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

Saving Mexico's most endangered language spoken by only two People

Aug. 21, 2012— -- Recently I learned of a Mexican language that is reportedly spoken by just two people. It came up on a Google website that maps the world's endangered languages.

The language is listed as Ayapanec-Zoque by the Google site. Under a box called "additional comments," there is a brief note that says that the only 2 speakers do not like each other, and "do not talk with one another."

Tragic stuff, I thought. And so surreal that it could easily be a chapter in Le Petit Prince. But is it really true? I decided this story was too interesting to miss out on. So, as I made my way through southern Mexico, I set some time aside to look for the last speakers of Ayapanec.

Finding them was relatively easy, as they live in Ayapa, a small village that is just 30 miles away from Villahermosa, the largest city and capital of Tabasco state.

Knowing whether these gentlemen would speak to me was another matter: I had been warned by Mexican officials that these men, both in their 70s, were tired of talking to outsiders who took information from them, made promises to help them out, and often, did not deliver.

But their village was so close to Villahermosa that I had little to lose if they slammed a door at my face. So I headed to Ayapa in a collective taxi, and with directions from the locals I quickly found the home of Ayapanec speaker Manuel Segovia, who is known locally as Don Manuel.

Don Manuel's home is made of grey cinder blocks. Its lack of paint and its tin roof indicated that this was a rather poor household.

The door was closed, but a window was half open, and I saw a middle aged woman walking around the living room. "Is Manuel Segovia in?" I asked.

"Just a moment" she said, heading towards the houses rear entrance.

In no time, Segovia, who is 75, emerged from the backyard. He had a serious demeanor but wore no shirt, as he had been shoveling some sand that he was going to use to make cement.

"Dígame," he said.

To gain Don Manuel's trust, I explained that I was "a friend" of Javier Lopez, the director of Mexico's National Institute for Indigenous Languages.

Lopez and some of his staff, had visited Don Manuel, and Don Isidro Velazquez, the other confirmed Ayapanec speaker, two days before I showed up at Don Manuel's door.

Surprisingly, Don Manuel offered no resistance to my presence there. He was easy going and laughed throughout our conversation.

"Some students came yesterday," was one of the first things he said. "We also had a group from the Basque country," his female friend added.

Pictures that Don Manuel had taken with linguists from Germany and the US over the past two decades, hung on his otherwise bare living room wall. After some small talk, I fired the question that had brought me to this humble home.

"What do you think about what they're saying in the papers?" I said mentioning some articles that repeated the information on Google's endangered languages site. "Are you fighting with Don Isidro?" I asked.

"It's not true. I have no problems with him." Don Manuel said, in Spanish. "The truth is that people are selfish here. They think that foreigners are coming here to give us money, so they make up stories like that one, to bring us down," Segovia said.

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.

Lopez is starting to work on a series of projects with Don Isidro and Don Manuel, which include the creation of Ayapanec grammar books, and publishing traditional stories in that tongue. INALI recently put together an Ayapanec dictionary, and plans to organize a language festival in the village of Ayapa.

The festival Lopez explained, would bring indigenous poets, musicians and story tellers to the small village, where they would perform in several indigenous tongues.

"We want the town to see that what they speak there [an indigenous language] is also spoken by others," Lopez said. "We have to get indigenous and non indigenous people interested in the value of diversity."

I asked Lopez why he thought it was so important to preserve indigenous languages, and got quite a complex argument from him.

"We don't only preserve languages because they sound pretty," he said. "When a language is lost, you lose a way of relating to one another, a way of life, the vision of life itself is diminished."

"Can you give me an example from your language," I asked, trying to understand his argument with more clarity.

"One example is how we conceive the role of a teacher," Lopez said.

"In Tzeltal we say Nop-tez-va-neh….ask me to translate that (in one word) and it means teacher. But what it really means is 'He who gets you closer to knowledge.'" Lopez said.

There are subtle differences between the Tzeltal and Western concepts of a teacher. "It's not the one who has knowledge and must share it, as in the West," Lopez explained, "But he who knows more because he was born first, and helps someone else to get closer to the truth."

Lopez had plenty of examples of how languages reflected different ways of relating to each other and different ways of seeing the world.

He spoke of how the Inuit had dozens of words for the color white, that reflected different variations of that color, and talked about how indigenous people in Mexico had words for colors that had no translation into the Spanish language.

He also argued that language was a human right, and claimed that by restoring indigenous tongues, he was helping their speakers to regain their dignity.

"As a linguist, I am aware that it is natural for some languages to get weaker, and others to get stronger," Lopez said. "But the problem is that many disappear due to the imposition and dominance of some [groups of people] over others."

During our conversation, Lopez revealed some good news about Ayapanec. He said that in his recent visit to the village of Ayapa, Don Isidro had told him that he had four brothers who also spoke the indigenous tongue. Confirming such claims, would triple the number of known Ayapanec speakers, from two, to a grand total of six.

Lopez also said that in the last national census, 21 people across Mexico identified themselves as belonging to the Ayapanec ethnic group. They live in far away places like Sonora, and Mexico City. But some of them could potentially speak the language as well.

Nevertheless, Lopez acknowledged that Ayapanec is still Mexico's most threatened indigenous language. With its known speakers approaching the end of their lives, those who want to save this tongue are in a race against time.