Perils of a dying language

From the Guardian, the last two speakers of Ayapaneco won’t talk to each other:

The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it’s at risk of extinction.

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 500 metres apart 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.

“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.

With thanks to this delightful article on the demise of non-ASL sign languages.  I admire these people’s commitment to tradition, although even I would say that when you’re down to a handful of speakers/signers, it’s time to let it die.

7 Responses

  1. With apologies, this is very off-topic:

    Do you ever get the sense, or perhaps the fear, that support for Trump could end up being used as a kind of litmus test for belonging in/loyalty to right-wing movements–especially the Alternative Right or the Reactionary Right? Or, has this already started?

    I’m asking here because you, Bonald, had one fairly anti-Trump post a while back but I haven’t seen anything from you about Trump since then. I also haven’t seen any thoughtful criticism of Trump from anyone to the right of Steve Sailer (though I have to admit I have been reading political blogs much less over the past year or so so I could have easily missed something).

    Anyway, it seemed a bit odd from such an intellectually rich movement. I guess I can imagine other explanations but I’m really curious about that one.

  2. It is predicted that about half of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century.

    This saddens me, for it represents the loss of so much of the human past. Most of them have no native literature, although a handful are entombed in the archives of the British & Foreign Bible Society.

    Wittgenstein was surely right, when he observed that “Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking, rather as the Devil took the shadow of Schlemihl from the ground” If anyone doubts it, he invites us to try this experiment: “Say a sentence and think it; say it with understanding – Now, do not say it, just do what you accompanied it with, when you said it with understanding!”

  3. “Let it die”? I would not have expected that here. Language is the most important tradition of a people, the one without which the others can be understood only partially. In letting it die, they would be doing something like deliberately erasing the names of their fathers from memory, only more total and permanent. So they will cling, though oblivion will come eventually. Let it come naturally, with time, and not by choice. (Or not; there are still Zoroastrians, after a fashion, and in language a variant of Hebrew lives again.)

    The case of sign language is more complex, and I will add that ASL itself may soon be approaching that position of extinction, due to technological development. Many of its speakers fear and fight that fate; they do not welcome it. They reject the death of their culture, and view our newfound ability to grant prosthetic hearing as a tool of literal genocide. While I do not agree with them, I sympathize with them, and suggest that you may find an examination of the controversy worth your while.

  4. Suslak’s dictionary has little sales potential.

  5. “Language is the most important tradition of a people…”

    When Europeans speak of “nationality,” they usually mean language, rather than citizenship. Thus, we talk of the Swedish minority in Finland, the Hungarian minority in Romania and a man can be a Swiss or Austrian citizen, but a member of the German nation.

    Some years ago, a rather comical incident brought this home to me. Two French ladies were discussing their new cure, whose name, it transpired was Garbut. Now, Garbut is a Venetian name, so I asked if he was Italian. “Oh, no!” they assured me, “he’s French – From Montréal.”

  6. “Suslak’s dictionary has little sales potential.”

    Except for Comparative Philologists and Linguistic Anthropologists.

    Only think of the stir that Stephen McCluskey’s discovery of the Basel Epigram made in 1974 – Four lines of Old Prussian from 1369, one of several extinct Western Baltic languages, but related to both Latvian and Lithuanian and, more distantly, Old Slavonic.

  7. On the plus side, I recall reading a while back that most languages with at least 30,000 or so speakers are not likely to decline further anytime soon, thanks to the internet making it easier to obtain minority-language reading material and film content, and communicate with other speakers. Below that threshold, languages will be very hard to resurrect, but above, they’re safe for the foreseeable future, absent active state repression.

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