Variation in a critically endangered language

This is a brief overview of my Phd dissertation « Language variation and endangered language. The case of numte ʔoote or Zoque Ayapaneco in Tabasco, Mexico », defended at the INALCO in October 2019.

Before getting into the main findings, I would like to thank my thesis supervisor, Claudine Chamoreau, (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), and the members of the jury, Isabelle Léglise (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Naomi Nagy (University of Toronto), Daniel Suslak (Indiana University Bloomington), and Valentina Vapnarsky (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) for their invaluable input provided.

The dissertation is composed of 6 chapters. Let’s go over the main findings of each chapter.

1. Introduction 

This dissertation focuses on language variation in Ayapaneco or numte ʔoote (true voice), an under-documented and understudied critically endangered language spoken in southern Mexico. In Chapter 2 I explain what I mean by « critically endangered ».

This study follows a multifactorial approach in order to determine the mechanisms at interplay in synchronic language variation. The variation documented in this dissertation includes phonetic, morpho-syntactic and lexico-semantic tokens collected through approximately 52 weeks of fieldwork. 

The data collected corresponded to 60 hours of audiovisual recordings of different speech act events (Himmelmann 1998, 2006), observed in natural settings and elicited through visual, verbal and audiovisual stimuli. A collaborative framework guided not only the data collection methodology but also the vision and objectives of the dissertation (Rice  2011, Leonard & Haynes 2010, Czaykowska-Higgins 2009).

The ultimate goal of the data collected was to capture a representative sample of language in use by the few remaining speakers of Ayapaneco in order to create a corpus for analysis in ELAN, Toolbox and PRAAT.

2. Endangered language and speakers of Ayapaneco

 Ayapaneco is spoken in Ayapa, a village of 5,500 inhabitants in the municipality of Jalpa de Méndez, Tabasco, Mexico. Follwing the UNESCO’s evaluation grid (UNESCO 2003), Ayapaneco is considered a  critically endangered language. According to the UNESCO, in a critically endangered language:

The youngest speakers are in the great-grandparental generation, and the language is not used for everyday interactions. These older people often remember only part of the language but do not use it, since there may not be anyone to speak with (UNESCO 2003).

Based on this definition, Ayapaneco is a critically endangered language. The following characteristics also support this claim:

  • There are approximately 11 elder speakers (all between 69-95 years old)1 representing only 0.3% of Ayapa’s total population
  • Interrupted inter-generational transmission for over 60 years
  • Limited use of the language in the daily language practices of the remaining speakers
  • Language used only in very restricted domains and for a very few functions
  • No written tradition or orthography in use limiting the presence of the language in new domains of use such as the Internet
  • Until 2001, Ayapaneco didn’t have any support from the State. This support has been quite irregular over the years
  • Only a few members of the larger community support language maintenance and others are indifferent (some speakers and their relatives)
  • Ayapaneco is an under-documented & under-studied language. No grammar sketch has been pubilished yet and there are few existing audio and video recordings of varying quality without annotation

The methodologies and theories guiding descriptive and documentary linguistics have held the near monopoly in the study of endangered  languages until recently, when the mediatized figure of the “last speaker” attracts more and  more attention from researchers and the general public alike. The response of linguists to this growing interest has favored the development of increasingly complex typologies of
speakers of endangered languages, taking into account the very different situations in which they exist.

One of the initial hypotheses in this dissertation was the correlation between the sociolinguistic characteristics of the remaining speakers of Ayapaneco and different variables found in the corpus. 

This hypothesis is dissmissed as the socilinguistic characteristics of the speakers of Ayapaneco do not allow us to identify discrete profiles of speakers according to the existing literature.  Their characteristics raise complex theoretical and methodological questions that challenge fundamental concepts for linguistics, such as linguistic competence, that is at the core of the typologies of speakers of endangered languages currently available.

Linguistic competence among Ayapaneco speakers is not discrete or mesurable. Instead, we can define it as « varied » or more accurately, we can talk about heterogeneous language practices depending on the communicative events you look at. Ayapaneco speakers do not clearly differentiate between different languages practices to be able to link them to a type of speaker. Therefore, as we can see below, Ayapaneco speakers identify 4 main profiles of speakers that can overlap depending on external factors.

