chapter  9
“That’s Too Much to Learn”
Writing, Longevity, and Urgency in the Isthmus Zapotec Speech Community
ByHaley De Korne
Pages 21

This chapter explores how past, present, and imagined future users of an Indigenous language collide through a process of standardization planning in post-colonial Mexico. Through ethnographic observations and interviews with a range of social actors, I explore the tensions among historical precedents, immediate needs, and long-term goals which emerge in relation to the standardization of Isthmus Zapotec, an Indigenous language of southern Mexico. Efforts to produce a written standard for Isthmus Zapotec have been underway since the early 20th century, with a recognized orthography established in 1956. A recent initiative to introduce greater phonological detail and consistent representation into the orthography, spearheaded by linguists and the Mexican National Institute for Indigenous Languages, has created new discussions around language norms. The writing norms proposed by linguists imagine future users who are literate in Isthmus Zapotec in addition to Spanish, in line with the official recognition of Indigenous languages in Mexico since 2003. Current Isthmus Zapotec literacy practices are mediated through and heavily influenced by Spanish, however, and persistent socioeconomic inequalities continue to shape educational and social realities in the Isthmus Zapotec community. The ideal of an autonomous writing norm reflects a desire for an autonomous and enduring Isthmus Zapotec community; however, the continued dominance of Spanish make the establishment of such a norm elusive, and for some educators, it is an undertaking which threatens to create new social hierarchies. It is likely that tension among different priorities will remain, as linguistic science aims to conserve in the face of language shift, while educators aim to support change in the face of the social inequalities that they experience in their community. The possibility of a future where Isthmus Zapotec users are biliterate and socially valued in local, national, and international spheres is one which all stakeholders would readily pursue; however, there is less agreement on the way to turn this social imaginary into a reality.