This time, the Nahuatl scholar blog has the pleasure to publish another interview with an important Nahuatl scholar, namely professor Frances Karttunen, who has been a major figure in the field of Nahuatl studies since the 1970s when she published several works conjointly with historian James Lockhart. Her work is interdisciplinary and covers fields from lexicography, ethnohistory, historical sociolinguistics, stylistics and ethnopoetics, and grammar. I have had the pleasure to meet Dr. Karttunen several times at the Northeastern Group of Nahuatl Studies annual meeting which she has often attended, and once in the spring of 2016 I visited her on the island of Nantucket. I had hoped to do an interview with her at the annual meeting in 2020, but due to the pandemic the conference did not take place. Luckily professor Karttunen agreed to do the interview by email.
|Professor Frances Karttunen front and center in the group photo of the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Northeastern group of Nahuatl Scholars in Albany.|
Could you tell our readers a little about your academic background?
On my maternal grandfather's side, I am a 12th-generation descendant of the small group of English couples who settled on Nantucket Island beginning in 1659. There was a great deal of intermarriage, so people like me who are known as "descended Nantucketers" have an unusually small number of ancestors. However, my grandfather married out (more about that below), and so did my mother. Our family continues to live on the island, however, as do many of my relatives.
I grew up on the island and had all my education through high school in the Nantucket Public Schools. There is a science organization on Nantucket, the Maria Mitchell Association, and when I was in high school, three women of this association (the current and former directors of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, and the librarian of the Maria Mitchell science library) mentored me. All three were graduates of Radcliffe College, the women's college of Harvard University, and they made an effort to have me admitted there. They were successful, and I earned my bachelor's degree from Radcliffe.
In the course of my undergraduate studies, I realized that my strength and my interest lie in languages—not primarily in the literature of various languages but in the structure and what it is we know about language without being taught. Although I took multiple language courses at Harvard, I did not take any undergraduate linguistics courses. In my senior year, however, I was given an excellent reading list from the linguistics department.
Upon graduation from Radcliffe I received an NDEA Title VI fellowship for graduate studies in linguistics and Finnish at Indiana University.
When I arrived at Indiana University as a beginning graduate student in linguistics, Joe Campbell was a newly appointed assistant professor. I took his course in the history of linguistics, but during my time in Bloomington, he had not yet begun to teach Nahuatl. The IU computing center was open 24/7 365 days a year, however. I was often there, and Joe was always there. This and Nahuatl have defined our long collegiality rather than our initial teacher-student relationship.
After I completed my Ph.D. at Indiana University with a dissertation on Finnish phonology, I went to Tampere, Finland for a semester as a Fulbright teacher, and then I spent a year as a post-doctoral visitor at MIT.
|At work in Finland in 1963|
My appointments at the University of Texas at Austin were for the most part non-teaching appointments at the Linguistics Research Center there, but I taught summer Nahuatl courses at the University of Texas Institute of Latin American Studies. I have also taught courses in phonology, general linguistics, Nahuatl, and language contact studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Helsinki, and Umeå University in Sweden.
So when and how did you come to study Nahuatl in the first place?
During the year 1967-68 I had a National Science Foundation fellowship to work in computational linguistics at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. In Santa Monica I met James Lockhart. He posed to me, as a linguist, the question of how one goes about learning a language where there are few accessible language courses or effective teaching material. At the time his interest was shifting from the social history of Peru and Quechua to Mexico and Nahuatl. He was aware of the vast amount of existing notarial documentation in Nahuatl, and he was anxious to access it.
Subsequently, he left UCLA and came to the University of Texas, where we resumed our conversations about Nahuatl. I went to Finland for a year and spent the following year at MIT. During this time, Jim sent me large amounts of Nahuatl he had transcribed, and we began working on it together long-distance. I previously had no knowledge of any indigenous language of Latin America, and in fact, I had never taken a Spanish language course.
|Frances Karttunen and Joe Campbell |
at one of the meetings of the
Northeastern Group of Nahuatl Scholars
Just clarifying: So you met Joe Campbell already when you were working on your Finnish phonology dissertation, and he was working on Nahuatl, but you didn't take an interest in Nahuatl until you met Lockhart? If so, that is a fun coincidence.
