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By Don Moore

The following article was prepared as a term paper for a Graduate class in Socio-Linguistics at Ohio University in the Spring of 1989. It has not been published.



The Central American country of Guatemala is one of the most linguistically diverse in the world, and certainly the most diverse in the Western Hemisphere. Five hundred years ago, Guatemala was ruled by the Mayas. Actually, there was no Mayan empire, but rather a loose collection of city-states, each with its own language. In 1523 the Spanish showed up. Within twenty years they had conquered most of the country, although a few remote pockets held out into the 1600s.

Despite the passage of 450 years since the Spanish conquest, a large percentage of the population continues to speak various Mayan Indian languages. In 1940, the Guatemalan census reported that 68% of the population were Indians. But, in 1973, the census showed a drop to only 44%. However, most scholars consider that figure to be too low (Suarez, 1983). Usual figures given for the current Indian population are in the range of 50- 55% (del Aguila, 1987; Simon, 1987; Stewart, 1981, 1984; Suarez, 1983).

Linguistically, these Indians speak a large number of languages and dialects, although there is some slight disagreement as to precise numbers. Figures include twenty languages with seventy dialects (Stewart, 1981), twenty-three languages with over one hundred dialects (del Aguila, 1987), twenty-two languages (Simon, 1987), and twenty-four to thirty languages (Britnall, 1977). However, the languages are related and are similar in vocabulary and grammar. While the differances between languages are enough to make them mutually unintelligible, the differance between dialects is usually small (Britnall, 1977).

The Indians are usually divided into major and minor languages, depending on the number of speakers. There are four major languages; Quiche with 520,000 speakers and fourteen dialects, Mam with 321,000 speakers and fifteen dialects, Cakchiquel with 271,000 speakers and twelve dialects, and Kekchi with 209,000 speakers (Stewart, 1981). Minor languages, which range from the nearly extinct to 60,000 speakers, include Pocomchi, Ixil, Kanjobel, Tzutujil, Pocomam, and Chorti (Stewart, 1981)

The purpose of this paper is to look at Guatemala from a sociolinguistic perspective, with special attention as to how the sociolinguistic situation is reflected in the country's radio broadcasting. This will be accomplished by dividing the paper into two distinct chapters, dealing with the sociolinguistic situation and its manifestation in radio broadcasting, respectively. The first chapter will begin with a discussion of the preservation of the Indian languages of Guatemala from an historical viewpoint. Next, the role of Indians in Guatemalan society and their relation with the politically dominant ladinos, or Spanish speakers, will be discussed, with an emphasis on language. Finally, the recent history and state of language planning in Guatemala will be examined.

Once the sociolinguistic situation in the country has been established, Guatemalan radio broadcasting will be viewed, in light of those facts. An attempt will then be made to put the sociolinguistic aspects of Guatemalan radiobroadcasting into perspective. To do this, the sociolinguistics, language planning, and radio broadcasting in two other Latin American countries with significant Indian populations, Peru and Bolivia, will be briefly examined and compared with Guatemala.


That the Mayan Indians in Guatemala have been able to hold on to their languages and culture despite 450 years of Spanish domination is remarkable. However, at least initially this was not totally the Indians doing.

Sixteenth century Spain was one of the first countries in the world to establish official policies to deal with a multilingual situation. Under the Inquisition, the government saw a need to integrate Moslems and Jews into Spanish culture. The response was to promote the use of Spanish so as to eradicate Arabic and Judeo-Spanish within their borders. The Spanish government extended this policy to its new colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Teaching the Indians Spanish and discouraging the use of Indian languages was seen as an effective way to integrate the Indians into the empire and the Catholic religion (Suarez, 1983). In Guatemala, at least, not only did the crown want the Indians to learn Spanish, but the Indians wanted to learn Spanish as well (Hawkins, 1984).

