There are some 7,000 languages around the world that are indigenous to their communities. Most of these languages and their thousands of local variations are endangered, according to University of Louisville field linguist Hilaria Cruz.
Cruz, an assistant professor of comparative humanities, began teaching a UofL course in endangered languages in 2019. Students helped her bring a very personal project to fruition at the end of 2021.
Cruz self-published several illustrated children’s books in the tonal language of Chatino, the language spoken in her hometown in southern Mexico in the state of Oaxaca and by Chatinos who have migrated in different states in the U.S. with a heavy concentration in parts of Alabama and Georgia, as well as in the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina. In tonal languages, a complex system of tones, along with rises and falls in pitch, form the words’ meaning. Her students helped her write the stories.
She took the books on a tour in December, traveling to North Carolina and Texas and on to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she grew up speaking Chatino.
On Feb. 21, the books went on display at UofL’s Ekstrom Library to celebrate United Nations International Mother Language Day. Additionally, UNESCO has declared the decade from 2022 to 2032 as Indigenous Languages Decade. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, encourages international cooperation in education, sciences and culture.
“Most of these languages are endangered, so some languages have only a few speakers. Other languages have more speakers, but still they’re in danger because these languages don’t have any materials and they are not used in schools,” Cruz said.
Chatino predates the arrival of Spanish in the Americas. Cruz said there are up to 50,000 people for whom Chatino is their mother language. The books give families the opportunity to read bedtime stories to children, helping pass the language from one generation to another, she said.
“Books enhance self-esteem, promote intellectual growth, build speakers’ reading levels, and elevate the status of endangered languages in the eyes of the dominant cultures within which they exist,” Cruz said. “An endangered language presented within published books adds an additional dimension in which that language can exist, be promoted and shared beyond oral tradition.”
Her books focus on topics the children from that area are readily familiar with such as growing corn and making tortillas. When Cruz visited Mexico in December, she was met with smiles and giggles from adults and children alike as she read the books to and with them, and even read them over the towns’ loudspeakers for everyone to hear.
“That’s the way people announce things in the community, over the loudspeaker,” she explained. “The kids were following me around town and some of them were pronouncing out loud some of the lines in the stories. It was just really cute.”
The six books, all professionally illustrated by artists from around the world, may be the highest quality children’s books published in the language, she said. Cruz had to invent an alphabet for them, doing so in collaboration with her sister, linguistic anthropologist Emiliana Cruz, PhD, and her advisor, Anthony Woodbury, PhD, professor of linguistics at the University of Texas and president of the Linguistics Society of the Americas.
The books are not copyrighted and are licensed through Creative Commons, meaning anyone can download and use them without permission or cost. They can be easily found via ThinkIR (University of Louisville’s Institutional Repository) at Ekstrom Library.
When the books are downloaded anywhere in the world, the location is pinpointed on a map. The books have already been downloaded from as far away as Mongolia.
“This project builds on previous books I published 2006 while I was a Neukom Fellow at Dartmouth College in 2018,” Cruz said. “The six books were published in the Chatino, Hupa and Ojibwe languages and are part of the Mother Language books in Dartmouth Digital Commons.”
Cruz’s Go Fund Me page collects donations to pay for the books’ publication and distribution.