Vanishing Words

Last Keepers of Lost Tongue
Will Not Speak to Each Other

If verbal expression is the most crucial distinction between human beings and animals, then when a language disappears, a fundamental part of what define us as species is also lost.
The path of technological development, current evolutionary patterns, even the so called globalization, all contribute to the depletion of the languages spoken nowadays, estimated to be between 6,000 to 7,000.
It’s virtually impossible to assess the damage caused to our civilization by the extinction of languages. But anthropologists agree that its pace is accelerating along with the disappearance of tribes and cultures.
In Mexico, for example, Ayapaneco, a language that has been spoken for centuries, is in serious risk of extinction. In fact, there are only two known people fluent in this ancient tongue and they are not speaking to each other.
No one knows why, but Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez who live 500 meters apart in the village of Ayapa, state of Tabasco, won’t exchange a single greeting in the language they, unwillingly, were chosen by fate to be the last known speakers.
As it goes, the Ayapaneco survived the Spanish conquest, wars, revolutions, famines and floods, but it may not outlive its last practitioners. Segovia’s only interlocutor, his brother, died 10 years ago and Velazquez speaks it only with his wife and son.
Ironically, there’s one thing they both agree about it: the name Ayapaneco was imposed by outsiders. They prefer to call it Nuumte Oote, which means the True Voice. But that’s as far as their disavowed agreement goes. They even speak different versions of this “truth.”
Fearing the worst, Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from Indiana University, is leading a project to produce a dictionary of Ayapaneco. There are 68 different indigenous languages in Mexico, and a handful of other endangered languages, but Ayapaneco is the most extreme case.
As with many cases of languages and cultures, the extinction process is sometimes ignited by misguided government polices. During most of the 20th century, for example, as it adopted the Spanish as its official language, Mexico prohibited the use and learning of indigenous languages.
In addition, the country’s urbanization and migration movements that started in the 1970s also contributed to drive the Ayapaneco and other tongues to the brink of extinction. Suslak and his team are in a race against time to compile a workable dictionary while Segovia and Velazquez, both in their 70s, are still with us.
There many approaches regarding the evolutionary study languages throughout history. Some linguists, such as Noam Chomski, believe children assimilate them through an innate capacity, while Joseph Greenberg favors a more empirical approach, listing traits shared between languages.
Yet others, such as Russell Gray, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Martin Haspelmath, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, see languages evolving in their own idiosyncratic ways, rather than being governed by universal rules set down in human brain patterns.
No definitive argument will end the discussion, of course. But it’s evident that once a tongue is lost, a whole, complex and specific code for explaining the universe to the generations who shared it, is also lost.
The implication here is that language shapes the way a society sees itself and the world around, rather than vice-versa. Or that a different approach to living can only be assimilated through a different way of being able to describe it.
Even though the proverbial concept that the Innui language has more names for snow than English is incorrect, the underlying assumption still applies: language prioritizes and shapes the shared experience, rather than it’s created by the group who speaks it.
That’s why it’s crucial that Segovia and Velazques find something to talk about, and soon. Perhaps they can take a hint from the name of their state, and add some badly needed spice to our contemporary cacophony of meanings and tongues.
It’s the only way will ever get to learn concepts unique to the True Voice and what it has to say about the world, the nature and the need for people to find a common ground to communicate.

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