Guatemala was one of several colonies where the crown's language policy was not carried out. The local Catholic clergy felt that it would be better to convert the Indians in their own languages. If the Indians did not understand Spanish, it would cut down outside influences, and make the Indians dependent on bilingual priests in dealings with the government (Hawkins, 1984; Suarez, 1983). Part of the priest's linguistic work can be seen in their adding the names of Catholic saints to Indian town names. For example, Nebaj was renamed Santa Maria Nebaj, and Chajul renamed San Gaspar Chajul (Simon, 1987). Still, it was difficult for the priests with so many Indian languages to learn, and there was much confusion during the early days (Suarez, 1983).

The priests' policy of not teaching the Indians Spanish was supported by the local Spanish elite, who economically exploited the Indians. "The colony needed a labor source that was freely available and divided internally, exactly the condition enhanced by multiple Indian languages" (Hawkins, 1984, 44).

Stewart adds that after the conquest, the Mayans "were integrated into stable state-level peasant agricultural societies, a factor which may have been a crucial one in aiding them to resist the onslaught of the Europeans better than other native Americans" (Stewart, 1984. 22). Still, "an indeterminate number of Indian languages became extinct as a consequence of the conquest" (Suarez, 1983, 163).

Through the centuries after the conquest, the Guatemalan highlands remained isolated from outside influence due to the rough mountainous topography of the area (Carmack, 1988; Simon, 1987). Thus the Indian life style, including language use was little affected or change by outside cultural influences (Simon, 1987).

In addition to holding on to their languages, Guatemalan Indians have continued to wear their traditional everyday costumes. Guatemalan Indians are well known today for the skill of their weaving and their masterful way of combining bright colors in their clothing. The Indians' colorful clothing is an important part of their culture today. Different towns and regions have their own particular designs which immediately identify not only what language group the wearer belongs to, but also specifically where the wearer comes from. However, Indian clothing is not quite as traditional as it would first appear. The different designs - over two hundred of them - were introduced by the Spanish colonizers as a way of keeping track of which village or town a peasant belonged to (Simon, 1987).


The first key to the complex world of Guatemalan sociolinguistics is the difference between Indian and Ladino. The distinction between the two races is not based on bloodlines. In fact, almost all ladinos have some Indian blood, and some are completely descended from Indians. Ladinos can, and often do, physically look like Indians, but they will not be considered as Indians (Britnall, 1977). Instead, "what matters in distinguishing Indian from Ladino is immediate descent and cultural characteristics such as language and dress" (Britnall, 1977. 20). In terms of outward appearance, language and traditional dress are the two key factors. Even dress is not an absolute determinate, as although almost all Indian women continue to wear their colorful clothing, a large percentage of men have adopted modern westernized dress (Burgess, 1966; Simon, 1987). This leads to a situation where, in determining who belongs to which ethnic group, "the sociological term is in part a linguistic index" (Diebold, 1962, 27).

The differance between the Indians and Ladinos is accentuated by a high level of monolingualism among the Indians. "Monolingualism ranges from a high of perhaps ninety percent in the Kekchi area to an almost complete bilingualism in Chorti, but monolingualism may reach an average of fifty percent for all languages" (Stewart, 1981, 6-7). Among those Indians considered to be bilingual, knowledge of Spanish varies greatly, with many knowing "little more than the vocabulary necessary to buy and sell in the marketplace" (Stewart, 1981, 7). Britnall notes that while "almost all Indians know greetings and some numbers, . . . only a handful are competent enough to speak on the level of a newspaper article" (Britnall, 1977, 62). Furthermore

Indian men are more likely to be bilingual in Spanish than Indian women; younger men are more so than older men; few Indians, on the other hand, are bilingual in another Indian language, and few Ladinos . . . are bilingual in the Indian language. Finally the trend seems to be towards greater bilingualism among Indians and more monolingualism among Ladinos (Britnall, 1977, 63).
As the principal differances between the two groups are language and dress, an Indian can move upward socially to the Ladino class by learning Spanish and adopting Western style dress (Britnall, 1977; Diebold, 1962). However, "it is generally recognized that it is impossible for an Indian to ladinoize without leaving the community where he was born and raised." (Britnall, 21) As a result, Indians who learn Spanish and ladinoize move to the larger towns and cities, and their villages remain largely monolingual (Diebold, 1962).


