The divine and human things

April 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

There’s a small Mexican town called Ayapa, in the southern state of Tabasco. In it, if you know where to look, you can find Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velasquez, 69.  These two men are the last remaining native speakers of Ayapaneco, an indigenous language that’s been almost eradicated by Spanish.

All that’s left are two men, of a similar age, living 500 metres apart. If, like me, you’re immediately flooded with charming images of the two gents sitting side by side, watching the sun fall from a Mexican sky each evening as they chat warmly away, think again.

Here’s the thing.

They can’t stand each other.

It’s unsure whether a long-standing feud or simple dislike caused this rift, but they’ve never really got along. They refuse to speak to each other; haven’t, in fact, for years. And so their last chance to express themselves in this richly descriptive language is disappearing. When they die, unfortunately, so will the language.

When a language dies,
the window and the door
are closed up
to all the people of the world,
no longer will they be shown
a different way to name
the divine and human things
which is what it means to be
and to live on the earth.

Cuando muere una lengua,
se cierre a todos
los pueblos del mundo,
una puerta, una ventana,
un asomarse,
de modo distinto,
a las cosas divinas y humanas
en cuanto es ser
y vida en la tierra.

I get a strange metallic taste in my mouth when I think of a language withering, and giving its last gasp. I know that in looking at languages as living entities, we have to accept that some will, unfortunately, expire…but it still makes me slightly sick to my stomach.

Half the world’s languages are in imminent danger of disappearing, and I can’t bring myself to check how many disappear each day. Australia is a rich source of many of these – Kayardild, for example, is a language spoken in Queensland by only four elderly Aborigines.

But in reading about the two Mexican men, what I found fascinating were the comments left below the newspaper article. So many people scoffed at the ‘romantic’ notion that such languages are important, telling us to ‘stop living in the past.’ Some even hoped for one global language that everyone could communicate in, so we could let those pesky little things like German, Korean, Hindi and Amharic settle in the dust where they belong.

Those who don’t see how inextricable our language is from our culture, our soul, our very being, are missing something pretty damn special.

And that’s their loss.

*  Take a look at the newspaper article (and the comments) at The Guardian.

*When a Language Dies”, translated from the Aztec by Miguel Leon Portillo (English translation: John Ross)



  1. Ariane Tablang said,

    Hey, just ran into your webpage from mixx. It’s not something I would normally read, but I loved your perspective on it. Thanx for creating a blog post worth reading!

    • inkymouth said,

      Thanks Ariane! I’m glad you enjoyed my little musings…any excuse to chat about linguistics makes me smile 🙂

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