So far as I know, Joe hadn’t begun working on Nahuatl during the time I was at Indiana University. We both got there in the fall of 1964, me as a first-year grad student not even starting my dissertation, and Joe as an assistant professor. So I first knew him as a student in his course on the history of linguistics. He provided a reading list beyond human possibility of completion short of a lifetime, or so it seemed to me. I assume Joe had, nonetheless, already read everything on it. From the beginning, we bonded through our constant presence in the IU computing center and also through the very active social scene among the IU linguists.
I only spent three years in Bloomington. Having completed my course work and passed my general exams that admitted me to Ph.D. candidacy, I left to go to the Rand Corp. with a National Science Foundation grant in computational linguistics, From there I went to Austin, Texas, where I completed my dissertation and returned to Bloomington only long enough for my defense. Joe met Elvira and brought her to IU for a semester after I had departed for Santa Monica, so I only met her much later in Hueyapan with Joe.
By the time Joe had moved to San Antonio, Texas, and was working on Nahuatl and teaching it, I had already begun working with Jim on Nahuatl, so yes, it was a lucky coincidence.
That really is an amazing coincidence with Joe, he told me that he first went to Tepoztlan with Ken Hale in 1962 and knew that he was interested in Nahuatl, from then on, then in 1969 he was asked to teach Nahuatl at Indiana. So when you knew each other neither of you knew that you would become nahuatologists!
In the 1970s you published some very influential work with James Lockhart including "Nahuatl in the Middle Years", which is never far from my working space, - it is basically the first monograph work to systematically look at the way Nahuatl was used in the colonial notarial documents. But you also studied more literary forms of Nahuatl, for example you wrote the article in Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl about " La estructura de la poesía náhuatl vista por sus variantes", which presents a typology of different kinds of colonial Nahuatl poetry. And you did a translation and analysis of the important Bancroft dialogues, “The Art of Nahuatl Speech”. Could you talk a bit about your collaboration with Lockhart?
The first book James Lockhart and I co-authored was Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language
Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Later we co-authored
another book, The Art of Nahuatl Speech:
The Bancroft Dialogues. We also published quite a number of articles together
and separately. I think that "La estructura de la poesía náhuatl vista por
sus variantes" in Volume 14 of Estudios
de Cultura Náhuatl may be the most significant of our co-authored articles.
Jim later reprised much of the content of these works in his book The Nahuas After the Conquest. Up
through The Art of Nahuatl Speech, it
is nearly impossible to point to any sentence in any of our publications as
written by one or the other of us or to say who first drafted it. After The
Art of Nahuatl Speech, we moved in different directions. He wrote The Nahuas After the Conquest, and I
wrote Between Worlds: Interpreters,
Guides, and Survivors.
How did you and Lockhart collaborate when it came to writing the analyses?
The analyses in Nahuatl in the Middle Years? Jim mailed me a very large amount of transcription of notarial texts he made in Mexico while I was in Finland and then at MIT. NMY is a collection of some of those transcriptions plus the language-contact phenomena to be found in them and a glossary of loan vocabulary. Jim and I carried on a dialogue about all this by mail. Only at the end of the process, when NMY was nearly ready to go to press, did I travel to Mexico City, where Jim had been working for months, to go over the manuscript together in person before publication. When you think about it, my work with Lorenzo Ferrero on his opera was accomplished in much the same way except that we had the advantage of electronic communication rather than copying machine and the postal service.
How did you happen on the different topics you ended up working on - from poetry and rhetorics to painstaking analyses of orthography and grammar in notarial documents? What do you consider the most important discoveries you did in that work?
