speaker and addressee interprets the term "left" with themselves as the center). But speakers of Mesoamerican languages tend to solve this problem by using elements in the environment as the center, leading to statements "go uphill from the tree, then turn towards where the sun rises". Linguists working with this refer to this as a preference for allocentric rather than egocentric framing. But the studies showing this preference in Mesoamerican languages, studied other languages (Maya, Zapotec, Mixe, Otomí, Cora, among others), and not Nahuatl.

It makes sense that people who until recently used to live in vast open landscapes, also may have a tendency to navigate using the features of the environment rather than the symmetric layout of street grids and pedestrian-crossings and intersections. But given how different the landscapes inhabited by Nahuatl speakers are, then it also makes sense that they have to choose which features of the environment are the ones that are notable enough to serve as landmarks. And given that we know that for Mesoamerican peoples certain landscape elements tend to be particularly important (mountains, caves, springs, old trees) it becomes clear that we can probably learn something about how Nahua people experience the relation between humans and the landscape by studying how they refer to it linguistically. And in doing so test whether Nahuatl, whose speakers arrived late in Mesoamerica and a language that has now been in contact with Spanish for 500 years, has the same preference for allocentric spatial descriptions as the other Mesoamerican languages. And perhaps to find out whether and how the landscape can influence our ways of speaking and thinking about space.

That in short is the point of the Nahuatl Space Project.

Our Methods:

We are using a set of methods that have been used for previous studies of spatial language in languages from Mesoamerica and many other regions. They include a set of experiments, a and a number of different ethnographic methods (interviews, conversation, observation and participation in everyday activities) and a geographic method which consists in creating a map of Nahuatl-speakers' knowledge of the landscape they live in.

The experimental methods we use have been developed by psycholinguists who study the how language interacts with the mind. Spatial thinking is an extremely important function of the human mind, and since human languages differ quite a lot in how they describe spatial relations this raises the question of whether these differences may also reflectdifferent ways of conceptualizing space. To study this psycholinguists at the Max Planck Institute for psycholinguistics developed a set of experiments to test the relations between differences in spatial grammar, differences in describing spatial relations and spatial cognition in a scientific way. The primary kind of experiment is called a director-matcher game.
Example of a photo from one version
of the Man-Tree director-matcher game.

Such a game requires two participants: A director who sees an array of photos (e.g. pictures of a man and a tree) and has to communicate which photo they are looking at to another person, the matcher, who has the same array of pictures and has to find the right photo using only the verbal description. The director usually has a number of different options for framing their description of the photo (e.g. "the man looks this way and stands to the left of the tree"; "the man looks this way and has his left hand towards the tree"; "the man is west of the tree looking south", "the man is towards the river from the tree and looks downhill" etc.), and they have to chose one that the matcher is likely to understand. And it is usually the case that the director and matcher quickly find a strategy that works well. It is also usually the case that other speakers of the same language tends to choose the same strategy, while speakers of other languages may tend to use another. 

So by using this game we can see how Nahuatl speakers in different places prefer to describe spatial relations, whether they prefer egocentric or geocentric framings. The most likely is that in each community there will be a good deal of variation, some speakers using more egocentric framings and others using more geocentric ones. Our hypothesis is that people who have more experience walking around in the landscape will be more likely to use geocentric framings, and people who have more experience with activities that require egocentric orientation (e.g. reading, driving) may be more likely to choose egocentric framings. And we also think that probably people who speak more Spanish than Nahuatl will be more likely to use an egocentric framing. So in order to analyze the results we need to know about the kinds of activities each speaker spends most time doing, and about whether they speak mostly Spanish or Nahuatl.

Finally, we want to see whether the choice of specific geocentric framings is motivated by different ways of using and living in the landscape. Perhaps farmers who farm a terrain with a steep incline are more attentive to slopes than drivers or people who work in offices, perhaps people who live in dense jungle with few sight-lines are more attentive to the the arrangements of objects on the ground, or perhaps fishermen are more attentive to the coastline or the waves, or the sun's path. This requires us to hear how people actually speak about the landscape and spatial relations when they are going about their everyday business. So to understand more about the way Nahuatl speakers in different places experience the land we will participate with them in daily activities in the landscape, we wil interview people about their experiences (for example stories of places they have visited and how to get there), and we will elicit place names and make a map of the different places known by the speakers and what kind of places they are (are there any special resources, any dangers, any sacred sites etc. [we will of course ask the community's permission to include any sacred sites in the final map, and the community will get the map when we are done so they can use it as documentation of placenames and local geospatial knowledge]) Using GIS we will then create a map of local landscape knowledge using GIS, and we can use that map to understand more about how people interact with the landscape, and whether this knowledge influences their choice of orientation strategies in the experiments.

