Benefacta 2004: Ball State University in the Community
Researcher of the Year

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Carolyn MacKay

Carolyn MacKay describes her entry into the field of linguistics as a happy accident. While pursuing a master's degree in anthropology, her thesis research led her to Chipilo, Mexico, where a unique Italian dialect, Veneto, was being spoken. MacKay began meeting the people of Chipilo, developed a fascination with their language, and changed the focus of her thesis from archaeology to linguistics. She has since become an expert in minority language description and maintenance, producing numerous publications on the Veneto dialect and on Totonac and Tepehua, two Totonacan languages of Mexico. 

The unwritten, endangered form of the language Tepehua, spoken in Pisaflores, Veracruz, is MacKay's most recent focus. Since 1999, she has spent her summers in Pisaflores, alongside colleague and husband Frank Trechsel, developing a written grammar of Pisaflores Tepehua. Equipped with open ears and tape recorders, they engage community members in conversations that are the foundation for the language's documentation.

"We'll particularly record life histories, discussions about how things used to be, or different ceremonies they have in the community," explains MacKay, professor in the Department of English. "We try to work with as many speakers as possible, because everyone uses language just a little bit differently."  

After several days of recording, MacKay and Trechsel journey out of the community, accompanied by one or two native speakers, to begin transcription and analysis. "For every five to ten minutes of Tepehua, it takes about six hours of working with native speakers to transcribe it," MacKay explains. "The native speakers will listen to the story and repeat it for us, over and over and over again, however long it takes us to write down what is being said. They're helping us transcribe the actual words, but also what it means; they can explain to us the cultural significance."

The resulting grammatical sketch, lexicon, and practical orthography, will be published in the Spanish-language Archivo de Lenguas Indígenas de México, enabling community members to learn the written form of their native language. "Right now, if they want to write something, they have to write it in Spanish," MacKay says. "Having an orthography will allow them to write down their own stories, write poetry, short stories, novels—whatever they might want to—in their own language."

This distinction does more than simply change the words seen on paper. It changes the way the language itself is seen, lending it status and helping ensure the preservation of a critical component of the Pisaflores culture.

MacKay has authored or co-authored several books, including El dialecto veneto de Segusino y Chipilo: gramática y lexioco, A Grammar of Misantla Totonac, and El Totonaco de Misantla. Her work has also earned her honorary citizenships in both Segusino, Italy, and Chipilo, Mexico; funding from the National Science Foundation; the Mary R. Haas Award from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas; and, appropriately, Ball State University's Researcher of the Year award.