A Canal Where a Language Used to Be
A language at risk faces new challenges
When Walter Ortiz was born 75 years ago in Wiring Cay on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, his parents and grandparents traveled in a type of canoe they called a dory and got most of their food through hunting, fishing, and gardening, They still ate tulish, a dish made from ripe bananas dried over a fire, then mashed into porridge and served in a large communal bowl. Ortiz and his family are members of the Rama indigenous community, and his parents and grandparents spoke Rama with him when he was young. Now Ortiz lives on Rama Cay, the “capital” of the Rama community where he is the sole native speaker of Rama.
The island of Rama Cay is made up of two hills connected by a green, swampy area about the size of a football field that is hardly an inch above sea level. Home to half of the Rama community, which number about 2800 people in all, Rama Cay is practically urban, compared to the rest of the Rama’s million-acre territory, most of which is jungle. That doesn’t mean that Rama Cay is easily accessible. To get there, I took a half-hour motorboat ride from Bluefields, the largest city in the region. Residents on Rama Cay also sometimes travel to and from Bluefields by canoe, which takes five hours each way.
If Ortiz wants to have a full conversation in Rama, he has to leave Rama Cay and travel even further south, to Bangkukuk Taik, a village of about 140 families that’s about two hours south of Bluefields by motorboat. Of the 25 native speakers of Rama who are still alive, about 15 live there. If the Nicaraguan government gets its way, five years from now there will be no Bangkukuk Taik for Ortiz to return to. Work has already begun on a massive interoceanic canal, funded by a Hong Kong-based company, HKND Group. The planned route of the canal will divide the Rama territory in two, turning Bangkukuk Taik into the canal’s Caribbean-side deepwater port. The Rama’s canoes and open motorboats, which can carry up to 20 people, would be replaced by 1,300-foot long Chinese and Danish cargo ships.
Emily Liedel is a freelance writer and polyglot based in Portland, Oregon who writes about language learning and living abroad on her blog, The Babel Times. Emily holds master’s degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Sciences Po Paris Journalism School.
At one level, the canal will displace a community and damage one aspect of its linguistic life. Individuals will fare differently. They can move away; they can speak other languages. Walter Ortiz already speaks Spanish with “mestizos,” as indigenous people call Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans. He speaks what locals call Rama English, an English-based creole that is now the dominant language among Rama, with his children, grandchildren, and wife. With members of the large Afro-descendent community that live in Bluefields and also share parts of the Rama’s territory, he speaks Bluefields Creole, another English creole that’s closer to standard English.
But languages are spoken in communities; as Ortiz knows so well, individuals need someone to talk to. When Bangkukuk Taik is excavated and dredged for the new mega-canal, the only place where a group of speakers talk to each other on a regular basis will be dredged off the face of the map. Minority communities around the globe can rebuild themselves in other places (and many have in New York City), but the pressure to assimilate linguistically in their new homes is high, according to Claire Bowern, a professor of linguistics at Yale University who has worked with endangered languages in Australia. As a result, most of those minority groups shift languages quickly after relocating. It’s even more difficult for the language to survive when the relocation is forced. “Physical displacement often involves a huge amount of social displacement,” Bowern explains, which disrupts the social fabric a language needs.
This location also held out the best hope for bringing Rama back in one form or another. It’s the only place where anyone is being taught any Rama at all, even if the school children’s Rama proficiency is a shadow of their grandparents’. Language nests — a language revitalization technique in which children and young adults move in with a native speaker in an effort to increase the younger generation’s language skills — have been run, and two elderly women give biweekly classes for the kids in primary school. Though Bangkukuk Taik’s younger generation isn’t full of native Rama speakers, the children and young adults speak more Rama than their peers elsewhere in the Rama territory.
“One of the major problems with the canal is that it would kill the Rama language,” says Colette Grinevald, a French linguist who for the past 30 years has spearheaded a project to revitalize and preserve the Rama language. Born in Algiers to French parents, she moved to France when she was nine years old, and taught at the University of Oregon for 27 years. After the political situation forced her to abandon her fieldwork in Guatemala in 1980, she subsequently started traveling to Nicaragua as an interpreter, and then approached the Nicaraguan government with an offer to help document and revive an indigenous language. Her offer came just after the Rama leadership had asked for support revitalizing their ancestral language, in 1985. Grinevald’s offer was accepted, and the project was financed by the US National Science Foundation.
