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Tedlock's Study of the Popol Vuh

Dennis Tedlock (1987) showed the exegetical power that linguistic methods can bring to the text analysis. He had translated the Popol Vuh, a 16th-century Quiche Maya manuscript that had been written out by Francisco Ximenez, a missionary of the time. The Popol Vuh is one of those big epics, like the Iliad or Beowulf that were meant to be recited aloud. Is it possible, Tedlock asked, to analyze the text and figure out how to narrate it today as performers would have done in ancient times?

In doing his translation of the Popol Vuh, Tedlock (1987) had relied on Andres Xiloj, a modern speaker of Quiche. Xiloj had not been trained to read Maya, but he was literate in Spanish and made the transition very quickly. ‘‘When he was given his first chance to look at the Popol Vuh text, he produced a pair of spectacles and began reading aloud, word by word’’ (p. 145).

Like many medieval manuscripts in Europe, Ximenez’s rendition of the Popol Vuh was more or less an undifferentiated mass of text with almost no punctuation. In other words, Tedlock had no clues about how a performer of the narrative 400 years ago might have varied his timing, emphasized this or that segment, used different intonations, and so forth.

Tedlock’s (1987) solution was to study stylized oral narratives (not just casual speech) of modern speakers of the Quiche. He recorded speeches, prayers, songs, and stories and looked for phrases and patterns in the wording that had analogs in the Popol Vuh (p. 147). He devised special punctuation symbols for marking pauses, accelerations, verse endings, and so on and applied them to the Popl Vuh. It’s in the use of those written marks that we see Tedlock’s analysis—his understanding of how a performance went.

Tedlock then made systematic comparison across other ancient texts to look for recurrent sound patterns that signify variations in meaning. (Think of how we use rising intonation at the end of sentences in English to signify a question and how some people in our society use the same intonation in declarative sentences at the beginning of phone conversations when the object is to jar someone’s memory, as in: ‘‘Hi, this is Mary? I was in your intro class last semester?’’) What Tedlock found was that Quiche verse has the same structure as ancient Middle Eastern texts—texts that, he points out, predate Homer. In fact, Tedlock concluded it is the same structure found in all living oral traditions that have not yet been influenced by writing (1987:146; and see Tedlock 1977).

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