Language, culture, and justice: Ixil Mayan verbal art in the 2013 genocide trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala

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Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

Publication Title

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology


In Sherzer's 1987 approach, verbally artistic language was given a privileged position in understanding the relationship of language and culture through discourse. By contrast, the language ideologies governing discourse in Western courtrooms seek to divorce language use from cultural context through the proposition that content can be transferred from one language to another without loss of meaning. However, courtrooms are also among the spaces in which Sherzer's discourse-centered approach to language and culture are particularly consequential. This article considers communicative disjunctures arising in the context of Ixil Maya use of verbally artistic language during the 2013 trial of former de facto president of Guatemala, José Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide of the Ixil people. As a domain in which the language-culture relationship is heightened, verbally artistic language provides a context in which this disconnect between Ixil and non-Ixil participants in the trial is especially evident. A failure to engage with the use of verbally artistic language becomes a significant site of exclusion that has been largely invisible in the courtroom. Verbally artistic language also provides an important lens for considering cross-cultural communication in the courtroom more broadly.

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