Below is an example of 15th-century English writing from The University of Manchester Library Image Collections.
Pretty hard to read, right? If you’ve never looked at medieval handwriting before, you might not be able to recognize all of the letters. The Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse has a transcribed version of the same text, although it’s from a different book — it’s still hard to read, but you can probably understand some of the words.
Now imagine that you’ve never seen English written in a book before. Imagine that you didn’t know until just now that there are English books from the 15th century. Imagine that in order to see this book you had to go to an archive, walk past an armed guard who tried to keep you out, and then sort through four boxes of documents until you found the right one. And you still probably wouldn’t be able to read it.
For the past few years I’ve been an RA on the Ticha Project with Professor Brook Lillehaugen. Ticha is an online text database, like The University of Manchester Library Image Collections, but for documents written in Colonial Valley Zapotec. The Zapotec languages are indigenous to southern Mexico. Most Zapotec languages today are purely oral; Zapotec is not used in schools, and some people believe that it cannot be written because (they say) it isn’t a “real” language. However, the Zapotec culture has one of the longest histories of writing in Mesoamerica (dating back to a couple hundred years B.C.), and Zapotec was also written in the Roman orthography after the Spanish conquest. The documents in the Ticha Project (like the one shown below) were written in the 16th- through 18th-centuries in Colonial Valley Zapotec, which was spoken in the valleys to the east and south of Oaxaca City. The documents are mostly wills, bills of sale, and other legal documents. There is also a dictionary and grammar of Colonial Valley Zapotec written by a Dominican priest in 1578.
Unfortunately, these historical documents are mostly inaccessible to the Zapotec people. They are very difficult to read, even for native speakers of modern Zapotec (remember the 15th century English you tried to read above?), and are kept in archives which are difficult to access. The Ticha Project makes Colonial Valley Zapotec documents available to the general public — including the Zapotec people — online, along with transcriptions and translations so that they can be easily read and understood.
–May Plumb ’16