Endangered Language Fund

About the Logo

The ELF logo incorporates a type of iconographic motif that was used to represent speech in many Mesoamerican murals and bas-relief sculptures. Called "speech-scrolls" by Mesoamericanists, these spiral designs often appear in front of the mouths of important personages in pictorial depictions of historical and mythological themes. Speech-scrolls have been found in archeological sites from culturally, chronologically, and geographically disparate cultures. These range from the Chalchihuites culture in the Mexican state of Durango far in the northern Mesoamerican periphery to those in the Mayan areas in the south, as well as in most of the territory in between. (One investigator even believes that he may have found a Mesoamerican-style speech-scroll in Ecuador.) Each speech-scroll typically consists of a partially "unrolled" spiral element, much like the main part of a question-mark laid on its side (though often with the curve continuing farther into itself), to which are usually added a few nodes (as on the ELF logo) or "tabs." These are spaced evenly along the outer edge. In some speech-scrolls a central line running throughout the entire length of the spiral seems to indicate that the spiral is intended to represent a tongue. (An intriguing aspect of speech-scrolls that may help to corroborate this hypothesis is their occasional use to represent flames in depictions of fire. This is consistent with the fact that in some Mesoamerican languages the word for 'flame' was -- and is -- literally 'fire-tongue,' as in Nahuatl tle-nenepilli.) The tabs, in turn, may represent teeth, which they very much resemble. (In connection with the speech-scrolls that have flowers instead of nodes or tabs, it is interesting to note the traditional association of flowers and song -- in xochitl, in cuicatl -- as a characterization of poetry among the Aztec and other Mesoamerican groups.) With only a few exceptions, the speech-scroll is separated from the mouth of the speaker by a narrow gap and in this way seems to be distinguished from the representations of actual physical tongues, which, in the case of snakes and other animals, typically emanate directly from the mouth. In most known examples, the speech-scroll is oriented with the longest outer edge upward, so that the central element (or "tongue") curves downward as it enters the spiral proper. Thus for the ELF logo it seems appropriate to invert this normal, "healthy" speech-scroll, much as the United States flag can be flown upside down as a distress-signal. In such an orientation the speech-scroll resembles somewhat the lower-case letters 'e' and 'f'. With the addition of a line parallel to the long part of the central element, to represent the missing lower-case 'l', the initials ELF are all represented. The original image from which the ELF logo was derived is found on Stela 13 at the Late Classic Maya site at Seibal, Peten, Guatemala, a rubbing of which is in the Merle Greene Robertson Collection of the Latin American Library at Tulane University.

By Dennis Holt