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Language Lost and Found Department: Silent Treatment
May 4, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Language Lost and Found Department: Silent Treatment

No one likes to see a language die, yet it happens every day. It’s really a growth industry. Academics are making careers and earning grant money by trolling the world’s remote spots and finding lost languages on the brink of extinction. Rescuing a dying language is a good thing, done in the name of science of course, and reflects scholarly values that can be traced back to the idealization of the noble savage. The dirty little secret of language loss is unreported. Whatever the external factors that drive languages to extinction, whether war, oppression, or famine, pick your horseman, at the end of the day, the reason languages die is because speakers of that language decide it isn’t worth the trouble to use it.

That’s what I love about Ayapaneco, once spoken widely in the Tabasco region of Mexico. Now Ayapaneco is down to just two speakers, Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, and they aren’t speaking.

The two “live 500 metres apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco. It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other’s company.”

“They don’t have a lot in common,” says Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from Indiana University, who is involved with a project to produce a dictionary of Ayapaneco. Segovia, he says, can be “a little prickly” and Velazquez, who is “more stoic,” rarely likes to leave his home.

So the news hook on this particular dying language story is that these guys refuse to speak to each other, which makes this one particularly newsworthy, and thus blogable, and thus presented for your consideration, gentle reader.

But a close read reveals something a bit more serious for the future of Ayapaneco than bitter divisions between speakers. They are not enemies, even though they can’t agree on points of grammar. The secret is that Segovia and Velazquez have nothing to say to each other. The only thing they seem to have in common is that they speak the same language, and that is not enough for them to bother to have a conversation.

So for Segovia and Velazquez, the language is now a dead letter, but Ayapaneco has worked great for Suslak, the linguist who has taken this language under his wing. Of some 8750 search results for his name, 5890 have to do with Ayapaneco. That is a career builder. But the rewards of Ayapaneco mastery are not so evident for native speakers and their sons and daughters. For them, learning the language is not worth the price of a pencil.

“I bought pencils and notebooks myself,” Segovia complains. “The classes would start off full and then the pupils would stop coming.”

The National Indigenous Language Institute is also planning a last attempt to get classes going in which the last two surviving speakers can pass their knowledge on to other locals. The dictionary, to be published later this year, will contain two versions to cover the differences in their mother tongue on which Segovia and Velazquez cannot agree.

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