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Language — Magnus Pharao Hansen read Tolkien at the age of ten and fell for it. As a teenager, he wrote a dictionary of Old Norse. Today he deciphers ancient Mesoamerican languages and has just got an EU grant of DKK 11 million.
It is not every day that a researcher gets millions of kroner to investigate the religious narratives of Mexico’s indigenous peoples by examining their languages.
But this is what has happened to UCPH assistant professor Magnus Pharao Hansen, who has received a research grant of DKK 11 million from the European Research Council for a five-year research project at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS).
The council has chosen to give the large grant to Magnus Pharao Hansen’s project due to the excellence and impact of the research, and he and four colleagues will over the coming years map, document and write down the religious narratives of two Uto-Aztecan language speaking peoples. Uto-Aztecan is a language family that includes approximately 30 Native American languages of the American continent.
Mesoamerica is one of the only places in the world where entire cities, civilizations and writing systems have grown without any interference from the outside world.
Magnus Pharao Hansen, assistant professor, ToRS
»Religious narratives — or what we often call myths — contain more truth than we typically ascribe to them. They provide insight into a certain way of thinking and can say something about different population groups’ origins and their understanding of themselves,« he says.
The two languages and communities that Magnus Pharao Hansen and his colleagues will study, Náayeri and Wixárika, are currently spoken by almost 60,000 people in northwestern Mexico.
»There are currently no dictionaries or grammars, so the populations find it difficult to teach the language in a school context,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen.
The research project consists therefore of several parts: The religious narratives of the peoples are to be documented in the original languages. At the same time, Magnus Pharao Hansen and his group will make a dictionary for the two languages – both online and in printed form.
»Our experience is that these people are very interested in telling their stories. We often we see these kinds of myths documented in translations, but it is not the same as documenting them in their original languages. Because words and ideas can change form, completely.«
The project will benefit the indigenous populations who speak the language today. But the documentation of religious narratives on Náayeri and Wixárika also holds further potential, according to the researcher.
In the precise language of these religious narratives there is, perhaps, a key to an as yet unsolved riddle in the majestic ancient city of Teotihuacan.
Magnus Pharao Hansen studied Indian languages and cultures at the University of Copenhagen. He has a PhD in anthropology from Brown University, US.
He is currently employed as an assistant professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS).
He lives with his wife and three children in Ruds Vedby in the west of Zealand.
He will spend the next three or five years in Mexico for three to four months a year doing fieldwork.
To understand why this is the case you need a lengthy excursus, and so here it is:
Náayeri and Wixárika are part of the Uto-Aztec language family, originally from the present-day northwestern Mexico and southwestern United States. About 2,000 years ago, the two languages migrated into the cultural and geographical area that is today referred to as Mesoamerica, and which denotes most of present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize in the time before the Europeans arrived.
»Mesoamerica is one of the only places in the world where entire cities, civilizations and writing systems have grown without any interference from the outside world. The people who lived there have been isolated from other continents for 10-15,000 years because they crossed over from Asia before the continents were separated,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen.
»This also means that the Mesoamerican cultures are different from other prehistoric empires and cultures that, as far as we know, have been connected to each other in some way.«
In the middle of ancient Mesoamerica – about 40 kilometres north of present-day Mexico City – lies the prehistoric city of Teotihuacan. Here you can see impressive buildings that look like Egyptian pyramids. And on the inside walls there is a riddle.
In the ancient city of Teotihuacan, they used a written language that no one has yet managed to decipher. We can see drawings and signs that we think may be parts of written religious narratives, but we don’t know. We would love to learn more about this language, because it can give a much greater understanding of the whole civilization.«
And so what do the two Uto-Aztecan languages and the strange written language of Teotihuacan have to do with each other? The answer is: Nothing. Not directly, at least. But if you throw another Uto-Aztecan language into the mix, then there is a link.
That language is called Nawatl – also called Aztec or Nahuatl – and is the largest in the Uto-Aztecan language family. Just like Náayeri and Wixárika, this language migrated into Mesoamerica 2,000 years ago.
»Lots of people speak Nawatl today, and there’s a lot of research into the Nawatl of today. But no one knows what Nawatl looked like before the Europeans came and colonized large parts of the American continent,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen.
There are many indications, however, that the strange written language in Teotihuacan may be an ancient version of Nawatl. And if you succeed in deciphering it, it will give completely new insights into the civilization that existed in and around Teotihuacan, the researcher reckons.
