Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ancient Language Just Two Seniors Away From Extinction

Like many of the other irreplaceable treasures lost to extinction, the ancient Mexican language of Ayapaneco is dying. There are just two people left in the world who still speak it - and - they're not speaking. At least, not to each other.

Ayapaneco is one of just 68 surviving indigenous languages (with 364 sub-variations) in a land where the majority of the population speak Spanish. The two speakers are Manuel Segovia (pictured right in the photo below), 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69.

Unbelievably, the two men live only 500 m (546.2 yd or .3 mi)apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco.

No one is quite sure what has caused the two men to refuse to talk; although, there are hints that there may be a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance. Segovia says he bears no ill will towards his neighbour; but, others say they have never enjoyed spending time together.

"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.

(Photo courtesy of The National Indigenous Language Institute/YouTube).

So, it would appear that the language of Ayapaneco which has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods will not survive the lack of communication between two old men.

Manuel Segovia still speaks Ayapaneco to his wife and son who understand him but speak only a few words themselves. Photograph: Jaime Avalos/EPA. Photo courtesy: The Guardian

Segovia, retained his fluency in his native Ayapaneco by speaking with his brother also fluent in the ancient language. Unfortunately, his brother passed on about a decade ago; but, Segovia still speaks to his wife and son in Ayapaneco.

Unfortunately, neither of them can speak more a few words themselves; and Velasquez reportedly barely speaks his native tongue anymore.

Suslak says Ayapaneco has always been a "linguistic island" surrounded by much stronger indigenous languages.

Its apparent approaching demise was sealed by the advent of education in Spanish in the mid 20th century, which for several decades included the explicit prohibition on indigenous children speaking anything other than Spanish. Much the same thing happened in Canada when Native children were rounded up and sent to the reservation schools. There they were forbidden to speak their native language; and, essentially were taught how to be white.

Urbanisation and migration from the 1970s then ensured the break-up of the core group of speakers concentrated in the village.

"It's a sad story," says Suslak, "but you have to be really impressed by how long it has hung around."

Suslak is working to preserve the language in dictionary form before its last surviving speakers pass away; and, since the last two speakers are 75 & 69, the dictionary is part of a race against time to revitalise the language before it is definitively too late.

"When I was a boy everybody spoke it," Segovia told the Guardian by phone. "It's disappeared little by little, and now I suppose it might die with me."

The name Ayapaneco is an imposition by outsiders, and Segovia and Velazquez call their language Nuumte Oote, which means the True Voice. They speak different versions of this truth; and, tend to disagree over details which doesn't help their relationship. In fact, this may be the entire problem; but, who can tell.

The dictionary, which is due out later this year, will contain both versions. Suslak says the language is particularly rich in what he calls sound symbolic expressions that often take their inspiration from nature, such as kolo-golo-nay, translated as "to gobble like a turkey".

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. Previous efforts have failed to take hold due to lack of funding and limited enthusiasm.

Let's hope that the True Voice can be saved from extinction.

Via YahooNews and Guardian.co.uk

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