Friday, February 14, 2014

Learning Aymara

Since living in La Paz, I have had the opportunity to learn about something that, up until now, was absolutely unknown to me; Aymara. While Aymara classes were initially meant to be simple language classes, arranged to help me communicate better with families on project in El Alto, they have become much more than this.  I have had the honour of being taught by Juan de Dios Yapita, one of the most important linguists concerned with Aymara. He not only shared with me his knowledge of the language, but also gave me an insight into the culture and the life of the Aymaran people.

For those to whom Aymara is not familiar, I shall introduce it very basically. The Aymara language is part of the Jaqi family, and is spoken by over two million people in Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. In Bolivia, 80% of Aymaran speakers are currently living in the Department of La Paz, and are therefore much more visible than they would be in more isolated towns or villages. Aymara is a pre-Hispanic language, however because it is mostly a spoken language, based on oral literature involving myths, legends and tales, up until a few decades ago there was very little written work in Aymara. In fact, it is my very same professor who in 1968 introduced the first phonemic Aymaran alphabet, created specifically for native speakers. Yes, he is an important man, and yes, I do feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be his student. The main knowledge I take out of these classes is that Aymara is not just a language; it is a culture, a shared history; it is a nation.

One of the biggest topics we discussed in classes was discrimination against the Aymara people. In fact, still now, the action of speaking Aymara in public in certain parts of the city is a risk, and can result in humiliating or degrading comments, or even worse. One of my co-workers mentioned that most people would not teach their children Aymara because they are scared that they could be discriminated at school.  Being an Aymara in La Paz is a constant struggle, and a controversial one. This morning, in the Trufi going to work, I heard an announcement about how racial discrimination was a crime, about the equality of all Bolivian citizens, and the equal rights shared by all of them, indistinctively from their socio-ethnic background. A few nights ago I went to a restaurant (like many others) where there was a sign indicating that all customers have to be treated equally, and that discrimination will not be tolerated. These kinds of statements demonstrate the good will of the state towards indigenous integration, and the hope there is for the future. However they also show that this is a continuous process, and that there is still a long way to go until Bolivia can become a country of equal identity. As Lucy Briggs says (1988), from the Hispanic point of view, the Aymaran world belongs to the past, and until recently, many Aymarans themselves shared this belief, wanting to ignore or forget their past instead of trying to regenerate it. Now there is an opportunity for change. The Andean culture has never been about dominating others; it is about the mixing of cultures and languages. As this article says, “different circles can be superposed, and on the border of one, can meet the centres of others”.

About Aymaran discrimination:
  • The Aymara, the major ethnic group of the Bolivian altiplano, has to constantly fight against discrimination. There is a need from the people to reaffirm their pride and faith in the Aymaran culture, language and history.
  • When I arrived in Bolivia, one of the first politically involved discussions I shared with Bolivian people I met was about the strong positive impact that Evo Morales had on indigenous communities. He was depicted to me as a hero of the underworld, a pioneer in the struggle against indigenous discrimination, and a fierce defender of minorities’ rights. It is undeniable that his election did make a change, and that since, the political climate has become more suitable for indigenous citizens. However, what appeared to me at first as a “problem solved” scenario, where rights are now equal both in theory and in practice, turned out to be more controversial then I thought.
  • My professor, in an interview made in 1989 said something that he still feels today: “I could live in Bolivia or in any other country, but wherever I would be, as long as I have the energy to keep going, I will always be dedicated to the literary production of Aymara”. To read, and witness such dedication and perseverance is very inspiring.
These are the facts that I have read, and the personal stories I have heard about; but let me now talk about what I have learnt in the past few weeks. All I have done is go to a basic Aymara class, yet through learning the language - the grammar, the tenses, the structure, the rules -  all the things that are usually quite dull, I have learnt about a culture, a nation, a population of strong souls.

Examples de langue à culture:
  • Munasiña = love each other. The term “to love” does not exist, the only form is reciprocal because, as my professor says, “love does not work if it isn’t reciprocal, it just doesn’t”. In fact, the Aymara language is based on the concepts of reciprocity and sharing.
  •  There is no gender differentiation in the language, feminine and masculine being mashed into one person, which is gender neutral.
  • Aymara is a polysynthetic language, it is formed of a root, and suffixes. In opposition to Castellan Spanish which is often formed of a root and prefixes. My professor randomly (or not so randomly) picked the example of “potencia” and “prepotencia”. As my professor wrote in an article (Yatiñasawa, 2012), Aymara is like a building in construction. First there is the cement which is the root, and above this, bricks are one by one, meticulously added, to construct a perfectly structured edifice. As he said to me one day in class, “buildings are usually built vertically, well Aymara is built horizontally, but it is still a solid building.”
  •  In Aymara, there are 6 pronouns, one of which is the beautiful “Jiwasa”, the meaning of which is unknown in most European languages: “us altogether”, or “nosotros todos”.   
  • In a traditional language such as Aymara, where the history, the remembrance and the traditions are so crucial to the culture, could it be a coincidence that the past and present tense are the same?
  •  Aymara, a language that has had to sacrifice a significant part of its vocabulary to Castellan, such as the beautiful verb “aruña” (to speak) which has been replaced by the Spanish word “parlaña”. But as my professor told me, Aymara simply alimented its language with other ones, to grow, and evolve; and that, as he says, there is no such thing as rich or poor languages.
  •  There is a notion of community and shared goods in Aymara that is similar to nothing I have ever known. The possessive function is very limited and, for example, cannot apply to God, which in Castellan would be “Padre nuestro”, (Our Father).  
  • In Aymara there is a function called “Conocimiento personal” (Personal knowledge), which refers to a specific tense. In Aymara, there is a strong differentiation between the tense that refers to what a person has experienced first hand, and the general knowledge, such as history, that is not personal. The necessity to indicate the origin of the information communicated is obligatory, and manifests itself both in the linguistic structure and the culture. 

Written by Virginia Mura
Edited by Sarah Cassidy

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