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Comparing Mixean orthographies: Is there hope for a unified writing system?

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  • Design
  • Economics
  • Linguistics


Linguistic and dialectal diversity is uniquely complex and highly understudied for the hundreds of Mixean varieties spoken in Mexico. The sparsity of linguistic documentation poses a challenge for comparative work and prevents the development of a precise division into dialectal and linguistic groupings. As a result, each community retains its linguistic individuality which is reflected in their orthographies. This paper discusses the challenges of orthography design in the Mixean region and compares eight existing orthographies. It is shown that the implementation of a unified spelling system has largely failed and that established spelling conventions diverge, often highlighting dialectal idiosyncrasies. The Mixean territory is composed of 290 communities (Torres 1997) with each village speaking its own variety, many of which are mutually unintelligible. In most cases fine genetic distinctions still remain unclear, as linguistic documentation in the region is not pervasive. At present, there are a a handful of published grammars and dictionaries, but there is no widely used uniform orthography. Each Mixean variety, if documented, has established its own orthographic conventions (Author 2010). Efforts to create a unified writing system for all varieties have met with limited success (Suslak 2003:557). In the 1950s and 1960s the Summer Institute of Linguistics worked on several Mixean languages and developed different orthographic conventions for each variety. Acunzo (1991) and others claim that introducing different orthographies was a strategy aimed at fragmenting the Mixean community. As a reaction, a unified Mixean orthography was developed, but its implementation has not been successful. The comparison of eight Mixean orthographies illustrates divergence in four areas: (1) the adoption of certain allophonic variations, (2) the representations of /k/ and /h/ in regards to Spanish spelling, (3) symbols for less commonly found vowel qualities, and (4) suprasegmental palatalization. The Mixean vowel system poses a major challenge for orthography design, as it is the greatest source for dialectal variation ranging from six to nine phonemic vowels, and many do not occur in the dominant language, Spanish. Overall, this work demonstrates the difficulties encountered when attempting to design a spelling system in a linguistically and dialectally diverse and understudied region. While Mixean communities generally favor Spanish spelling conventions, they also prefer dialectal particularity over multidialectal uniformity. Thus, the paper highlights the complexity of orthography design and the challenges of language documentation and maintenance in a region with limited intellectual and economic resources to unify local communities and to ensure widespread impact.

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