November 07, 2005

Making Yucatec Maya "cool again"

Back in July we heard the intriguing news that Mel Gibson's next film project, Apocalypto, would be shot entirely in "Mayan." At the time it wasn't clear which of the many Mayan languages this might refer to, but now the situation has been clarified — sort of — by Gibson himself.

In an Oct. 28 news conference in Veracruz, Mexico, Gibson gave a few more details about his "action-adventure film of mythic proportions." AP reports:

The movie is scheduled to begin production Nov. 14 and will be shot almost entirely in the jungle of Mexico's Veracruz state.

The film's stars will be unrecognizable to most moviegoers, and they will speak in the Mayan tongue of Yucateco, Gibson said. It will be light on dialogue and heavy on images and action. It's set 600 years ago, prior to the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mexico and Central America.

Yucateco, or maya yucateco, is the Spanish term for Yucatec, or Yucatec Maya, a language spoken by about a million people in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula (with some additional speakers in Belize and northern Guatemala). It's the most obvious candidate for a Mayan-language historical drama set in pre-Conquest Mexico, since modern Yucatec is still widely spoken and is a direct descendant of Classic Maya. But that doesn't stop journalists from calling it an "obscure Mayan dialect" (as in a photo caption for the AP article as well as a July Variety article), though it is neither particularly obscure nor a dialect.

The AP article also says that the movie will star "unknown Mexican actors speaking in an ancient tongue." Despite the fact that modern Yucatec has retained many features of Classic Maya, its "ancientness," like that of any living language, is highly disputable. This could mean, however, that the translators hired by Gibson have attempted to render the dialogue in a reconstruction of Classic Maya as spoken six centuries ago, with Yucatec Maya as the nearest modern approximation. From a linguistic point of view, one hopes that the end result is a bit more skillfully done than the "authentic" dialogue that ended up in Gibson's last project, The Passion of the Christ. (For discussion of the Aramaic and Latin used in The Passion, see Language Log here and here, and also Language Hat here and here.)

Gibson's motivation for linguistic verisimilitude is not tied to his religious devotion, as it was with The Passion. But according to the Los Angeles Times, Gibson is on a different kind of mission with this film: to make it "cool again" to speak a Mayan language (as cool as it was 600 years ago?).

Gibson said that the plot of "Apocalypto" — a Greek word that translates as "new beginning" — concerns an Indian family man who "has to overcome tremendous odds to preserve what he values the most." The movie will employ relatively unknown actors along with hundreds of extras and will utilize Mayan dialect.

Gibson hopes that one effect may be to bolster a threatened idiom that is frequently treated with disrespect, in Latin America. "My hope is that it [the movie] makes this language cool again and that they [indigenous people] speak it with pride," he said.

It's unclear whether Gibson has been in contact with any activists or linguists involved in the Mayan language revitalization movement. (For an overview of revitalization efforts, see Nora England's article in the Dec. 2003 issue of American Anthropologist.) But he claims to have immersed himself in Mayan culture and history, a process he described at the news conference as "kind of this anthropological journey." And a Reuters report says that his research for the film has drawn on "input from indigenous groups and Spanish mission texts from the 1700s and Mayan language translators."

Beyond that, Gibson has remained cryptic about the film's content. He did mention, however, that one of his major inspirations is the Popol Vuh, a sacred manuscript of mythic stories written in Quiché (a Guatemalan Mayan language) shortly after the Conquest. There has already been speculation from the apocalyptically inclined about how a Gibsonian reading of the Popol Vuh might dovetail with Christian millenarian prophecies of the End Times. So perhaps Apocalypto won't be so far removed from Passion territory after all.

[Update #1: Here is a more extended report of Gibson's linguistic comments, from the EFE News Service via Factiva (apparently translated from English to Spanish and back to English):

The director, who said his fascination with the mysteries of the Maya drew him to the project, told reporters that the production would treat Maya culture with great respect.

He described the plot of the film as "a universal story" and said that an additional incentive for filming the movie in a Maya dialect was so that the Maya people and other Indian groups could feel pride in their languages.

"In Mexico and other parts of the world, there are languages that are becoming extinct. I hope 'Apocalypto' in Maya generates an interest in indigenous languages and helps preserve them," he said.

Gibson noted that one of the translators who worked with him on the script told him that many Maya-speaking schoolchildren are laughed at because of their language and feel ashamed.

EFE also reports that Gibson's Mayan reading list included "texts by 16th century bishop Friar Diego de Landa y Calderon, who wrote the book 'La relacion de las cosas de Yucatan' (The relation of things of the Yucatan)."]

[Update #2: Language Hat says the translation of Greek apocalypto (ἀποκαλύπτω) as 'new beginning' is "ridiculous," since it is a verb meaning 'uncover; disclose, reveal.' That was the gloss given in the Los Angeles Times article, while the AP article provides some more context:

The film's title, "Apocalypto," a Greek word for an unveiling or new beginning, "just expresses so well that I want to convey," Gibson said. "I think it's just a universal word. In order for something to begin, something has to end. All of those elements are involved. But it's not a big doomsday picture or anything like that."

Gibson's "new beginning" interpretation seems to resonate with certain New Age readings of the Popol Vuh and other Mayan sacred texts. One popular theory, as mentioned on the apocalyptic page linked above, is that a great cataclysmic event will occur on December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendrical cycle is said to end. There is a whole body of mystical New Age literature on this subject, as a Web search on 2012 quickly reveals. One blurb for the book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 says that in the fateful year "a new age is expected, one in which humanity will mutate spiritually into a new relationship with space-time and the material universe." Whether Apocalypto relates to these fanciful theories is perhaps known only by Mr. Gibson himself.]

[Update #3: For more on Friar Diego de Landa and his mixed legacy, see Suzanne E. McCarthy's post on Abecedaria.]

[Update #4: James Terry takes issue with my description of Yucatec Maya in a comment on Language Hat:

Yucatec Maya is not a direct descendent of Classic Maya, nor is it the modern Maya language most closely related to Classic Maya (often referred to as Ch'olan). The Yucatecan languages (Yucatec, Itza, Lacandon) are part of a northern branch that split off about 3000 years ago from the lines that formed the southern Mayan languages. Ch'olan was part of the southern branch. The descendents of Ch'olan are Cholti (extinct), Chorti, Chol, and Chontal. These are the languages most closely related to Ch'olan/Classic Maya; closest of all is possibly Chorti, spoken today in a small area near the Guatemalan/Honduran border.

In my defense, I never claimed that Yucatec Maya is the language "most closely related" to Classic Maya. Also, as I understand it, epigraphic evidence suggests that the Classic Maya spoke both Ch'olan and Yucatecan languages, so neither branch can claim to have a more direct line. But it was misleading for me to mention "Classic Maya" in the first place, since that usually refers to the "golden age" of Mayan civilization ending around AD 900, long before the time depicted in Gibson's film. I should have said that modern Yucatec Maya is descended from the "classical" language of Yucatán as spoken in the 15th-16th century, which is presumably what the Apocalypto translators have tried to approximate.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 7, 2005 06:50 PM