In Mexico City, Jim introduced me to the vast holdings of notarial documents in various repositories there. I tried my hand at transcription and discovered that without prior training in paleography, I was pretty good at it. But the University of Texas is not a repository of notarial texts, so aside from what Jim transcribed in Mexico and mailed to me, I couldn’t do that in Austin. However…
One of the two collections of Nahuatl poetry is the Romances de los señores de la nueva españa in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. There in Austin, I transcribed the Romances, noticing much along the way. The Benson also holds a copy of the early photographic facsimile of the Cantares méxicanos, so I transcribed that to compare with the Romances. At some point it became known to us that John Bierhorst was also transcribing the Cantares. I am not sure exactly when that came to our mutual knowledge. When Jim and I were both in Mexico City again, we got access to the original manuscript of the Cantares in the National Library. I had with me my transcription from the Peñafiel photos with specific issues we hoped to clarify by seeing the ms. Unfortunately, the ms has deteriorated since the photos were made. The photographic facsimile now preserves more information than the ms.
The Romances ms has marginalia and some diagonal lines that would seem to indicate prosodic units in the lines, but Jim and I could make no sense of them. The Cantares has drum-beat notation, but that is ambiguous. It was through examining both transcriptions and locating duplications of some of the songs that the structure we discuss in our publication in Estudios de cultura náhuatl 14 emerged, namely that the songs are composed in verse pairs with shared coda and that the preferred form of complete songs consists of four verse pairs. I personally think this is the most important discovery that emerged from our transcription work.
Really, I think your work with Lockhart can be considered pioneering in the field of historical sociolinguistics, did you have any model or inspiration for applying these sociolinguistic analyses on the colonial texts?
Not exactly, because the Finnish material I was (and remain) interested in is similar to the material Joe has collected over the years, namely transcriptions of oral material, not written material produced by speakers.
Could you use the same methods on the colonial documents as you used when studying immigrant Finnish?
Not really. Recording and transcribing the speech of elderly Finnish immigrants to the USA and Canada is comparable to what Joe has done over decades in his fieldwork with Nahuatl speakers in Mexico. (I have had the privilege of accompanying Joe on his collecting trips occasionally.) My concern for Joe's corpus of spoken Nahuatl is that much of it probably remains untranscribed. Until the audio is transcribed, it would be difficult/impossible to bring to it what I and others have been able to bring to the transcriptions of spoken Nahuatl by Whorf, Barlow, and Horcasitas.
Your An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl from 1987, has been an amazing tool, and I think every English speaking student of Nahuatl knows this work very well. How did you decide to make the Analytical Dictionary, and what were the different considerations and decisions you made about how you wanted the dictionary to be made and organized? How did you work on the dictionary?
After the publication of J. Richard Andrews's Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, it was clear that a modern dictionary was needed to supplement Molina's and Siméon's dictionaries. This new one would include as much information as possible about contrastive vowel length and segmental glottal stop. Both features are barely recognized by Molina and not at all by Siméon. Because of my background in computational data processing, I had a clear idea of how I could organize data from multiple sources and create such a dictionary. I was invited to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation to do so, and my proposal was successful. At that time, I attended an International Congress of Americanists meeting in Manchester, England. There I queried attending Nahuatl scholars, including Una Canger, about what they would want to see in terms of organization and format of such a dictionary. Una gave me my watchword for the project, namely that it was less important how I presented the material in the dictionary than that I make it clear to users of the dictionary exactly how it works. I wrote an introduction that aims to do that with the clarity that Una mandated, and I can only hope that every user of the dictionary takes time to read the introduction.
I did a great deal of the data entry and organization of the material from multiple sources at the Linguistics Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. I was assisted by an LRC staff programmer, Robert Amsler, who was supported in part from my NSF grant. I transported all my data files in print-out form to Finland one summer and worked on them there. James Lockhart read through the organized raw data and my proposed dictionary entries and made invaluable suggestions. In the case of verbs ending in long vowels we could not resolve a disagreement about representation, and I gave preference to my own choice over his objections.
You mentioned my publication with Lyle Campbell of Benjamin Lee Whorf's study of the Nahuatl of Milpa Alta. Lyle and I had both been working on it, each unaware of the other. An editor at The International Journal of American Linguistics made us aware of our potential duplication of effort. Lyle expressed pleasure that it was I who was also working on Whorf, and the result was our joint publication.
