An endangered language commits suicide

Living in a nation whose dominant language seems to be encroaching daily upon the rest of the globe, we sometimes forget there are literally hundreds of spoken tongues on the brink of extinction.

Nearly 500 languages are currently close to oblivion, according to the website Ethnologue.com. In the Americas alone, some 182 are on the cusp of extinction, including approximately 75 in the United States.

It is said that every 14 days a language dies somewhere in the world and that by 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth – many not yet recorded – may disappear.

Cornell University researchers found that when two languages compete, only one survives while the other declines exponentially. Policies, education and advertising can slow this process, according to the 2003 study.

Perhaps one of the more curious examples of an endangered language is that of Ayapaneco, which has been spoken in what is now Mexico for centuries. Today, there are just two people left who can speak it fluently – but they refuse to talk to each other.

Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live a little more than a quarter-mile from one another in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco.

“It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other’s company,” according to the Guardian newspaper.

“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, according to the publication.

Creating the dictionary is part of a race against time to revitalize 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.”

Segovia denied any active animosity with Velazquez. He retained the habit of speaking Ayapaneco by conversing with his brother until he died about a decade ago.

Segovia still uses it with his son and wife who understand him, but cannot produce more than a few words themselves. Velazquez reputedly does not regularly talk to anybody in his native tongue anymore.

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

“Its 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 else. Urbanisation and migration from the 1970s then ensured the break-up of the core group of speakers concentrated in the village,” according to the Guardian.

“It’s a sad story,” says Suslak, “but you have to be really impressed by how long it has hung around…”

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. The dictionary, which is due out later this year, will contain both versions.

(Above: Manuel Segovia is one of the last two individuals who still speaks Ayapaneco. He is 75 years old.)

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