How many speakers of Ayapa Zoque?
I have to admit that this question has been haunting me since I started doing fieldwork in Ayapa back in 2012, and it has proven to be quite a challenge. I recently wrote to Ethnologue (a language database administered by the Summer Institute of Linguistics) requesting to change their information about Ayapa Zoque on their website, where they stated that there were only two speakers left. This gave me the idea to write this post.
The origin of the myth
Ethnologue, along with pretty much everyone else, got this erroneous information from an article published by The Guardian in 2011. In this article, it was stated that there were just two people left who can speak Ayapa Zoque fluently, but they refuse to talk to each other. This is how the myth of the last two speakers of a dying language that don’t talk to each other was born. This compelling story went viral, mostly on the Internet, but also appeared in local newspapers, radio and TV. I recently read a very similar story, but this time it took place in Afghanistan.
Who is counting the speakers?
Since the very first day I did fieldwork in Ayapa, I knew there were more than two speakers since the speakers themselves acknowledged the existence of other speakers. However, it is very complex to say in a clear-cut way how many speakers of Ayapa Zoque there really are. This is because the use of the language in the village as well as the intergenerational transmission has been almost inexistent for more than 40 years. So, how do we identify speakers, and what implications could this have for doing fieldwork? In a recent paper (Rangel, 2017) I discuss this particularity of highly endangered languages like Ayapa Zoque.
Moreover, who decides who is a speaker? The linguist, the speakers or, in this specific case, the media? For the speakers of Ayapa Zoque it is clear that there are more than two. But the media has decided to ignore what the speakers have to say and prefers to stick to their story. Every month, journalists from around the world show up in Ayapa trying to interview the “last two speakers” but as soon as they are told (by those same speakers) that there are more than two and that they do talk to each other, their interest suddenly disappears and they don’t come back. For instance, some Japanese journalists recently came to Ayapa to cover the story of the-last-two-speakers-that-don’t-talk-to-each-other. Once they were told that this was not true, they said they were no longer interested (they actually said they didn’t have anything to report) and left. There have been cases when even knowing this, some people decide to keep playing along with the compelling story of the last two speakers. A documentary filmmaker from Spain made a film deliberately altering the facts to portray the myth of the last two speakers.
What we know for sure
What we know for sure is that there are more than two speakers. I have had the pleasure of working with four of them since 2012. So, this already confirms that at least there are more than two. According to those four speakers and their families, there are 8-11 other people that could be considered speakers as well (this is total of approximately 15 speakers), depending on what we understand to be a speaker in contexts like Ayapa Zoque. We have to keep in mind that the communities’ definition of speaker most of the time doesn’t match with those of the linguists (Evans 2001: 260). This is a topic that is worth studying in the near future.
Dispelling the story
I have been trying to dispel this false story every time I have the chance in papers, at conferences, in informal chats with friends, and now on this blog. I hope that my thesis dissertation will contribute to this as well. But I am not the only one trying to do this. Daniel Suslak, linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University, has written papers, blog articles and sent clarification notes to the press in order to stop this false story as well. Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Languages has been trying to put an end to this this false story as well by means of publications, and by organizing a festival in Ayapa two years in a row where all the speakers and their families participate. Also, the speakers themselves are making efforts to launch a website as well as participate in local festivals in order to disseminate correct information about the language and the efforts they’ve made to keep it alive, and somehow counteract the false information available online.
Why should we stop this false story?
We should clear this up because this false story has already caused some damage to the speakers and their families. The curiosity of international journalists and other external visitors has brought conflicts and overexposure to the people of the village. In reaction to this phenomenon, Daniel Suslak wrote an interesting article about how an international company have used this myth (knowing it was false) to build its brand and another article about the negative consequences of the media overexposure (Suslak 2011). Also, the story of the-last-two-speakers-that-don’t-talk-to-each-other spreads the false idea that the language is at risk of dying because they do not speak to each other as The Guardian states in its article. This minimizes the enormous efforts made by the speakers and their families to revitalize Ayapa Zoque. If the language still exists today, it is precisely thanks to them, and not the opposite.
As we can see, there are so many questions raised by this topic. Why is the myth of the-last-two-speakers-that-don’t-talk-to-each-other so compelling? What makes it so attractive for the wider audiences? What are the consequences of this myth for the speakers, their families and the population of Ayapa? How do we, linguists, contribute to spread or to stop these kinds of myths? Is it possible to count speakers of a highly endangered language like Ayapa Zoque at all? What does it even mean to be a speaker in this specific context, and who decides? What are the implications of this phenomenon for linguistic fieldwork?
In future posts I will try to answer some of these questions. In the meantime, if you have any other questions that you think would be interesting to discuss, or if you have heard of similar cases in your fieldwork and want to share your experiences, just let me know.
Evans, Nicholas. 2001. « The last speaker is dead ? Long live the last speaker! » In Linguistic Fieldwork, par Paul Newman et Martha Ratliff editors, 250‑81. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rangel, Jhonnatan. 2017. « Les derniers locuteurs : au croisement des typologies des locuteurs de langues en danger » Histoire, Epistémologie, Langage 39(1) . P.107-133.
Suslak, Daniel F. 2011 « Ayapan Echoes: Linguistic Persistence and Loss in Tabasco, Mexico. » American Anthropologist 113 (4): 569‑81.
Suslak, Daniel F. Who Can Save Ayapaneco? How Vodafone Exploited an Endangered Language to Build its Brand. Disponible.