Some of your ethnohistorical work has also been a project of writing about Nahua women who became cultural and linguistic intermediaries at important historical moments, but who have previously been sort of marginalized from their own stories. You have published about Doña Luz Jimenez and on Milpa Alta, how did you come to do that work and what did you find? You have also written about Malintzin, the Nahuatl translator of Hernán Cortés, what was your inspiration here, and how do you see your work within the larger tradition of representations of Malintzin?
I enjoyed a friendship with Fernando Horcasitas, who brought most of the stories told by doña Luz Jiménez into print. Later I became acquainted with John Charlot, whose father, the muralist Jean Charlot, had a long and very different relationship with Luz and her family from that of Horcasitas. I had the opportunity to spend an academic year at the Jean Charlot Collection at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Through different perspectives on doña Luz, one from the point of view of a linguist and the other of an artist, I came to appreciate the complexity of relationships across languages and cultures. Joe Campbell and I cultivated a relationship with the grandchildren of doña Luz and learned unexpected things along the way. The career histories of many different men and women are related in Between Worlds. The life experiences of doña Luz fed into the book, as did the life experiences of people in Finland of my great-grandmother's generation. Doña Marina (Malintzin) fit into this story of unusually gifted and ultimately marginalized indigenous individuals. I have written about her twice, once in Between Worlds and again in the collection Indian Women of Early Mexico.
You are also the first to have translated the libretto of an Opera into Nahuatl - Lorenzo Ferrero's Opera La Conquista which premiered in 2005; could you tell a little about that project?
|Bowing at curtain call for Lorenzo Ferrero's opera |
"La Conquista" in Prague in 2005.
Just when I had retired from the University of Texas and was at work on my first post-retirement book, The Other Islanders, I was contacted by composer Lorenzo Ferrero. He was working on a concept that had won a competition for a new opera about the conquest of Mexico for the National Theatre of Prague. This was to have the Spaniards sing in 16th-century Spanish, the Aztecs to sing in Classical Nahuatl, and doña Marina to interpret to the audience what was going on and how she felt about it. Lorenzo had engaged a man in Italy who claimed to be a speaker of Nahuatl, but he was not up to the task. Someone directed Lorenzo to me as a possible language consultant. After working together for some time, he surprised me by proposing that we share credit as co-librettists. I met Lorenzo in person for the first time in Prague for the final rehearsals and took a bow with him at curtain call on the opening night of the opera. It was one of the most unexpected experiences of my life.
Is there a sort of thematic connection that ties together the different strands in your work, including your non-Nahuatl work on Finnish immigrants and Cape Verdean immigrant communities in New England?
When I was a graduate student at Indiana University, a professor from the University of Helsinki arrived to collect samples of how Finnish was spoken among aging immigrants to various parts of the USA and Canada. I went along on some of his travels and then visited more Finnish populations in Massachusetts after he returned to Helsinki. From the collected data, I extracted various characteristics of American Finnish. Lexical borrowing and phonological adjustment were obvious, but how borrowed material was incorporated into Finnish morphology was less so. Working through this data set provided me the background I later brought to the initial work James Lockhart and I did with Nahuatl in contact with Spanish.
Cape Verdeans were one of two Portuguese-heritage immigrant groups who settled on Nantucket in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially only seamen came to the island as crewmembers on Nantucket whaleships. Some of these men married local women and stayed. In the latter half of the 19th century, under pressure from overpopulation and political turmoil, whole families began to come to Nantucket from the Azores islands. In the first decade of the 20th century, Cape Verdean families came to work for the expanding commercial cranberry industry. The Azorean immigrants spoke an insular variety of Portuguese. The Cape Verdeans for the most part spoke Portuguese-based Kriolu. These are not mutually intelligible, and for this and other reasons the two groups were not mutually supportive. Each settled into a separate niche within the Nantucket community, and they have become multigenerational segments of island society. I have repeatedly given a lecture series at various venues about Nantucket's Portuguese heritage. These and many other groups are part of my book The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket's Oars, a social history of Nantucket's working people.