To carry out this investigation we need an interdisciplinary team, and we have a great team. Apart from myself, my good friend and colleague Ditte Boeg Thomsen will be in charge of the experimental study, Sociolinguist and Nahuatl-speaker Guillermo Garrido Cruz will be in charge of the sociolinguistic aspect of the study, and Gabriela Citlahua Zepahua and Adán Sánchez Rosales, who are both Nahuatl-speakers and alumns of the Intercultural University of Veracruz will assist with the ethnographic study and with those tasks that require native speakers. Additionally we will be assisted by a team of student interns, who are helping us out for course credit and research experience - but whose assistance will be crucial to be able to do all the work we want to do in the short time we have.

Our Fieldsites: 

We will be working in four fieldsites, and plan to stay about two months in each location.

Tequila, Veracruz

Our first field site is the municipality of Tequila in the Zongolica region of central Veracruz. This is a region with several hundred thousand Nahuatl speakers spread out in the different municipalities of a mountainous sierra. The elevation is from 1500 to 3000 mtrs above sea level, and the climate is that of a temperate montane cloud forest, though logging has drastically reduced the amount of forest there in recent years. The Nahuatl dialect spoken here is in my opinion a central dialect (though it has some traits of an eastern substrate which has caused previous scholars to classify it as eastern). At 1800 mtrs of elevation Tequila is located in a strategic location as the gateway community both to the communities in the high sierra and the lower and warmer coffee growing regions, and Nahuas from both of these regions have to pass through Tequila on their way to the city of Orizaba. There are no other indigenous languages currently spoken in the region, though some loanwords suggest a possible Totonac presence in the past. It is of interest that Tequila is located in such a way that there are prominent hills to the East, West, North and South, but also a general upward slope along a north-south, with the low-lying regions being located to the East and North of the community.

In Tequila we will be collaborating with the Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural, which has a campus there - the same campus where the world's first Master's program taught entirely in Nahuatl is based.

Google earth 3D view of Tequila Municipality within the Sierra de Zongolica (© Google Earth)

Tancanhuitz, San Luís Potosí

Our second field site is the municipality of Tancanhuitz in the Huasteca region of San Luís Potosí. This is a really interesting place, because the municipality is divided between speakers of Teenek (the Mayan language historically called Huasteco) and Nahuatl. The two groups live close together and there are many people here who are trilingual in both of the indigenous languages and Spanish. Teenek communities are in the western part of the municipality and Nahuatl speakers towards the East.

At about 200 mtrs above sea level, the climate is lush subtropical jungle, with relatively low rolling hills. Towards the west southwest the terrain rises into the Sierra Madre, but otherwise there are no clear large scale incline of the landscape in the region.

Google Earth 3D view of Tancanhuitz municipality, Cuatlamayán and Piaxtla in the center (© Google Earth)

Huauchinango, Puebla

In the fall of 2020 we plan to work in the area surrounding Huauchinango in the North Puebla Highlands. The Nahuatl variety spoken in this area is very close to that spoken in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion (the variety documented in most colonial source), and probably originated as migration from Texcoco in the 12th or 13th century. We plan to work in a community called Xaltepec which is located next to the lake Nexapa (a recent lake made by a hydroelectric dam in the 20th century). The landscape is mountainous and at an elevation of about 1300 meters above sea level. The Nahuas here combine fishing and farming, so they may have some interesting ways of navigating on the lake and orienting around it. West of the lake the altitude falls on the macro level while there is no obvious incline axis at the more local level (there are prominent hills northwest and southwest of the lake). Historically Nahuatl has coexisted with Totonac and Otomi in this area.

Google Earth 3D view of Lake Nexapa, with the town of Xaltepec on the west bank Papatlazolco on the north bank (© Google Earth).

Tatahuicapan, Veracruz

We plan to end the fieldwork in Southern Veracruz in the community of Tatahuicapan. Here the landscape is completely flat, except for the extinct volcano Volcán de Santa Martha and the Nahuas here also combine fishing and farming - but fishing on the ocean and in the salt lagoon Laguna de Ostion. The Nahua communities in this area make up one of two Nahua groups on the coast, the other being the Nahuas of the Michoacan coast. The fact that they live in close proximity to the ocean implies a lot of interesting possibilities for how they may orient themselves and how orientation may be encoded linguistically.

Google Earth 3D view of Tatahuicapan and Pajapan, with the Volcán Sta Martha in the center and the Mexican gulf to the east (© Google Earth). 

We are just about to go into the field with our research team, and I will post further updates on the project as we progress.

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