Converting Words

Maya in the Age of the Cross

by William F. Hanks

2015 J. I. Staley Prize

Converting Words2010. University of California Press

The winner of this year’s prestigious J.I. Staley Prize is Dr. William F. Hanks for his book Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. This pathbreaking synthesis gives an unprecedented view of the first two hundred years of the Spanish colonization of the Yucatec Maya. Drawing on an extraordinary range and depth of sources, Dr. Hanks documents for the first time the crucial role language played in this cultural conquest. He explores how colonial Maya emerged in the age of the cross, how it was taken up by native writers to become the language of indigenous literature, and how it ultimately became the language of rebellion against the system that produced it. Converting Words includes original analyses of the linguistic practices of both missionaries and Maya found in bilingual dictionaries, grammars, catechisms, land documents, native chronicles, petitions, and the forbidden Maya Books of Chilam Balam.

The Staley Prize Committee writes:

In Converting Words, linguistic anthropologist William F. Hanks informs our understanding of how a Yucatec Maya “translanguage” emerged from the collaboration of Franciscan missionaries and indigenous scribes during the early colonial era. By reordering linguistic and discursive fields, this new colonial language affected a spiritual conquest that facilitated the physical, social, and political reorganization of indigenous communities and its perpetuation by the Maya themselves. Drawing on three decades of fieldwork and archival research, Hanks uses ethnohistorical and linguistic methodologies and discourse analysis to produce a compelling account of how changing language practices helped construct the colonial social order. The result is a work of great significance not only to anthropologists but also to historians, Maya scholars, and students of colonialism and the globalization of Christianity. Converting Words illuminates the transformative power of language in processes of culture contact, conquest, and resistance.

Dr. William F. Hanks is Professor of Anthropology, Berkeley Distinguished Chair in Linguistic Anthropology, and Affiliated Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Concurrently, at the University of Texas at Austin, he is Professor of Anthropology and of Linguistics and the C.B. Smith Sr. Centennial chair in US–Mexico Relations. His books include Language and Communicative Practices and Referential Practice: Language and Lived Space among the Maya.

“This work is utterly original and unprecedented. I don’t think historians of the Mesoamerican colonial regimes should write anything until they read this book; it’s that important.”— Jane H. Hill, author of A Grammar of Cupeño

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