Curiously, the word ladino was originally a derogatory term the Spanish elite had for an Indian who learned Spanish (Hawkins, 1984). However, over the centuries, the Ladinos turned that knowledge of Spanish into their means of taking control of the country and its Indian population. The source of Ladino dominance and Indian servility is that Indians are not competent in the national language, and only the Ladino has had access to a school education (Stewart, 1981). This is in part aided by demographics; although sixty to seventy percent of Guatemalans live in rural areas, ninety percent of those in rural areas are Indians (del Aguila, 1987). For example, the department of Huehuetenango is over two-thirds Indian, but ninety-eight percent of the departmental capital's population is Ladino (Britnall, 1977).

Britnall points out the existence of a "self-reinforcing system of social and cultural domination by the Ladinos" where

Ladinos were automatically in contact with the larger Guatemalan society through their competence in the national language and customs . . . Indian ignorance of the national language and culture was guaranteed through the social segregation of the two groups which was manifested in the Ladino avoidance of friendhsips and mixed marraiges with Indians, and through an effective Ladino monopoly on local 'public' education (Britnall, 1977, 173).
Considering themselves superior to the Indians, the Ladinos demean, exploit and abuse the Indians in whatever manner they feel like. During the dictatorial regime of General Jorge Ubico, from 1930-1945, Indians were treated especially harshly; "they (the Indians) feared commands in Spanish that they might not understand" as that would lead to beatings (Britnall, 1977, 103).

Through the present day, Indians are spoken to paternalistically with the informal tu or vos, regardless of their age or social position. In addition, they are commonly refered to with deregatory or demeaning expressions (Britnall, 1977). "It is not unusual for (Ladino) Guatemalans to use expressions such as "no seas indio" ('don't be an Indian') or "es mas estupido que un indio" ('he's dumber than an Indian')" (Simon, 1987, 59). "In general, Ladinos treat Indians in a curt and rude fashion. In stores Indians are generally served only after all Ladino customers have been served" (Britnall, 1977, 19). The Indians, at least among themselves, reciprocate by calling the Ladinos dogs or vultures (Britnall, 1977).

The Ladino attitude towards Indians and themselves was perhaps best summed up in the 1923 thesis of Guatemala Miguel Angel Asturias, who considered the Indian problem a "disease", and called for extensive European immigration as a cure.

The Indian represents a past civilization and the meztizo, or ladino as we call him, a future civilization. The Indian . . . lost his vigor during the long period of slavery to which he was subjected . . . He represents the mental, moral, and material dearth of the country . . . (The Ladino) aspires, desires, and is, in the final analysis, the vital part of the Guatemalan nation. What a nation, where two thirds of its population are dead to intelligent life! . . . Among the gross errors that were committed (during the Spanish conquest) was the desire that rudimentary Indian intelligence immediately assimilate the civilization of a nation that at that time was the most advanced in Europe. . . For the Indian, the Independence period represented a change of master and nothing else (Asturias, 1923, 65-73).
Asturias later won the 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature, after greatly moderating his views.

By no means, however, should it be thought that the Guatemalan Ladinos are alone in considering the Indians unimportant and uncapable of significant accomplishments. For example, in his time, John Gunther was the United States' foremost author about other countries, their politics and cultures. Yet in his 1941 book, Inside Latin America he mentions Indians in just one sentence of the eight-and-a-half page chapter on Guatemala.

All this spells out a very dismal situation for the Guatemalan Indians. Yet, it's only been in the last decade that abuse of the Indian population has reached all time highs, due to an ongoing guerilla war in the Indian highlands. Guerilla warfare started in the 1960s when leftwing Ladino college students took to the mountains to fight the country's rightwing military government. At first this was a Ladino war, but beginning in 1974 large numbers of Indians began to join the EGP (Guerilla Army of the Poor). By the late 1970s, ninety percent of the guerillas were Indians, although the leadership remained mainly Ladino (Simon, 1987).