»We know a lot about the Maya, who were the second major population group in Mesoamerica before colonization. But there are not as many written sources from central Mexico as there are from the Mayans. So we actually only know what myths and archaeologists can tell us.«
To find out what a language looked like in the past, you have to compare it with closely related languages, explains Magnus Pharao Hansen. And this is where the two Uto-Aztecan languages come in.
»Náayeri and Wixárika are the two most closely related languages to Nawatl, and they are therefore important as comparisons if we are to learn more about what Nawatl looked like several thousand years ago,« he says.
When I was 10 or 12 years old, I learned Elvish – the fictional language of the elves
Magnus Pharao Hansen, assistant professor, ToRS
»The myths of the Nawatl people are quite well documented nowadays, and we hope to be able to document the myths of the Náayeri and Wixárika people to the same extent. Then at a later date they can be used to reconstruct what we suspect are depicted myths of ancient Nawatl in Teotihuacan.«
You might think that the three languages are similar – a bit like Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. But this is not the case.
»They’re much further apart. More like Danish, English and German, all of which originate from Old Germanic, but which have moved far apart since then,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen and adds:
»And that’s actually the whole point. The further you want to go back into the origins of a language, the more surrounding languages you have to compare with. If we want to understand the origins of Danish on a slightly shorter historical trajectory, we can compare it with Swedish. But if we want to have a deeper understanding of the history of the language, we also need to compare with Dutch, English and German.«
The interest in peculiar and ancient languages has been a recurring theme throughout most of Magnus Pharao Hansen’s life.
»It’s a bit of a cliché for linguists who are interested in understanding and comparing ancient languages,« he laughs and continues:
»But my interest in languages actually comes from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Tolkien’s universe. When I was 10 or 12 years old, I learned Elvish – the fictional language of the elves. Since then, I also learned Old Norse, and I actually developed my own Old Norse dictionary over a couple of years when I was a teenager.«
His linguistic repertoire has expanded considerably since then.
»I rarely speak less than three or four languages in a typical day. My wife is from Mexico, so we mostly speak Spanish at home. Sometimes we talk Nawatl with each other if the children aren’t to understand what we are saying. Danish, English, Spanish and Nawatl are probably the four languages, I would venture to say that I speak fairly fluently,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen.
However, if he has to name all the languages he understands at a reasonable well-functioning tourist level, the list is considerably longer.
Native American cultures show us other sides of ourselves than those we are accustomed to learning about in school.
Magnus Pharao Hansen, assistant professor, ToRS
»I’ve just been to Germany, where to my own surprise I could make myself understood. And I read and understand French and Italian, sort of. I also once took a course in Greenlandic and actually took an oral exam in it. Unfortunately, I haven’t really maintained that,« he says and pauses.
»Oh, yes, well. I am also taking a Latin course at the moment. I don’t quite know how many languages I understand, but I’ll probably be able to get by as a tourist in quite a few places,« he laughs and adds:
»But this is quite normal here at ToRS, where many of my colleagues speak and work with several languages.«
Unfortunately, according to the researcher, not many people get the opportunity and means to immerse themselves in languages as much as he has been able to.
»If you look at the list of projects that have previously received huge grants from the European Research Council, there are not many from humanities subjects. But I’m pleased that we got a grant. This confirms that there are people who find research valuable even though it is not directly of commercial value,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen.
He says there is not a lot of money available from the Danish research pools for small language subjects. So he decided to put his team together before he submitted the application to the European Research Council.
»There will be five of us researchers on the project – me and four international colleagues. The majority live in Mexico and are already specialised in the languages we will be studying. I developed the project with them, because otherwise it would have been difficult to find the right people,« says Magnus Pharao Hansen.
According to him, a »crisis atmosphere« has taken hold of most humanities subjects in Denmark, who often have to look abroad if they want to raise funds for research.
»I am happy to be able to promote research that challenges the narratives we normally tell ourselves about being human. Native American cultures show us other sides of ourselves than those we are accustomed to learning about in school,« he says.
And why is it even important to find out what is written on the ancient walls of Teotihuacan? Magnus Pharao Hansen has to think about the question for a moment.
»I’m the kind of person who wants to understand what a human being is,« he says, and pauses.
»And I don’t think you can do that if you only look at humans from one perspective. You have to find out who we were if you want to say anything about who we are.«