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Ph.D. Student Seaira Lett nominated for Spotlight on Inclusive Excellence

Picture of the Willson Center: a salmon and white house with a green lawn and an evergreen tree out front. The Willson Center Building sign can be seen on the right at a slanted angle.

This month, the Linguistics department recognizes Ph.D. student Seaira Lett for our DEI Spotlight feature. Seaira was awarded  the Willson Center Graduate Research Award this past month for her study of the Chuj language, a Mayan language primarily spoken in Guatemala.

The grant will be used to cover travel expenses and to compensate Chuj speakers who will be interviewed for Lett’s research. Lett hopes to address the phonology, semantics, and morphosyntax of the Chuj language in her research.

Lett first became acquainted with Chuj during her undergraduate studies. Since then, she has worked to document the language, primarily obtaining data through interviews with members of with the Chuj community in the U.S.

“I want to bring the human side of the language into my work,” Lett shares. Linguistic theory can leave out the fact that language speakers are real, breathing humans outside of the academic vacuum. Lett’s research has been dedicated to staying outside of that vacuum by forming relationships with the tight-knit Chuj speaking community.

Although not formally documented, Chuj has a strong presence in the U.S., in Georgia and Indiana among other states. These communities have worked to maintain Chuj language and  culture by hosting cultural events and honoring their traditions. The existence of these communities allows one to be immersed in the language while staying within the borders of the U.S.

Lett aims to work with these communities in order to record the language and to make sure that it can be passed on to future generations. A better understanding of the language’s grammar will improve current documentation of Chuj. Lett hopes to create learning materials such as children’s books so that families can pass Chuj down.

The Chuj language still requires much more research. Lett adds that she has been able to  bring more awareness to a different dialect of Chuj  that is particularly understudied. Moreover, theoretical claims in Linguistics often do not take indigenous languages into account. Thus, it is imperative to obtain data on these languages so it can be applied to linguistic theory in general.

Lastly, Lett seeks to send a message to those outside of the field as well: Mayan languages and cultures are not ancient history. Though many are endangered, Chuj, and indigenous languages worldwide, are still alive, and their preservation is essential.


Ph.D. Student, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Presidential Fellow

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