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UVa team will work to preserve Mayan languages

A University of Virginia language professor will join a colleague from the UVa School of Data Sciences in an effort to preserve two languages edging closure to extinctions.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $250,000 grant Allison Bigelow, an associate professor in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

The grant will help Bigelow preserve the endangered Mayan languages of K’iche’ and Yukatek and the unique cultural perspectives the languages provide. The funds will help finance a joint project with Rafael Alvarado, associate professor of UVa’s School of Data Sciences that looks to advance knowledge of endangered human languages.

According to the Endangered Languages Project, a worldwide collaboration between indigenous language organizations, linguists, colleges, and industry partners, more than 40% of the world’s languages are in danger of extinction.

More than two dozen of those are Mayan languages still spoken today but endangered by a variety of factors from migration, persecution of native speakers and economic pressures that prioritize languages English and Spanish.

The grant will help Bigelow, Alvarado and a team of indigenous scholars from Guatemala and Mexico build a digital collection that will host versions of the Popol Wuj, a text recounting the mythology and history of one Mayan culture in parts of Central America.

The text is the most complete document surviving the Spanish conquest of the region in the 15th century. It is considered an important link to understanding the unique cultural characteristics of the Mayan people.

The project will allow users to interact with the text, compare translations and explore an encyclopedic collection of additional information about the mythology.


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