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When a Language Dies


“Cuando muere una lengua,
las cosas divinas,
estrellas, sol y luna,
las cosas humanas,
pensar y sentir,
no se reflejan en eso espejo.”

“When a language dies,
the divine things,
stars, sun and moon,
the human things.
to think and to feel,
are no longer reflected
in this mirror.”

The planet upon which we dwell is no longer the Tower of Babel it once was. Like bio-diversity, linguistic diversity is drying up at an alarming rate. Of 6000 known human languages, half are in imminent danger of disappearing, and 90% could be erased forever within a century, according to dire UNESCO reports. One language system is lost every two weeks, the United Nations cultural agency warns–five Indian subcontinent languages were irretrievably wiped out during the tsunami that obliterated islands in the Bay of Bengal earlier this year.

Because just a few people speak most of the world’s languages–4% of the world’s people speak 96% of its languages–most linguistic systems are extremely vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life and death.

Linguistic diversity flourishes in the south–half of the world’s languages are concentrated in just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Australia, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Mexico. Mexico’s Oaxaca state, smaller than Portugal, is host to 16 distinct ethnic groups and speaks more languages than all of Europe.

“Cuando muere una lengua
todo lo que hay en el mundo,
mares y rios,
animales y plantas,
ni se piensen, ni se pronuncian
con atisbos, con sonidos,
que no existan ya.”

“When a language dies,
all that there is in this world,
oceans and rivers,
animals and plants,
do not think of them,
do not pronounce their names,
they do not exist now.”

If each language was a room than Mexico would be a great mansion of 62 rooms, linguist/poet/historian Carlos Montemayor reflected at a recent presentation of a newly translated volume of Mexican indigenous poetry. “These languages are not dialects but rather complete linguistic systems. Purepecha is as complete as Greek, Maya as complete as Italian. There are no superior language systems. All have grammar and syntax and vocabulary and etymology. It is an expression of cultural racism to consider indigenous languages to be dialects.”

Nahuat (modern Aztec) is spoken by more than 2.000.000 people in 15 contiguous Mexican states. There are a million Mayan speakers in Caribbean Mexico, nearly twice that if you include inland subgroups such as Chol and Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal. Zapotec and Mixteco enjoy robust number of speakers in the sierras and along the coast of Oaxaca. Despite 500 years of cultural imposition during which the European invaders burnt their sacred books on public pyres and prohibited them from speaking their mother tongues under penalty of death, Mexico’s indigenous peoples have refused to be silenced.

Indian “flor y canto” (“flower and song”) is resurgent. Montemayor, along with Miguel Leon Portilla, the most ardent non-Indian champions of native languages, labels the renaissance in indigenous literature “one of the most significant cultural phenomena’s of the late 20th-early 21st centuries.” Once strictly “indigenous” writers like the Nahuat poet Neftali Hernandez are crossing over into general literature, and it seems like every bi-lingual teacher in Mexico is writing a novel in his native language, attests Montemayor.

But the downside is that this cultural revitalization has been largely confined to the dominant Indian languages while scores more are in danger of disappearing forever.

“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.”

“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.”

Where the languages are dying, drying up and blowing away like dust in the wind, is up in the northern deserts. Half of Mexico’s 20 most endangered languages are rooted in these bone-dry eco-systems, many in Sonora and the arid Baja California peninsula. The most threatened language, Aguacateco, a member of the Mayan family linguistic group that migrated north from Huehuetenango Guatemala millenniums ago according to linguists at the National Indigenous Language Institute (INALI), is still spoken in the mountain badlands of Baja California South–but there are only 22 surviving speakers left.

Equally endangered are a cluster of five Baja California Norte native cultures close to the Tijuana-Mexicali border, with less than 2000 surviving members between them–speakers of Kiliwa, Paipai, Kumiai, Kochemi, and Kukapa number in the dozens for each language group. Homogenized by the global lingo of the U.S.-Mexican border, these languages are the sole surviving shards of the old ways of doing things in these ancient desert lands.

A 17th Century census ordered by the Spanish Crown counted 23,000 Kukapas. But the fate of the Kukupas, “the people of the river”, was bound up with the great Colorado river and as thirsty U.S. western states diverted and contaminated its waters, their numbers diminished in kind. Only 400 have survived this diaspora, living in four bands (one in Yuma, Arizona.) 52 Kukapa elders guard the secret of their language.

For 7000 years, the Kukupas have fished the rivers flowing into the Sea of Cortez. Now environmental authorities have declared the region a wildlife sanctuary and barred the Indians from taking their prized “curvinas”, displacing the young who now head north to find work in the U.S. and learn “gavacha” (English.) Migration is a killer of language.

“Cuando muere una lengua,
sus palabras de amor,
entonacion de dolor y querencias,
tal vez viejos cantos,
relatos, discursos, plegarias,
nadie, cual fueran,
alcanzara a repetir.”

“When a language dies,
its words of love,
intonations of pain and caring,
perhaps the old songs,
the old stories, the speeches, the prayers,
no one no matter whom
will be able to repeat them again.”

Other Indian languages with less than a thousand speakers include Kikapu (138), Papago (141), Quiche (246), Tlahuica (466), Lacandon (635), and Pimi (741.) “Those of us in whom is mixed the blood of the Europeans who penetrated these language systems have a moral obligation to their preservation,” enjoins Miguel Leon Portillo, Mexico’s most dedicated rescuer of Aztec poetry.

Although the constitution has designated Mexico a “multi-cultural, pluri-lingual” nation since the early 1990s, congress has only recently gotten around to ratifying the General Law of the Defense of Indigenous Languages. The law created the National Indigenous Language Institute, which was inaugurated last February 21st, United Nations Mother Language Day, under the direction of the mestizo anthropologist Francisco Nava. Nava, whose appointment was questioned by the National Indigenous Congress, has big plans for the INALI–a socio-linguistic census of Mexico. and bringing elderly native speakers into primary schools to rekindle dying languages –but no money, and the institute is a thin wall between disappearing language systems and total extinction. “We are in a race against time–the old are dying off each year and the young moving on yet there seems to be no urgency (in the Secretary of Public Education under whose aegis the INALI operates) to save these languages” Nava bemoans.

“Cuando muere una lengua,
ya mucho han muerto,
and mucho mas pueden morir,
espejos para siempre quebrados,
sombras de voces
siempre acalladas,
la humanidad se empobreze
Cuando muere una lengua”

“When a language dies,
then many have died,
and many more will die soon,
mirrors forever broken,
shadows of voices
forever silenced,
humanity grows poorer
when a language dies.”

– “When a Language Dies”, translated from the Aztec by Miguel Leon Portillo (English translation: JOHN ROSS)

JOHN ROSS is currently on the road in California where he is teaching four seminars on rebel journalism at the New College (San Francisco). His latest book is Murdered By Capitalism.



JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to

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