As the war heated up, the Guatemalan army saw no need to spare the Indians in their search for guerillas, as tens of thousands of Indians were killed and entire villages destroyed (Simon, 1987). Roman Catholic Monsignor Juan Pablo Urizar "stated that 20,000 Indians had been killed in the Quiche area alone in the 1980s" (Simon, 1987, 193). Over a million peasants were incorporated into a civil patrol system and 70,000 relocated to military run "model villages". Indian women from controversial areas have begun abandoning their traditional dress in favor of western dress, or the costume of a non-controversial town. Both men and women have found that "hesitancy to give an answer during an army interrogation could brand one as a 'subversive'", even if the reason is simply lack of fluency in Spanish. Subversives are frequently shot (Simon, 1987, 84). All told, the war "has probably done as much to alter Indian life as the Spanish conquest and its aftermath in four centuries" (Simon, 1987, 15).


In Guatemala the official language is Spanish, and it is recognized as the habitual and legal means for all aspects of civil life (Herrara, 1986, 606). One result of this is that schooling is in Spanish, effectively disenfranchising most Indian children from an education. Guatemala has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the Western Hemisphere -around sixty percent, largely Indian peasants (del Aguila, 1987; Stewart, 1981), with an average education level of 1.28 grades (del Aguila, 1987). Most Indian children who start school soon find that they can't understand anything the teacher says and soon drop out (Stewart, 1981). In the mean time, they are ridiculed for their ignorance by the Ladino children (Britnall, 1977). Not surprisingly, over 50% of Indian children never enroll in school, and only 1% of those who do enroll complete the 6th grade. (del Aguila, 1987).

In spite of the problem of widespread Indian illiteracy and monolingualism, the Guatemalan government has largely ignored the issue of language planning. What steps have been taken can be termed minimal at best.

Official language planning started in Guatemala in 1945 with the creation of the Instituto Indigenista Nacional (IIN), which had the job of studying "the situation of the Indian in Guatemala with a view towards incorporating him into the national life (Stewart, 1984, 25). However, since the government was "determined to produce a Spanish speaking population" it followed a policy of trying to teach Spanish to the Indians in Spanish with very little success (Stewart, 1984, 25). Indeed, the IIN's greatest success was probably the publication of alphabets for the four main Mayan languages (Stewart, 1984).

In 1964 the Promotores Bilingues program was established as a way to prepare Indian children for Spanish language classrooms. This involved the hiring of bilingual Indians with a sixth grade education to

work with pre-school children to teach them minimal literacy in their own Mayan language, spoken Spanish, and finally some minimal literacy in Spanish. The 'graduates' of the Promotores Bilingues program (then) enter first grade, which is taught in Spanish by a regular primary school teacher, who in Guatemala must be a high school graduate (Stewart, 1984, 28).
Although the program has had some success, it must be noted that its intent is to integrate Indian children into Ladino society. There is no effort or interest in the project in maintaining the Indian languages; they are simply used as a bridge to Spanish. Even in this, the Guatemalan government has shown very little interest, in that most of the funding has come from U.S. foreign aid (Britnall, 1977; Stewart, 1984).

A slightly expanded version of the Promotores Bilingues program began in 1980. Under the preprimary program there had been occasions when once students had finished the program, there was no first grade teacher in the community for them to continue their education with. In these cases the bilingual promotors frequently took over and taught the children first grade, and sometimes second and third grade as well. Because of the successes of this informal extension of the program, a decision was made to expand Promotores Bilingues to include bilingual education for the first three years of schooling for children of the four main Indian language groups, Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, and Kekchi. Again, the funding came largely from U.S. foreign aid, and again, the "project has an assimilation orientation (and) its goal is to produce literate speakers of Spanish and not to maintain or promote Indian languages" (Stewart, 1981, 7).