The Rama community’s request for help with language revitalization wasn’t entirely motivated by cultural pride. At the time, the Sandinista government had prioritized territorial autonomy for indigenous communities along the Caribbean coast, linking culture, language, and territory so strongly that many Ramas feared that they couldn’t be recognized as an indigenous community unless they could prove that they spoke Rama.
Was this fear justified? Neither Grinevald or anyone else I spoke with could say. But the language still played an important role in establishing Rama territory. “If the indigenous people have a name for that hill, then they’ve lived on that hill, they’ve used that hill and it’s their hill,” Grinevald explains. (Eventually, in 2009, they received official title to the whole territory directly from Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega).
I met Grinevald in Managua, at the home of her long-time friend and partner in the Rama Language Project, Maricela Kaufman. When she started traveling to Bluefields twice a year in 1986, the only way to get across the country was with military transport, and every time she arrived at the airport, she had to be interviewed by a government official who would decide to allow her to go to the coast. Kaufman was that official, and over time she also became a champion of the Rama Language Project.
When Grinevald began working with Rama, not only was the language dying, but very few people were mourning the loss. The fact that there were only about 30 native speakers was one piece of the problem. Also, many people on Rama Cay were either disinterested or actively hostile to the language, which they called a “tiger language,” because it sounded like a tiger’s roar. To them, people from Bangkukuk Taik were “bush people.” Savages, in other words, who don’t sound human.
As a result, Rama was lowest in the local hierarchy of languages — and it still is. The most prestigious language is Spanish, followed by the Bluefields Creole spoken natively by most people in Bluefields. Then comes Rama English, then Rama. Even Walter Ortiz’s children don’t speak Rama. On Rama Cay, several elderly people mentioned that their parents had not wanted to speak Rama because the language, to them, reminded them of former persecutions.
Grinevald worked primarily with one speaker, a woman named Eleanor Rigby and locally known as Miss Nora. With Miss Nora’s help, Grinevald collected a 3,000 word dictionary, described the grammar system, and set up a website for students to access language learning materials. She created trilingual reading books, in English, Spanish, and Rama, to teach young students the language and traditional Rama practices, like how to build a canoe and prepare traditional foods. She feels that the most important part of her work was convincing the community that Rama was a real language, that it could be written, that it wasn’t inferior to other languages. At one workshop on the Rama language organized about in the early 2000s, Grinevald gave a presentation about the language families. She showed language “family trees,” explaining that just as English and Spanish is part of the same language family, Rama is part of the Chibcha family, a language family spoken by indigenous groups stretching from modern Colombia in the south to Southern Honduras in the north. Bogotá, the Colombian capital, takes its name from a now-extinct Chibcha language. “They were very, very pleased when I told them that, and I don’t know why I waited so long to tell them,“ Grinevald remembers. “I showed them the Chibcha family, and I said, ‘you have your cousins down in Costa Rica.” The next day, several people told Grinevald, “Now we know that we are not orphans.”
Even so, interest in Rama has oscillated, Grinevald says. At one point, the language program had its own room in the Rama Territorial Government office, where there were computers and regular Rama classes. Then the office moved, the room disappeared, and the classes stopped. Grinevald has seen her language materials used for both kindling and toilet paper.
Ervin Hodgson, who generally goes by the name Silvano, is one of the younger generation of Rama who has benefitted from and appreciates the dictionary and other materials assembled by Grinevald and Miss Nora. I first met Hodgson on the 14-seater plane from Managua to Bluefields, although I didn’t realize who he was when he offered reassuring words about the trustworthiness of the Cessna plane. That evening, I ran into him a second time; he was in front of me in line to use one of the only two ATM machines in Bluefields. We were both surprised when we saw each other the following day, at dusk in front of his friend’s family home on Rama Cay. Each time, he wore a white T-shirt, jeans, sandals, and two silver necklaces, one with a large pendant with the letters ERV.
Like other Rama, Hodgson’s native language is Rama English; he also speaks Spanish and English. At 35, Hodgson is one of the most successful of the “new speakers” of Rama, and he tries to study some Rama every day. One of the most outspoken supporters of Rama language education, he works at the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast in Bluefields promoting linguistic and cultural revitalization for all of the regions’ indigenous groups.
Although Hodgson was too old to have learned Rama with Miss Nora, he remembers singing songs and learning some vocabulary as a child. At the time, he wasn’t interested. “Before, I didn’t see it as something important to me,” he said. It wasn’t until he was 25 and working on a Master’s degree in bilingual education that he started to take interest. He started studying in earnest about five years ago, using the materials Grinevald had assembled online and working with Ortiz and Cristina Benjamin, a native speaker who now lives in Bangkukuk Taik. He also started teaching the Rama language classes at the Rama Government’s building in Bluefields. “I learned speaking it after teaching it,” he says. “But I think I don’t speak a lot. Maybe like 10 percent. I fail a lot.”
