On the Road in Mexico: Saving Mexico's Most Endangered Language Spoken by Only 2 People

It was a bit difficult to understand Don Manuel's Spanish at first, he spoke softly and jumbled up some of his words, perhaps because of his advanced age or perhaps because Spanish was not his native tongue. He laughed after describing situations that seemed unfair or absurd, like the news that he did not speak to Don Isidro. I disclosed that I was a journalist and asked Don Manuel if I could film him speaking his endangered tongue. He had done exactly the same thing a couple days before for the researchers from Mexico's National Institute for Indigenous Languages, but kindly, he complied to my request.

That is how I learned that in Ayapanec, the word for Jaguar is pronounced Oos-keh, with the last vowel almost silent. The word for cow is Tum-baaka, with a guttural "k" sound at the end.

How do you count from one to ten in your language? I asked Don Manuel. He counted from one to five:

"Tuu, Hoo-es-na, Too-kuh-na, Bahk-sh-nah, Bosch-nah. The rest comes out in Spanish," he said, and laughed.

Your language only has five numbers? I asked.

"No there are more numbers, but they come out in Spanish," Don Manuel said.

The woman who had initially opened the door for me had another explanation for the lack of numbers in Ayapanec.

"He's forgotten the other numbers," she said, as she observed our interview.

Don Manuel said that he spoke his native language very rarely nowadays, because Don Isidro is the only other person he can speak with in the village. Isidro hardly ever leaves his home according to Don Manuel, who added that Ayapanec speakers faced another problem in this village of 5,000 people.

"If they hear you speaking, or studying these words, they begin to murmur things they make fun of you," Don Manuel said. "I don't understand why they mock us, if North Americans [i.e. a few linguists] come here to learn from us."

Ayapanec was never a widely spoken language like Nahuatl or Quechua, which were spread by pre-Hispanic empires. But linguists believe that the number of Ayapanec speakers has been dwindling fast, over the past few decades as the village of Ayapa has become more connected with the outside world.

Don Manuel, who was born in 1935, said that it was common to hear the language during his youth, even though it was strictly banned at the local school.

As he grew up however, less people took interest in speaking Ayapanec, and did not teach it to their children, because they perceived the language to be a "thing of the past." Even Don Manuel failed to school his only son in the language, although he says that the young man can understand it, and is now trying to learn more.

I recently spoke about the decline of Ayapanec with Javier Lopez, the linguist whom I had used as a reference when I first met Don Manuel.

Lopez is the Director of Mexico's National Institute for Indigenous Languages (INALI) and a native speaker of the Tzeltal language.

He argues that indigenous tongues are often lost in Mexico, because discrimination pressures speakers in some parts of the country, to hide their indigenous roots. This means that parents conceal their traditions, and do not pass them on to the next generation.

"We have to promote the social prestige of languages," Lopez said over a coffee in Villahermosa's Olmeca Plaza hotel.

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