Do you have any overarching insights about Nahuatl and working with Nahuatl that you would like to share?
When James Lockhart and I began to work together on Nahuatl, there were few individuals in the USA and not that many in Mexico who could conduct research from Nahuatl documents. It was acceptable for Anglophone historians of Mexican history to write entirely from Spanish and English language sources. That has completely changed. At UCLA James Lockhart trained a generation of historians to work from Nahuatl and other indigenous-language sources. He was by no means the only person contributing to the surge in Nahuatl studies. The list of Nahuatl scholars in multiple fields in the USA, Mexico, and Europe is too long to enumerate here. Contributing to this has been a revolution in technology. Nahuatl studies today exist in a completely different environment from the 1970s when James Lockhart and I carried out our long-distance collaboration via copy-machine and the postal service.
My experience with speakers of Nahuatl has been inspiring. In the face of apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the individuals I have known over the years have had faith that by their own efforts they could make tomorrow better. They have been generous and more than willing to put up with the tedious inquiries of linguists about what must often seem inconsequential matters. They have genuinely liked talking in and about their language. Most gratifying of all is that I occasionally receive a thank-you note from someone in Mexico whom I do not know saying that the Analytical Dictionary and the Foundation Course have been helpful.
I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude for the generosity of many colleagues over the years, among them James Lockhart, Joe Campbell, Fernando Horcasitas, don Miguel León-Portilla and Ascensión H. de León-Portilla, Alberto Zepeda, Yolanda Lastra, Thelma Sullivan, Fred Nagel, John F. Schwaller, John Charlot, Lyle Campbell, Una Canger, Karen Dakin, Jane and Ken Hill, Ken Hale, and the list goes on.
What about the future: Is there any particular work on Nahuatl that you are planning to do, or that you would like to see other scholars take up?
I have a personal project I would like to see taken up. While I was still in Austin and loosely attached to Mexic-Arte Museum, I conceived a museum exhibition, "Luciana's Worlds," that would gather works that represented Milpa Alta and México City over the lifetime of doña Luz Jiménez. Her worlds, as represented in the exhibition, would be the indigenous world before and during the Mexican Revolution, the world of the radical artists who employed her as a model, and the world of the linguists and anthropologists who employed her as a native informant. Although doña Luz initially moved through these worlds successively, she also returned to each repeatedly during her lifetime, People with whom she interacted in each world were to a large extent unaware of the others. This is a highly visual journey narrated throughout by doña Luz herself.
We staged a pilot exhibition at Mexic-Arte, "Luz and the Good Teachers," but Mexic-Arte could not provide the environmental controls, security, and insurance to borrow the original art for "Luciana's Worlds." Lorenzo Ferrero suggested a documentary film in which the art would be photographed in situ. A documentary film could reach a much larger audience than a museum exhibition with a catalog. Lorenzo proposed that he compose the music for such a film. This has not come about, and more recently still, I have begun to conceive of "Luciana's Worlds" as a graphic novel, mass-produced and inexpensive, for distribution in Mexico.
There are relatively few female role models for Mexican girls. The Virgin of Guadalupe is an unattainable ideal. Doña Marina, characterized as la Malinche, is reviled. The lives of sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz and of Frida Kahlo were painful. Doña Luz was an indigenous woman from a humble background who by force of character and intellect shaped her life as she herself saw fit. She experienced dangers and obstacles, but on the whole, she lived her life on her own terms, and as she herself once said, "There I am all over the walls of the National Palace."
I would like, at this point, to become a senior partner in the creation of a documentary film or a graphic novel of "Luciana's Worlds."
That is a great idea, I hope that a Mexican filmmaker sees this idea. Maybe Yalitza Aparicio could play the role of Doña Luz. Maybe our readers will know of someone who could work with you on this. Thank you very much for participating in this interview, and for all of your contributions to the field of Nahuatl studies.