R.I.P. Robert Laughlin

 

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Preserver of a Mayan Language Dies at 85:

‘Robert M. Laughlin, an anthropologist and linguist whose extensive work in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico documented and helped revitalize Mayan languages and culture, died on May 28 in Alexandria, Va. He was 85. His son, Reese, said the cause was the new coronavirus.

Dr. Laughlin spent much of his professional life doing field work in Chiapas, beginning in the late 1950s. He learned the Tzotzil (also spelled Tsotsil) language as a graduate student with the Harvard Chiapas Project, a long-term ethnographic field study that had just been started by Professor Evon Vogt and was focusing on the town of Zinacantán. After years of painstaking work, in 1975 Dr. Laughlin published The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán, with 30,000 entries.

Indigenous languages in the region — there are many — had been under siege since the Spanish conquest, and Dr. Laughlin’s dictionary helped spur a revival of interest in them. The dictionary, published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where Dr. Laughlin was curator of Mesoamerican ethnology, was not simply a compilation of which Tzotzil word equals which English word. It was a deep dive into word origins, how the language had mutated and more….’

— via New York Times

 

Studying anthropology as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I was privileged to be a participant in Vogt’s Chiapas Project, doing fieldwork living with a family of Tzotzil speakers in Zinacantan. In preparation for my time in Chiapas, I studied the language with the benefit of Laughlin’s dictionary and expertise and knew him a little. The Chiapas Project had a ranch outside San Cristobal de las Casas where the fieldworkers would convene on the weekends with Vogt and other ethnographic luminaries like Laughlin. My field research in Chiapas turned into my undergraduate thesis and I can still speak a little Tzotzil, although my interests soon turned away from social anthropology.

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