The Last Two Speakers of a Dying Language*

Spoiler alert: The men in question are not the last two speakers of a dying language. Read on to see why.

How the Story Goes

Over the last five years or so, various news outlets and blogs have published a story about the last two speakers of Ayapaneco. In the small Mexican town of Ayapa in the southern state of Tabasco, a dying language—also called Ayapan—has only two remaining speakers.

The problem? They’re not speaking to each other because of an ongoing feud. Both of the men, Manuel Segovia Jiménez and Isidro Velázquez Méndez, are elderly and reportedly don’t get along.

Linguists who study language death may lament the imminent demise of one of the world’s 6,000 languages. Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from the University of Indiana, even traveled to Ayapa over several years to create a dictionary of the Ayapan language before its two remaining speakers die.

last two speakers of a dying language

Ayapa, home to the Ayapan language, is located in Tabasco State, Mexico.

The BBC published a story on the men in 2007. In 2011, the Guardian said that the last two speakers of a dying language refused to speak to each other.

The only problem is that these stories didn’t get it quite right.

The Story Behind the Story

In December 2011, Dr. Suslak published a paper on the alleged last two speakers of a dying language called Ayapan Echoes: Linguistic Persistence and Loss in Tabasco, Mexico. It turns out that there is no bad blood between Segovia and Velázquez (whom Suslak refers to in his paper as don Manuel and don Chilo, respectively).

Suslak says that he stressed these two points to the Guardian journalist, but she gave her piece a sensationalist title anyway: “Language at Risk of Dying Out—The Last Two Speakers Aren’t Talking.”

Suslak writes that this “…implied that the death of Ayapaneco can be attributed to [the men’s] refusal to speak to one another.” In fact, the opposite is true, says Suslak. The disappearance of Ayapan is no fault of don Manuel and don Chilo.

Ayapan would be even closer to extinction were it not for these two men. But the two are not equally ready to share the linguistic spotlight.

Don Manuel and Don Chilo

Don Manuel gives lessons in Ayapan, which speakers call Nuumte Oote (“real or true language”). He also welcomes the chance to speak to journalists and linguists.

By contrast, don Chilo, whose day job is harvesting cacao, prefers to be with family.

Suslak writes that one reason the men don’t speak to each other is because they speak Ayapaneco differently. In some instances, they use different words for the same object; the way that they pronounce words is different, too.

But perhaps the biggest myth in the story reported by various media outlets is how many speakers are left. Don Manuel and don Chilo are not the only living speakers of Ayapaneco. They’re just the most proficient.

Don Chilo has an older brother and a younger sister who grew up speaking Ayapan. While Chilo is the most proficient of the three, each sibling is a speaker of the dying tongue.

In 2009, Suslak recorded don Manuel’s cousin, Carmela, another Ayapaneco speaker. According to Manuel, Carmela does not speak Ayapaneco well, “…but she speaks it very loudly.”

What Are the Last Two Speakers of a Dying Language to Do?

Not that any of these details mean that Ayapan will launch a comeback. When a community of speakers has so few members, the language is almost certain to die out. But perhaps before it does, the “last two speakers of a dying language” will sit down for a chat.

Source: American Anthropologist, Vol. 113, No. 4, pp. 569–581.

For more on endangered and dying languages, read about Google’s Endangered Languages Project.

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