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Una Canger

Capturing Words of a Dying Language

Una Canger

By Philippa Stasiuk

Linguist Una Canger has spent a lifetime grappling with a paradox: how to transcribe Nahuatl, a language existing almost entirely in the spoken realm. “When I describe it,” Canger explains, “I describe something that doesn’t exist. It comes into being and disappears at the same time.” 

In November 2012, the Mexican government awarded Canger (née Una Rasmussen, born May 14, 1938) the Order of the Aztec Eagle for her cultural contributions. It is the highest honor Mexico bestows on foreigners and past recipients include U2 Singer Bono, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Nelson Mandela. 

Canger’s interest in Nahuatl, a Mesoamerican Aztec language from which words like avocado and tomato derive, began in America. As a girl, she joined her father- the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen - while he toured and lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale.   In the United States Canger was first exposed to American Indians and their cultural history.

“I knew I wanted to study radically different languages, to get an idea of what language is.”

Back in Denmark, Canger enrolled in Copenhagen University’s linguistics program, becoming the first female student in the department. She started with French, then Spanish, before winning a UNESCO scholarship to study Polish.   

A chance encounter with an American, who reminded her that Berkeley was the center for American Indian Languages, helped her decide what to do after graduation. She applied for and won a “Thanks to Scandinavia” scholarship from American Jews grateful for help during the Second World War. With extra money from the American Women’s Club in Copenhagen, she had enough for one semester. With her husband and two infant daughters, Canger headed to California.

“We’ve always been very poor in terms of money.”

The next four years were hard work for Canger, learning to negotiate between the European comparative approach to linguistics, and the more anthropological approach of the Americans, pioneered by Franz Boas. While pursuing her PhD, Canger provided for her family by teaching Danish, Polish, and eventually English to other foreign students. She shared her first apartment with thirteen cats, and picked fleas off her daughters in her spare time. 

“How could a linguist suggest I study a language out of context?” 

When it was time to do fieldwork, Canger chose Mam, another Mayan language. At first her idea was met with skepticism. “I tracked down a specialist in Chicago,” said Canger. “He said in a place like Todos Santos, there are bugs and no electricity. You’re not going to make it if you go with your family.”

The academic suggested she bring a Mam speaker away from his village to a bigger town nearby, an idea Canger rejected. She wanted to hear the language in the village where it was spoken. After packing a 1947 jeep with a pressure cooker, a bag of oatmeal, and her family, Canger headed to Guatemala. 

A year later, and having survived a landslide that kept the family stranded in their jeep for three days, trading rum for bananas, the family returned to Berkeley so Canger could complete her thesis. With the ink from Ronald Reagan’s signature on her degree barely dry, she returned to Central America, this time to Chiapas, Mexico. There, Canger realized something: despite a job offer at Berkeley, she knew where she wanted to be.

“I’m Danish. I am Danish. Life would have been so different for my family if we’d stayed.”

Home. In 1970, Canger began teaching linguistics at Copenhagen University. After beginning with Mam, she switched to Nahuatl after students insisted on learning the latter. Why would Danish linguistics students demand learning an arcane language spoken on the other side of the world?  

Nahuatl has long fascinated scholars because it is so well documented. When the Spanish colonized Mexico and called it New Spain beginning in 1521, Nahuatl was transcribed using the Latin alphabet. One extraordinary document called the Florentine Codex, for example, is a 2,400-page record of Aztec life written in Nahuatl by a Franciscan Monk and his indigenous research assistants. 

For nearly forty years, Canger taught in the department of Native American Languages and Cultures. She became famous among the students not only for her extensive knowledge of Nahuatl, but also for a class deconstructing academic journals. To do so, she says, is, “no simple matter.” Students unused to this vital part of academic life, “only see the trimmings and interesting facts. I taught students to look at the material in an analytic way, how to not read it at first, but to analyze it, its bibliography, how well it’s written, its illustrations.” 

Seemingly simple in its concept, the student response was overwhelming. In 2005 they voted her “Teacher of the Year.” 

“Nahuatl is many things. Few know as much about the dialect as I do because I’ve been to so many places.” 

Canger retired in 2008, and continues to make regular trips to Mexico, recording Nahuatl speakers, analyzing different dialects, helping with a dictionary project, and reconnecting with friends. Along with her sandals, she brings extra copies of a special book she published in 1993 about a man in Coatepec Costales, and his nearly-forgotten craft of making painted shoulder bags from the succulent leaves of the Agave plant.

Printed on beautiful thick paper, the book is written in English, Spanish and Nahuatl. Received with pride and delight, it is, according to Canger, “a way of giving the Nahua a tiny bit more self-respect in a greater perspective,” and a counter against their treatment from the neighboring Spaniards. Canger says the greatest threat to Nahuatl disappearing is the mindset not only of the Spanish, but the Nahuas themselves. “It’s not a question of attitude to language. It’s attitude towards people-those in power but also the attitude of the Indians.”  

As for the catch-22 of writing a spoken language, Canger is still fascinated with the idea of leaving the visual impact of words aside. “I sit in the kitchen in Mexico and listen to them talking, and I try to keep the letters out of my head.” 

Did you know

Copenhagen University, where Dr. Canger taught, has around 38,000 students.

The American Women’s Club, which helped fund Canger’s trip to Berkeley, was founded in 1931 and still helps sends Danish students to the United States for study. 

One world language dies every fourteen days.

1.5 million people, most living in Central Mexico, speak Nahuatl.

There are fifteen different dialects of Nahuatl.