There were several stories over the weekend that piqued my interest, some of which turned out to be not as interesting as hoped, but some were gems. This one, for example, reports an exciting discovery about the origin of language. Along the same vein, a BBC article described how linguists using methods similar to Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments were able to theorize that culture, not cognitive constraints, is responsible for language development. The latter article especially is of use to me as I continue to work on the language and thought issue initially brought up in my Second Languages, le premier part post of January 2010. (Part Deux, the sequel, coming to a computer near you, Summer 2011!)
There was, however, something else that was much more important:
In case it wasn’t clear by now, there’s a certain…shall we say silliness?…running constantly just under the surface of just about anything I do. I can be serious with the best of them, but even so, the silly is never really too far away. And what is a better occasion for it than the girls’ first birthday party?
After the catnip wore off and the girls flopped into their beds to sleep it off, I knew I had to get back to business, so I set about finding the most serious newspapers with only the most sobering articles. Instead, I started reading the Daily Mail Online, which does, in its defense, have serious articles next to the “Femail Today” column of featured celebrity news, and not a single cat picture on their home page. In fact, I saw this article about an endangered language in Mexico. It describes two men who live in the same village and don’t get along with each other. This is news because these two men are the last two native speakers of Ayapaneco, one of Mexico’s native languages.
As a linguist (ahem), my first and over-riding reaction should have been sadness and dismay at the thought of yet another language being lost to the dominance of one of the global linguistic bullies. I certainly do mourn the impending loss of Ayapaneco (or Nuumte Oote as the language is referred to by its speakers). Losing languages means losing a piece of the puzzle; we have fewer sources of information and data to help us put together language universals, which helps us understand the nature of language itself by learning its capabilities and constraints. Understanding language, a behavior so indelibly tied to our thoughts, our desires and our very humanity, therefore helps us understand ourselves. Letting so many languages die with their last speakers makes the task that much more difficult.
And yet, knowing all that, it was all I could do to keep that ill-timed gulp of coffee in my mouth instead of sending it hurtling through space towards my computer screen in a fine, expanding spray. I mean, come on! These men are the last two speakers of a dying language and they can’t stand each other! They live a 10-minute walk from each other, they are almost the same age, and they’re the last people on earth who can speak their native tongue, and yet when asked to talk to each other in order to record possibly the last ever conversation in Ayapaneco, they steadfastly refuse. The scientific study of a language that will be eradicated from the globe in probably less than a decade has come to a screeching halt because one man is “a little prickly” and the other is “more stoic.”
I can just imagine poor Daniel Suslak, the linguist studying Ayapaneco, trying to coax them to put aside their differences for the sake of science.
Mr.Segovia: “You want me to talk to him?? No way! That rat bastard never returned the saw he borrowed from me ten years ago!”
Mr.Velasquez: “I have nothing to say to that man.”
And really, I can’t blame them. As unlikely the scenario is, if some apocalyptic event were to cause the English language speaker population to be reduced to me and someone I considered a bitch, there is no way I would talk to her just so some pasty, snot-nosed, nerdy little linguist dude could get his name first on an article that about 6.3 people will ever read.
A girl has to have some pride, after all.