Friday, March 18, 2011

What Passes For a Belated St. Patrick's Day Post Around Here

Despite our impeccably PC reverence for all thing indigenous, we generally don't think it's a big deal when we hear that another of Mexico's 360-plus indigenous languages is headed for the scrap heap. Maybe it's because we hate languages. Or because, if the trend continues, eventually Spanish itself will disappear, thus saving us the trouble of mastering the subjunctive. But mostly it's because we believe that a lot of indigenous people are genuinely handicapped by an inability to speak Spanish, so while it's nice to cling to parts of one's heritage, speaking the language of the majority can only be beneficial. (Our family's last native Gaelic speaker passed away in 1977; we'd probably miss her more if we'd ever been able to understand a word she was saying.)

This is why we can chuckle guilt-free at the imminent demise of Ayapaneco, a language so obscure it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry. That means we have to make some stuff up here, but we're probably not widely off the mark in assuming Ayapaneco's decline began with a gift of smallpox-infected blankets back in the mid-16th Century, and continued steadily as Catholic missionaries forced the people to speak the same language as Jesus Christ: Spanish.

But in the mid-20th Century (we're done with the making-it-up part now) there were still about 8,000 Ayapaneco-speaking families in and around the town of Jalpa de Méndez, Tabasco. Jalpa de Méndez is apparently a real shithole, because as soon as the Villahermosa-Comalcalco Highway was constructed nearby, a steady stream of Ayapaneco-speakers left town as quickly as possible - until, now, half a century later, the world's known community of Ayapaneco-speakers numbers in the low single-digits.

Two, to be precise. Named Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velázquez, 69.

And they refuse to speak to each other.

No one knows exactly why the world's last two speakers of Ayapaneco have fallen out with each other - perhaps they're trying to tell us, but we can't understand them because we don't speak Ayapaneco. But this raises all sorts of questions that make us wish we paid attention in class while we were earning a philosophy degree 20 year ago: If the only people who can speak a language refuse to do so, does the language still, in fact exist? And if the answer is yes, then why would it be considered 'extinct' after they both die? If either of these guys talks out loud to himself, does that count? And how bad would it suck if the only other person who spoke your language was a prick or a bore?

A few years ago, a couple of Stanford University linguists compiled an Ayapaneco-Spanish Dictionary (mostly by getting Segovia and Velázquez to point at things and call out their names, sort of the way Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller.) Does the dictionary mean the language will never die? And why don't the guys who wrote it count as Ayapaneco-speakers? Surely their Ayapaneco is as good as our Spanish.

One thing we know for sure - our Gaelic-speaking great-nana would have admired the way those damn Ayapaneco hold a grudge.


Shawna said...

The subjunctive will be the death of me. My Spanish teacher decided to quit working on it with me after two months of me getting frustrated trying to understand it.

Burro Hall said...

I don't think it's critical for survival or anything. Though I have this recurring nightmare where the entire country has decided to fuck with me by getting really militant about it, and pretending to not understand anyone who isn't using it properly. said...

El subjuntivo? No te preocupes. No hay nadie que pueda hacerlo.