SIL Mexico

Dr. Miguel León-Portilla


Extract translated from the prologue to the
Bibliografía del Instituto Lingüístico de Verano en México (Vol. 1), 1985, Mexico, D.F. (translation)


I wish to devote special attention to a group of linguistic publications that by the breadth of its coverage, the characteristics of the sponsoring organization and the extraordinary success of the published items, is reminiscent of the 16th century Spanish Friars. For the last 50 years, this organization has achieved remarkable results. Their story began in the decade of the 1930's. A linguist, William Cameron Townsend, who had met the great Mexican educator Moisés Sáenz, began to work in a modest way among the Aztecs around Tetelcingo, Morelos. On one of his fact-finding trips through the area, President Lázaro Cárdenas met Townsend. Aware of the goals and methods the linguist was proposing, the President offered his support. Shortly thereafter, Townsend established the organization that became known as the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano [Summer Institute of Linguistics], an organization that not only involved North American investigators but those from other countries as well, including Mexicans and South Americans.

Looking back over fifty years, it is possible to assess the value of the linguistic production of this Institute that was born with the moral support of President Cárdenas. As had been the case with the ancient Friars, the members of this new organization saw in their methodical research, the eventual realization of an ideal. The friars had planned to propagate the Christian message and it was this conviction that was the impetus to amass a great body of data on hundreds of languages. The modern linguists combine their interest in the scientific field of descriptive linguistics with a desire to make available in these and other languages the classic book par excellence of the Christian faith. Thus, the Summer Institute of Linguistics began its work intending to include the totality of the native languages of Mexico. Years later, its interest has broadened and, with the participation and help of many others, includes languages of many of the countries of this hemisphere, as well as Asia, Africa and Oceania.

...In the closing years of this twentieth century, one is aware that these linguists have brought to fruition the vision of the sixteenth century friars and are moving ahead with new techniques. Even though it is true that the members of the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano are not missionaries nor do they practice some form of proselytism, their work is in many ways similar to that of those past humanitarians. The most obvious of these have already been mentioned: compiling grammars and dictionaries as well as preserving texts of local traditions. Other goals are also very important: writing highly professional articles about interesting aspects of the various languages; contributing comparative and historical linguistic studies; disseminating a knowledge of the alphabet adopted to represent the distinctive sounds of the languages they have studied; organizing writers' workshops to foster literary productions by the members of the various language communities.

What must not be overlooked is the link that connects the efforts of the sixteenth century and this one of the twentieth. In response to the request of various Mexican organizations, they have produced various manuals and other reading material in the indigenous languages. Among such materials (the Institute has never hidden the fact) is the classic book of Christianity, the New Testament. The friars also intended to prepare such translations and these linguists have realized their goal using Spanish translations approved by the Catholic Church as a starting point. In not a few cases, members of the clergy have used and distributed the translations that the Instituto Lingüístico [de Verano] has prepared. In my opinion, even a person who follows no religion should be familiar with the classic book of Christianity if he wishes to have a knowledge of great literature.

This magnificent linguistic contribution to Mesoamerica and beyond does not require lengthy deliberations. Its value is self evident to those who wish to acquaint themselves with it. In conclusion, therefore, I will emphasize that, there is no other organization in the world today in which as great a number of professional linguists participate, studying innumerable languages and producing publications of such quality that even linguistic specialists recognize them as such. The Summer Institute of Linguistics, the organization that has achieved all this in its fifty years of existence, had its origin in Mexico. Their first efforts depended on the emphatic support of President Lázaro Cárdenas. With the passage of time, the Institute counted on the support of Adolfo López Mateos, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría Álvarez and José López Portillo. All of them have also served as honorary presidents of the Institute.