I speak the sounds of the people of the rain
November 15, 2018 5:31 AM   Subscribe

What is killing Mexico’s rich indigenous languages?

If you ask the Mixteco people about their first language, the reply is just one example of Mexico’s rich linguistic diversity. Yet linguists, artists and human rights defenders are warning that Mexico is becoming increasingly monotone – and that discrimination, as well as repressive assimilation policies by the state, are partly responsible for their death.

posted by poffin boffin (9 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The beautiful Sueno en Otra Idioma builds a story exploring some of these themes, in Mexico and is absolutely worth a watch.
posted by sarcas at 6:59 AM on November 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Pre-reading article: "Is it racism and colonialism? I bet it is!"
Post-reading article: "Yep. Racism and colonialism."

My lack of surprise aside, I don't know how to help in other countries and the article does not say, but here in the US, if you want to help preserve the native languages of the people who live in California, here is a good place to start: https://www.csusm.edu/cicsc/index.html
posted by FritoKAL at 8:01 AM on November 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

The thing about language death is it's very much a trailing indicator of oppression. Barring outright genocide, which can obviously speed things up, it happens when the community of speakers has been under pressure for generations. So the answer to "How can we save [moribund language]" is often "Well, to really save it you'd have to start by going back 50 or 100 years."

A lot of conversation about language death frustrates me for this reason. Us linguists will talk as if documenting a language will "save" it. (No; if the language was going to die before you documented it, it will still die — we'll just know a bit more about what it was like.) Or we'll talk as if there's some intervention that can be made on a language with just 5 or 10 speakers that will return it to robust, fluent use by a whole community. (Maybe; but really successful examples are rare, the only one we all agree was successful is Hebrew, and most revival projects just lead to kids having fun learning a few cool words.) I've been guilty of this myself, I've written grant applications as if I was going to make a difference on the fate of the language, knowing full well that its actual fate was going to be decided by political and socioeconomic facts outside my control. It's a problem.

But so yeah, ok, Mexican languages are in trouble. But it's not like this is a sudden thing, and it's not like it's something that can be turned around quickly. It's 500+ years of accelerating colonialism.

(The flip side is that some Mexican languages are farther from death than you'd realize from this article. Yucatec — the Mayan language that's often just called "Maya" — has over a million speakers! If a few things started improving now, it would have a great chance of long-term survival!)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

(Er, sorry, none of which is a dig on CICSC, who do a lot of good shit and are worth supporting even if you're very pessimistic about the coming wave of language death.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:04 PM on November 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Or we'll talk as if there's some intervention that can be made on a language with just 5 or 10 speakers that will return it to robust, fluent use by a whole community

god, this. it's so frustrating and yet i'm so personally guilty of doing exactly this, even knowing full well that me as an english-speaking individual in nyc learning an indigenous language that isn't even my own native language and outside of even a local community of native speakers of that language is somehow "making a difference" rather than just doing a thing to nebulously make myself feel better about [broadly gestures to everything, ever].

i wish it was even possible to consider widescale state level funding for local indigenous language education in the US but even at the best of times, much less in the fascist white supremacist hellscape of 2018, it would be among the lowest possible education priorities.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:20 PM on November 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

In 2010, I did my linguistic field research in a village just outside of Oaxaca city, helping document the dying language of Zapotec. As nebulawindphone said above, it's not an attempt to save or revive the language, but simply to capture as much knowledge about it before it's gone.

It's also helpful for the community there. The linguists would visit every year, meeting with the people, doing elicitation sessions, mostly with the elders. We'd analyse the data and bring it all to the library archives.

Many of these languages are oral traditions and don't have a writing system. We worked with the community to develop one. Again, for preservation purposes. But I also think that level of attention and care matters to the people there, even if they don't need or use the system.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:24 PM on November 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

Metafilter: [broadly gestures to everything, ever].
posted by riverlife at 2:12 PM on November 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I first moved to Mexico, I had the vague plan of learning Spanish and the local indigenous language (Totonac), thinking naively that the system here would be something like in India, where each state has its own language. I haven't met a single person openly speaking the local language, or even Nahuatl for that matter.
posted by dhruva at 2:40 PM on November 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

@rebeccanagle: "I am so proud and humbled to work for my tribe on language revitalization. Today our program graduated 4 second language learners who have spent two years learning Cherokee with master speakers."
posted by homunculus at 6:48 PM on December 13, 2018

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