Thus, offical language planning in Guatemala has been minimal and completely aimed at incorporating the Indians into Guatemalan society by teaching them Spanish. However, there has been very little success (Herrera, 1986, 606). Moreover, "there is no single language policy in the country at either public or private levels; there are several. In the public sector there is a lack of knowledge and understanding in this area. Private entities work better than the public ones in this area" (Tujab, 1987b, 536).

The specific private entities that have been involved in language issues in Guatemala are the Roman Catholic Church, and evangelist missionaries, frequently associated with the Summer Institute for Linguistics. A goal of the Catholic church everywhere is the creation of an indigenous clergy (Britnall, 1977). Also beginning in the 1960s, the Catholic church began to establish peasant leagues, espcially through Catholic Action (Simon, 1987). The evangelist missionaries, on the other hand, believe that all good Christians should read the Bible. However, rather than teach natives a language the Bible is already written in, they have decided it would be better to translate the Bible into the native langugages. This, however, requires that the natives be literate in their own language - otherwise they wouldn't be able to read the translated Bible (Stewart, 1984).

The result was that both the Catholic and evangelist Protestant churches began establishing and producing materials for bilingual rural schools for the Indians. For example, by 1964 the SIL had developed primers in six languages (Stewart, 1981). Soon,

greater education contributed to the growing Indian pride and sense of independence from the Ladino . . . (Those) who did not know how to read or write feel great pride in their bilingual and literate children . . . Ladinos (became) less important as mediators between the national and local culture. Newspapers, laws, legal documents, radio broadcasts, books - nearly all of which are in Spanish - are no longer an exclusively Ladino domain (Britnall, 1977, 153-4).
A particular success of the Catholic church has been the Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin (PLFM), which was eventually handed over to the Indians. The organization develops bilingual dictionaries and other educational materials in the various Indian languages and dialects. The project pays for itself by running a Spanish school for foreigners, including the US Peace Corps (Stewart, 1981, 1984).

Bilingualism and literacy, brought about by the Catholic and Protestant evangelist churches lead to greater political and economic independence for the Indians (Britnall, 1977). However, "the intrusion of Indians into the political process on both a national and a local level brought about conflict, primarily in the rural areas, with Ladinos" (Peterson, 1968, 81). In the evangelist churches, as the foreign missionaries learned the Indian languages, and the Indians became literate, Ladinos were given less important roles in the church, sometimes leading them to found their own sects (Britnall, 1977).

It was the work of the Catholic church with establishing peasant leagues and working for social reform that caused the most reform. By the early 1980s, the Guatemalan government began to see the Catholic church's work with the Indian peasants as subversive. Catholic priests, nuns, and layworkers often "disappeared" in political killings. Such atrocities were not restricted to the Catholic church, however. At one point three US AID trained bilingual teachers disappeared; two were later found dead, the third never found (Simon, 1987).


As has been seen, Guatemala is a multilingual country, with approximately half its population monolingual in the dominant language of Spanish, and the other half speaking Indian languges for their mother tongue, with about half of those monolingual. For various historical reasons, the Mayans have "been successful in maintaining an ethnic identity separate from that of the ladinos". (Stewart, 1984 22). However, often that separate ethnic identity is largely manifested in the language differance. Economically and politically the Spanish-speaking Ladinos are dominant over the Mayan Indians. In addition, the Ladinos have highly prejudicial and demeaning attitudes towards Indians. These attitudes are at least partly responsible for the killings of thousands of Indians in the civil war, and perhaps the greatest threat yet to the Indians' survival.

As a result of the Ladinos' negative attitude towards the Indians, the Guatemalan government has made little effort towards language planning or educating the Indians. The goal of what little effort it has made has always been the integration of the Indians into Ladino-Spanish culture, and the Indians' abandonment of their own culture. However, for their own reasons, the Catholic and Protestant evangelist churches have established their own bilingual education programs for the Indians. Their efforts have led to improved economic and political conditions for the Indians, but have met stiff resistance from the dominant Ladino elite, especially in the case of the Catholic church.