Typology of speakers of Ayapaneco by the speakers themselves

3. Linguistic characteristics

Ayapaneco belongs to the Mixe-Zoque language family and as such it shares some linguistic similarities with other languages of the family. Here are its basic characteristics:

  •  There are 13 primary phonemic consonants, 5 restricted phonemic consonants, and 6 phonemic vowels
  • Multiple phonological processes such as metathesis, obstruentization, depalatalization, and assimilation
  • Primarily, CVC syllabic structure even though it’s possible to find  CV, CVCC and CCV syllables (mostly in borrowings)
  • Word stress appears most often in the penultimate syllable but it is possible to find a different stress pattern for borrowings
  • Ergative-absolutive alignment
  • Head-marking in the left
  • Overlapping prepositions, postpositions and relational nouns 
  • Flexible word order OV-VO

4. Positional roots

Ayapaneco presents a very rich system of positional roots. In this dissertation I only analyzed 76 of them but their number could well go beyond 300. This is a significant finding as the languages of the mixe-zoque family were thought to have a relatively small number of these compared to the Mayan languages. In this respect, Ayapaneco ressembles more the Mayan languages than the Mixe-Zoquen languages.

These positional roots present a very rich portmanteau semantic system in which multiple nuances and relations overlap; for instance shape, position and/or state. In the example below taŋ conveys the meaning of an animate figure with its back touching a horizontal ground. In contrast, tay refers to an animate figure with its back touching a vertical ground. 

Positional roots: taŋ (left) & tay (right)

Morphology plays a fundamental role as well in the positional roots as their meaning can be modified by it, adding an extra layer of complexity and accuracy to the already rich semantic system of positional roots. 

5. Analisis of language variation

Out of 52 tokens of variation (variables) two tendencies emerged. On one hand, 88% of those variables correspond to phonetic, morphological and semantic variation. The high proportion of phonetic and morphological variation is not surprsing. However, the high proportion of semantic variation in a critically endangered language is something that hasn’t been widely documented or studied. On the other hand and in terms of their distribution, 46% of the variables correspond to unstructred variation and 33% follow a linguistic partnership. 

Unstructured variation is the kind of variation that does not clearly follow a social pattern (gender, social status, etc.) nor a linguistic one (ex: grammar rules). A linguistic partnership is a relation between 2 or more speakers based on personal affinities and it does not correlate with any other social variable (family, gender, etc.). Both types of variation are very dynamic and changing. 

Through the analysis of these variations and based on the available literature coming from different subfields I provide 6 possible interconnected explanations working together in an iterative snowball effect.

  1.  The absence of a local form of prestige 
  2. The tolerance of  variation without social status
  3. The reduced size of the speaker network (speakerhood)
  4. The absence of children speakers
  5. The language acquisition and usage path
  6. The use of the language exclusively for the inter-group communication

These multifactorial explanations shed light on the almost inexistant literature on language variation in critically endangered languages, and allow us to better understand their underlying mechanisms. This is important because, similar to Ayapaneco, there are currently 577 critically endangered languages in the world, making up almost 10% of the world’s 6,000+ languages (Moseley, 2010).

6. Conclusion

Although variation is a phenomenon inherent to all world languages, documenting and studying variation in a critically endangered language presents specific theoretical and methodological challenges that this dissertation addresses and questions, such as linguistic competence.

The literature on critically endangered langages has documented that these languages tend to exhibit large quantities of variation that could not be easily explained solely by means of social or linguistic factors (unstructured variation).

It has been taken for granted that the pervasiveness of this type of variation is « normal » in these languages as they undergo an active process of language loss or obsolescence. Even though this is an obvious assumption, the underlying mechanisms of this variation, what causes it, and if it only affects critically endangered languages, has rarely been explained.

This dissertation takes on these, and other, unexplored questions through a case study of an under documented and understudied critically endangered language. It provides a multifactorial analysis and explanation of the variation found in Ayapaneco drawing from methods and theories used in the fields of endangered languages, linguistic description, documentary linguistics, linguistic antrhopology, language obsolescence, language variation and evolutionary linguistics.

This a brief summary of a 400-page PhD dissertation written in French (hopefully available in other languages in the future!). If you’d be interested in reading it, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Cite this article as: Jhonnatan Rangel, "Variation in a critically endangered language," in Where's the last speaker? (ISSN 2494-2073),03/07/2020,
  1. This was back in 2013. Today there are only 5-6 remaining speakers. []

Jhonnatan Rangel

Postdoc at the INALCO-SeDyL in Paris, my research focuses on the documentation, description and revitalization of Ayapaneco, a critically endangered language in the south of Mexico. Postdoctorant à l’Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) et SeDyL (CNRS), je m'intéresse à la documentation, description et revitalisation du zoque ayapaneco, une langue sérieusement en danger parlée au Mexique.

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