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Sapir Book Prize 2010 Awarded

Book Cover
Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross

At the 2010 annual business meeting of the Society for Linguistic Anthropoology, the Sapir Book Prize was awarded to Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross, by William F. Hanks, published in 2010 by the University of California Press. Hanks holds the Distinguished Chair in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

This ambitious work of scholarship traces the process of reducción—variously glossed as “pacification,” “ conversion,” “ordering”—in colonial Yucatan. Hanks shows how in missionization, forms of Spanish Catholicism and Maya language became fused to form a new social, cultural, and linguistic world. On the face of it a work of colonial history, Converting Words is undergirded by Hanks’s extended ethnographic engagement with Yucatec Maya and its speakers.

Converting Words rests on prodigious research, encompassing more than two centuries of historical change and a large corpus of often obscure documents in Spanish, Maya, and Maya reducido. Bringing to bear on this huge body of sources the highly productive conceptual framework he has developed over the years, Hanks reveals in convincing detail the dynamic fusion by which “the indigenous language and the European language came to shape one another” in colonial Yucatan. As the reducción spread by means of linguistic processes, the resultant transformations of space, conduct, and language laid the foundations for the radically integrated social world constituted by modern Maya discourse practices to which Hanks has devoted his career.

Converting Words is the work of a linguistic anthropologist at the top of his game. It could only have been written by a scholar who has spent many productive years in the field, in the archive, and in the study. A magisterial exploration of colonial history, language contact, and discourse in religious practice, this book is a model of how linguistic anthropology can inform powerful interdisciplinary research. The author of “Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture” would have loved it. We congratulate Bill Hanks on his scholarly achievement and on winning the 2010 Sapir Prize of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Two books were also given honorable mention in the competition.  Honorable mention for a first book by an author went to Bernard Bate for Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic.  This analysis of Tamil nationalists’ mobilization of a neoclassical Dravidian oratorical and ceremonial style in contemporary electoral campaigns innovatively and artfully interweaves aesthetics with politics and linguistic style with the material practice of ritual spectacles.

Honorable mention for a book by a senior scholar was given to Niko Besnier for Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics. This is exemplary piece of linguistic anthropological writing does exactly what the title suggests:  it draws out a subtle understanding of political agency that brings together the minute details of intimate interactions and the intense localness of gossip with the larger context of environmental and economic globality.

The members of the Sapir Prize Committee – Samy Alim, Richard Bauman and Kathryn Woolard – came away from the reading of the impressive set of books in this year’s competition with renewed optimism about the current state and future prospects of linguistic anthropology. The books were substantively rich, analytically diverse, and—for the most part—engagingly written. There was a noteworthy number of fine first books by junior scholars. The committee was most deeply impressed by books that tie rigorous analyses of linguistic form in local action to large-scale political and economic phenomena, a theme epitomized by Hanks’s prize-winning book.