The language of land and life: Connecting language and ecology in Wixárika (hch)

Alex McAlvay and collaborators

This project will document the Wixárika language (hch), also known as Huichol, an endangered Uto-Aztecan language from West-Central Mexico. The project is a collaboration between an ethnobotanist (McAlvay), native-speaker language activists, a linguist specialized in Wixárika, Mexican universities, and non-profit community centers. Researchers will focus on the threatened semantic domain of ethnobotanical and ethnoecological knowledge in Wixárika. This interdisciplinary effort will generate a website with a searchable Ethnoecological and Linguistic Database and a physical ethnobotany handbook, an annotated audiovisual corpus of texts, and a body of pedagogical materials that are accessible to the Wixárika language community. These resources will provide the key tools to fill knowledge gaps in Wixárika linguistics and ethnobiology as well as a basis for Wixárika language preservation and revitalization efforts.

While there were an estimated 47,000 speakers of Wixárika as of 2010, language vitality is threatened by migration, integration with non-Wixárika cultures, monolingual Spanish schools, and social stigma.
Wixárika culture is widely recognized for its body of traditional ecological knowledge which is integrated into cosmology and art, but movement away from traditional subsistence lifestyles endangers this
knowledge as well as associated language domains related to plant use, management, and local ecological knowledge. This project would be the first interdisciplinary study of its type with the Wixárika language as it aims to combine expertise from, and contribute to, both linguistic and ethnobiological sciences. The creation of a large, accessible, and annotated natural language corpus and searchable online Ethnoecological and Linguistic Database will serve as key tools to fill longstanding knowledge gaps by supporting research on outstanding questions in cognitive ethnobiology, morphosyntax, comparative linguistics, and other topics.

This project is a collaborative effort with Wixárika language communities including two native-speaker language activists and the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts. In addition to providing tools for linguistic researches, this project would provide publicly accessible language resources for Wixárika communities, capacity building for grassroots Wixárika language documentation
efforts, training in interdisciplinary methods for a Postdoctoral Associate, Mexican undergraduate students and interested parties from the Autonomous University of Nayarit, and the revival of an
international networking initiative by SOAS (University of London)—Plants Animals, Words (PAW)—that builds capacity for collaboration between linguists and ethnobiologists. Most important, the project will consolidate local partnerships with communities and organizations and unify Wixárika documentation and conservation efforts.