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  HOME | Mexico

Mexican Indian Language Appears Headed for Extinction

By Helena Lozano

MEXICO CITY – Ayapaneco, one of the 364 Indian languages spoken in Mexico, appears headed for extinction because its last two speakers refuse to communicate with each other due to a long-running feud.

Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez are the last surviving speakers of the language, which has its roots in Jalpa de Mendez, a town in the southern state of Tabasco.

The two elderly men live in the small community of Ayapan, but they have not spoken to each other in years even though their houses are only about 500 meters (some 1,600 feet) apart.

The source of the feud between the 75-year-old Segovia and the 69-year-old Velazquez is not known.

About 8,000 Ayapaneco-speaking families were still around in the mid-20th century, but the construction of the Villahermosa-Comacalco highway prompted many residents to leave the area, putting the language on the path to extinction, Segovia said.

“Time and progress transformed the town, the people went to work in bigger towns and there they started to see and bring back other customs,” Segovia said.

“When the two of us die, it’s over, the language will die,” Segovia said.

A written record of this rich language, however, will survive, thanks to two Stanford University linguists who spent two years recording Segovia pronouncing the thousands of words he knows.

The recordings were used to produce a dictionary that sells in the United States for thousands of dollars, Segovia said.

At least 36 other Indian languages are in danger of disappearing unless efforts are made to save them in Mexico, where 141 native languages have died off since colonial days, experts say.

Potlapigu, Guazapar, Mocorito, Cocoa, Ure, Zacateca, Zuaque, Sabaibo and Ahome are among the Indian languages that have disappeared.

Languages mainly disappear because of the discrimination that members of Indian communities suffer, National Indigenous Languages Institute, or INALI, archaeologist Arnulfo Embriz told Efe.

“After being turned down for jobs, schools ... the Indians have decided to stop speaking them,” Embriz said.

“If you don’t speak Spanish, forget about getting ahead,” the archaeologist said.

The 2010 census completed by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, or INEGI, found nearly 7 million speakers of Indian languages in Mexico, or approximately 1 million more than in 2007.

The increase was the result of efforts by both INALI specialists and Indian communities to teach languages, document them and make people aware of their right to preserve their language.

Schools are now using books translated into Indian languages, the Mexican Constitution has been translated into at least 13 indigenous languages and communities are “raising their voices” to exercise their rights, Embriz said.

“However, the disappearance of some languages is irreversible,” the archaeologist said.

Efforts are being made in Mexico to recognize the nation’s cultural heritage and change the attitude of people about their origins, languages and sociocultural practices.

Some have also called for an academic cataloging of linguistic diversity and campaigns to make people aware of the need to preserve Indian languages. EFE

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