Even though the most successful “new speaker” of Rama is so frank about his limitations, Grinevald considers the revitalization program an undeniable success. “One can say that the Rama language was saved from the total oblivion that threatened it a while ago,” she wrote in a summary of her career.
When I met her, she said that “What’s important is that they can say 5 words to a mestizo.” It’s a way of reinforcing their identity. “We teach them a little bit, and they are very happy.” When Grinevald talks to Rama about their language ability, the standard answer, she says, is “I know one-one words,” using a Rama English expression for “a little.” That’s between 50 and 100 words, Grinevald estimates.
That low bar is not what the Nicaraguan government was expecting when the project started in the 1980s. Grinevald said she struggles to make members of the Nicaraguan government and the Rama community understand that success doesn’t mean having bilingual schools in Rama or bringing Rama back as a mother tongue. That isn’t realistic, she says.
That sentiment is echoed by other linguists who work with endangered languages. George Ann Gregory, a linguist who works with endangered languages in the American Southwest, says even high-profile, highly-funded language programs like the ones supporting Irish and Maori aren’t really creating native speakers — at best, they produce “people who could speak Irish,” she says — not people who actually do speak it. Especially in an urban area, she says, there’s not much space in everyday life for an indigenous language and rarely an economic incentive for speaking one. “Keeping indigenous languages is not about economics, it is about identity,” Gregory says.
“When people say, ‘So what?’ I say ‘It’s not your problem,’” Grinevald says. “These people need their language in order to feel proud of who they are. We can not understand that because we speak strong languages that we don’t have to defend.”
“Even if a program only helps indigenous communities feel better about their language heritage, that is a worthy goal,” says Wayne Leman, who has worked with the Cheyenne language since the 1970s and was one of Grinevald’s students at the University of Oregon. He couldn’t think of any programs in North America that have succeeded in creating new, conversationally fluent speakers.
Still, there’s truth to Grinevald’s sense that the canal will kill the Rama language, in the same way that a person with an auto-immune disorder can succumb to pneumonia. In other words, the canal project will finish what multiple factors started a long time ago. Climate change is probably the single biggest threat facing the community. In 1988, every building on Rama Cay was destroyed by hurricane Joan, and rising sea levels could easily flood all or most of the small island. Meanwhile, landless mestizo farmers have increasingly encroached on Rama land, often leading to violent confrontations and reducing the Rama’s ability to farm traditionally.
Diego Castillo, who lives in Bangkukuk Taik and whose mother is one of the Rama teachers there, actually considers the mestizo invasion more dangerous than the canal. “We know where the canal will go, but the mestizos are invading us from all sides,” he says. “There is no way to resist the mestizos.”
At the same time, neither rising seas nor mestizo farmers will displace the last community of speakers in Bangkukuk Taik within the next five years. The canal, if built, will. Still, Castillo supports the canal, and spoke with pride about how it will be the largest infrastructure project in the world. He was certain that because the Rama hold the title to their land, they would have some control over the project’s development on their land. In spite of his general support for the canal, Castillo was clear about one thing: The people in Bangkukuk Taik do not want to move.
On the only evening I spent in Rama Cay, I got a tour from Becky McCray, the daughter of the Rama community’s only minister, Cleveland McCray, who lives in a traditional wooden house on Rama Cay, with a roof made out of banana leaves and spaces between the boards large enough to see through. The traditional houses are build on stilts several feet above the ground, and you can see the chickens scratching underneath the house through the spaces in the floorboards.
As we walked around the island, an old man walk past us, assisted by a cane, and said, “Malika tabulak.” When I looked confused, McCray laughed and said, “That means ‘good evening’ in Rama.” The man — who wasn’t a native speaker of Rama — was using his ancestral language in exactly the way that Grinevald says the Rama should: asserting his identity when interacting with an outsider.
The following morning, a Sunday, most residents on the island attended a baptism in the island’s white wooden Moravian church with a tin roof. During the service, Cleveland McCray read from an English-language bible, and the congregation sang from an English hymnal, printed in the United States. When the McCray family spoke to each other in Rama English, I could barely make out individual words, but the sermon was in accented but otherwise standard English. The last minister to give sermons in the Rama language was Becky McCray’s maternal grandmother’s grandfather. The church might even switch to Spanish within a couple generations. Whether or not the canal is built, the church will never hold services in Rama.