The sociolinguistic situation in Guatemala is clearly one of vertical bilingualism, defined as one language (Spanish) being socially, politically, and economically dominant over all others (Haugen, 1987). For the Indian half of the population it can also be said that a state of diglossia exists, in that there is a clear distinction between the use of the Indian language at home and in one's ethnic community, and the Spanish language in all official, business, and contact with the outside world.

It is difficult to say what the future will bring to the Guatemalan linguistic scene. Stewart notes that Guatemala's "bi-ethnic situation, in which language is an important ethnic marker, is fairly stable and might be expected to continue indefinitely, if political, economic, and social factors were to permit it" (Stewart, 1984, 22). Because of the political factor, Simon wonders "if the culture the Mayans have sustained since the sixteenth century will endure even fifty more years" (Simon, 1987, 15).

The question of whether or not Guatemala's Indian languages are doomed to extinction by hispanization is an interesting one. Haugen notes that "it is not so much that the languages spread as that changing social circumstances lead the users of the languages to shift orientation (Haugen, 1987, 51). In short, the users of a language find it more beneficial to use another language.

Examples of both types of language spread/extinction can be seen in Guatemala today with some of the lesser languages. Four languages considered by Tujab as on the road to extinction; - Itza, Pocomam, Xinca, and Tectiteco; -- (Tujab, 1987a) clearly fall into the changing social circumstances frame.

The Itza language of the northern Peten region, Pocomam of eastern Jalapa department, and Xinca of southeastern Santa Rosa department are similar in that each is an isolated island surrounded by Spanish speakers, unlike most Guatemalan Indian languages, which are clustered in the western part of the country. Presumably the speakers of these languages have found Spanish so necessary in their everyday life, that it contributes to the decline of their own languages. Xinca, in fact, is on the very brink of extinction with only six elderly speakers left as of 1987. Tujab notes that even they normally communicate among themselves in Spanish (Tujab, 1987a). Chorti, spoken in eastern Chiquimula department, is also an isolated linguistic island. Although Chorti is not on Tujab's extinction list, its speakers are almost totally bilingual in Spanish (Stewart, 1981).

The fourth example of the social circumstances frame is Tectiteco, spoken along the Mexican border in Western Guatemala. Unlike the others mentioned above, Teciteco is not surrounded by Spanish speakers, but rather by Mam Indians. However, because many of them migrate to Mexico for seasonal labor, they find Spanish useful and no longer value their own language (Tujab, 1987a).

Spread of a larger language also has contributed towards the extinction of some of the lesser Indian languages. However, it was not Spanish at fault here, but rather the major Indian languages of Quiche and Kekchi. The Kekchi have been moving north into the Peten, and encroaching on the territory of the Mopan Maya (Semanario de Integracion Social Guatemalteca, 1964; Tujab, 1987). Similarly the Quiche have started to move into the territories of the Uspantecan and Aguacatecan Indians (Semanario de Integracion Social Guatemalteca, 1964; Britnall, 1977).

Considering all the factors, I believe Simon's fear of extinction within fifty years is unjustified, unless the army literally does kill off all the Indians. However, it is probable that within fifty years several more of the less spoken languages will follow Xinca to extinction. The four major languages, and some of the smaller ones most isolated from Spanish speakers, should continue to survive, at least for a few generations.

Their long term survival is, however, dependent on their being given some degree of status in Guatemalan society. Due to the number of Indian languages, no one could be given official status alongside Spanish, as for example has been done in Paraguay with Guarani. Spanish would have to remain the national language which all citizens learn, and which ties all groups together in a multilingual setting.

Herrera suggests just that in calling for the officialization of regional languages that would be equal to Spanish within their particular region. Spanish, though, would remain the official language for affairs between regions (Herrera, 1986). However, having extensively traveled in and read about Guatemala, I have a difficult time imagining language planning which accepts the legitimacy of Indian languages coming about any time soon.

Part Two: Language and Radio Broadcasting in Guatemala

Part Three: Bibliography


The above article is copyright 1989 by Don Moore.

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