Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Holy Shit, Ayapaneco!

Rosetta Stone

Ayapaneco is a language native to the village of Ayapa in Tobasco, Mexico. It's not doing too hot right now. In fact, it's one of a growing number of languages in danger of extinction.

This happens all the time. Local dialects and whole languages sometimes have very few speakers. All it takes is a few deaths to make an entire dictionary of unique words, an entire canon of grammatical rules and nuances to completely disappear from the Earth and become lost to history. And I don't mean "nobody speaks Latin but hardcore Catholics and nerds" lost. I mean "nobody in the world can ever know what these words ever sounded like or meant anymore" lost.
Gavroche from Les Misérables
Way deader than Gavroche

There are movements to keep this kind of thing from happening. Linguists are dispatched to remote areas where endangered languages are spoken, where they rudely shove a microphone into the faces of the locals until they have enough audio from interviews and eavesdropping to compose a decent primer. With Ayapaneco, the efforts of linguists have been stunted by a unique issue.

The language became endangered because Mexico made it mandatory for schools to teach Spanish. It's not a bad idea, per se. It's a lot easier to conduct any type of business if there's not a ludicrously obscure language barrier between you and your neighbor. The downside, though, is that some of the vibrant culture, customs, and even words of small, rural areas are fading away. The other downside is that it implicitly treats other languages as inferior to the European one that was imposed on the area in an unabashedly imperialistic way several centuries ago, but we won't get into that right now.
Hernan Cortez
Long story short, this guy was a dick

The biggest obstacle for preserving Ayapaneco (the aforementioned unique issue) is this: There are exactly two people in the entire world who can fluently speak Ayapaneco. Both are well into their 70s and both live in the village of Ayapa. But they don't talk to each other. Because they don't like each other.

It's not totally clear why, and it seems that they just have clashing personalities. Despite being literally the last two people on Earth who can talk to one another in their native language, they choose not to. Because "Eh, fuck that guy." I don't know about you, but this whole situation makes me a little depressed. A once vibrant, ancient language exists only in two minds. If they want to have the kind of conversations they had in their youths, they have only each other to talk to. And they won't. And because of that, it's probably going to be too difficult for linguists to get a handle on their endangered mother tongue and keep it from dying with them.

An apathetic grudge will probably soon be the undoing of an entire language.

Holy shit.

Oh, and happy new year.

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