Robert Laughlin, preserver of a Mayan language, 85

NEW YORK — Robert M. Laughlin, an anthropologist and linguist whose extensive work in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico documented and helped revitalize Mayan languages and culture, died on May 28 in Alexandria, Va. He was 85.

His son, Reese, said the cause was the coronavirus.

Robert Laughlin spent much of his professional life doing fieldwork in Chiapas, beginning in the late 1950s. He learned the Tzotzil language as a graduate student with the Harvard Chiapas Project, a long-term ethnographic field study that had just been started by Professor Evon Vogt and was focusing on the town of Zinacantán. After years of painstaking work, in 1975, Dr. Laughlin published The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán, with 30,000 entries.


Indigenous languages in the region — there are many — had been under siege since the Spanish conquest, and Dr. Laughlin’s dictionary helped spur a revival of interest in them. The dictionary, published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where Dr. Laughlin was curator of Mesoamerican ethnology, was not simply a compilation of which Tzotzil word equals which English word. It was a deep dive into word origins, how the language had mutated, and more.

“The term ‘dictionary’ hardly does the work justice,” Judith Aissen, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California Santa Cruz, said in an e-mail. “It is a rigorous work of linguistic scholarship, but through its entries, also the repository of a great deal of cultural knowledge.”

The dictionary, created with two local collaborators, Romin Teratol and Anselmo Peres, set an example for the field. “It has been the cornerstone of so many efforts in language and knowledge revitalization ever since,” Igor Krupnik, chair of the anthropology department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said by e-mail.

But it was only the beginning for Dr. Laughlin. He wrote or collaborated on various collections of folk tales and dreams, an 18th-century Tzotzil dictionary (with John B. Haviland, an anthropology professor at the University of California San Diego), and more. And in 1982, when some Indigenous friends asked him for help in creating a cultural association, he became one of the founders of Sna Jtz’ibajom — or, in English, the House of the Writer, a collective that promoted local writings and publications.


An offshoot of that, a few years later, was Monkey Business Theater, a troupe that performed folk tales and other works. He brought in American puppeteer Amy Trompetter to help local participants use puppets in their storytelling.

“To her distress, the first skit they chose to perform was a folk tale that tells of a newlywed whose wife’s head mysteriously disappears at night to eat corpses,” he wrote in “Monkey Business Theater,” a 2008 book about the troupe. But the group caught on and was soon in high demand, performing throughout the region and beyond.

One of Dr. Laughlin’s most recent collaborations was “Mayan Tales From Chiapas, Mexico” (2014), in which he and two translators recorded 42 folk tales as told by the same woman, Francisca Hernández Hernández, the only Tzotzil speaker remaining in her village. The book presented the stories in English, Spanish, and Tzotzil.

In the foreword, Gary H. Gossen, professor emeritus of anthropology and Latin American studies at the University at Albany, the State University of New York, wrote of Dr. Laughlin’s career: “He has earnestly and successfully returned to the native Maya communities of highland Chiapas a sense of ownership of their own literary legacy.”


Robert Moody Laughlin was born on May 29, 1934, in Princeton, N.J., to Ledlie and Roberta Howe Laughlin. His father was assistant dean of admissions at Princeton University, and his mother was a homemaker.

He grew up in Princeton, graduated from South Kent School in Connecticut in 1952, and earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Princeton in 1956. The next year he enrolled in a summer graduate program in anthropology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City, which included fieldwork among the Mazatec, an Indigenous people in Oaxaca.

His interest piqued, he enrolled at Harvard, where he received a master’s degree in anthropology in 1961 and a doctorate in it in 1963. In 1960, he married Miriam Elizabeth Wolfe, and after he joined the Smithsonian in 1965, they alternated between living in Chiapas and Alexandria, Va., for decades.

Almost as challenging as compiling his monumental 1975 dictionary was physically producing it, given the complexity of the material, the multiplicity of symbols and unusual letter combinations, and the limitations of the relatively primitive computers used to produce it.

Modest efforts to resurrect Indigenous languages had been going on for several decades when the dictionary appeared, but the Tzotzil language and its cousins were primarily oral traditions; speakers of such languages were illiterate in them. The dictionary helped change that. “A potential audience had slowly been building for material in Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and about 30 other Mayan languages,” a 1992 article in Smithsonian magazine noted. “Laughlin’s dictionary contributed a standardized template for writing down the Mayan sounds.”


Dr. Laughlin died in a hospital in Alexandria. In addition to his son, he leaves his wife; a daughter, Liana Laughlin; and three grandchildren.