Old words find new life

The race is on to decode Mexico's past

An old Indian parable explains it best: an Otomi Indian invites a gringo to dine with him, but the white man is disgusted that the natives don't use cutlery.

"Use this," says the gringo, pulling out a spoon, "and you won't get dirty."

The Otomi, however, is horrified to learn that gringos wipe off their spoons after eating and then re-use them later.

"You are the dirty one," he responds, holding up his corn tortilla. "I eat my spoon."

The moral of the story is that outsiders don't necessarily know what's best. But while there's still a healthy appetite for tortillas across Mexico, the same can't be said for the language in which this parable was written, or for other native tongues like it.

Ever since conquistador Hernando Cortés first set foot in Mexico in 1519, dozens if not hundreds of indigenous languages have fallen victim to Spanish.

Today, about 10 percent of Mexicans still speak a native tongue, although the number of languages still spoken depends on whom you talk to, and what you count as a language. The government counts 56, a figure rejected by most scholars as absurdly low.

Scholars and linguists racing to protect, or at least record, native tongues across the country say the loss of knowledge that occurs each time a language dies is staggering, ranging from historical records – often passed through oral tradition and myth – to science, art, literature, music, medicines, and even recipes.

"Languages are the repositories of centuries of experiences and learning about the world," says Thomas Smith Stark, a scholar at the Colegio de Mexico. "When a language dies out, that knowledge to a great extent disappears."

What counts?

The Summer Language Institute, a Dallas-based nonprofit group that tracks lesser-spoken tongues, counts 288 living languages in Mexico, of which 53 have fewer than 1,000 speakers.

Sixteen of these are rated nearly extinct, meaning there's only a handful of elderly speakers left. Seven other languages have died out entirely over the past 30 years.

The job of determining how many languages there are is difficult because of how they are classified. More than 400,000 Mexicans speak Zapotec, for example, but their language takes as many as 50 different forms. The government lumps them together, saying the variations are dialects. Experts say that's like calling Italian a dialect of French.

"What has one name really means many different languages," says Yolandra Lastra, a Mexico City linguist.

Despite the complexity involved, many see language preservation as a key step to gaining greater respect and support for indigenous peoples who have been persecuted ever since colonialists first arrived.

Many indigenous groups in Mexico rejected their own languages, sometimes to take advantage of economic opportunities that came with speaking Spanish, but often out of shame or fear.

Jesus Salinas Pedraza says that growing up speaking Otomi (or Nahñu in his own tongue) gave him "a tremendous sense of inferiority." He recounts how elementary school teachers used to make children stand in the hot sun for hours if they were caught conversing in anything other than Spanish.

Now Mr. Salinas runs the struggling Oaxaca-based Editorial Center for Indigenous Literature, which has transcribed thousands of Indian writings (including "The Spoon") in five languages.

In recent years, he's had to lay off staff and postpone projects to document and translate Indian writings on medicine, cooking, and culture because he lacks funds. "We have applied for grants," he says. "But no one seems interested."

Untapped knowledge

Since Indian peoples generally described everything from weather conditions to health care in terms of cosmic influences of the gods, early Spanish settlers rejected their explanations as pagan and ridiculous. That is starting to change, but slowly. Indigenous peoples here have unique knowledge of the country's vast and diverse array of medicinal plants, for instance, but there has yet to be a comprehensive study on native Mexican medicines and treatments.

Many of the languages, says Dr. Stark, "have been dumped on and discriminated against for so many years" that the speakers themselves don't recognize the knowledge they may hold.

Capturing ancient myths

A handful of projects seek to address that issue. In the dust-swept pueblo of Santa Teresa Daboxha, Hidalgo state, for example, groups of Otomi women, some of them illiterate, gather every Saturday to paint.

Encouraged to record myths passed down since Aztec times, about two dozen women put brush to paper. At first, most are nervous, but once they start to paint, smiles begin appearing on their faces.

One elderly woman paints a rabbit floating inside the moon. In other works, trees sprout feet and faces. The maguey cactus, prevalent to the region and the staple of the Otomi diet, makes an appearance in almost every piece.

It all ties into original Aztec beliefs that the world and its creatures were part of a cosmic cycle – that every being had a personality.

"None of these women ever picked up a brush before," says teacher Gaby Palomaris, holding up several paintings. "And now look at this."

Classes like these may help anthropologists learn more about the ancient peoples of Mexico, and at least provide groups of desperately impoverished women with a rare chance to have fun and express themselves.

Other projects using endangered tongues seek to unlock the codes to long-extinct languages that may one day solve mysteries about how some of the earliest inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere came to be here.

Roberto Zavala, a linguist based in southern Chiapas state, is studying endangered Mixe and Zoque languages to decipher the scraps of text left by the Olmecs, a highly developed people that inhabited southeast Mexico from around 1300 BC to AD 500.

His work, in conjunction with that of other leading linguists, has expanded understanding of the Mojarra stela, a four-ton basalt slab that was discovered in 1986. It bears one of the oldest examples of complex writing in the New World.

Although the Olmec are generally considered to be the mother culture of later Middle American civilizations, details about their culture and origins are steeped in myth and scholarly controversy.

The Mojarra stela and a handful of artifacts from the same era were written in hieroglyphics that have similarities to those of ancient west African languages, raising the possibility that these early settlers in the Western Hemisphere did not come from Asia across the Bering Strait, but from across the Atlantic.

Other, more far-fetched theories suggest that they crossed now sunken continents.

The last 15 speakers

In painstaking work that has been compared to using Italian or French to decipher Latin, Dr. Zavala and his colleagues hope to unlock the mystery of the Olmecs.

But they are rushing to accomplish their goal. One of the tongues Zavalo is studying in southeast Veracruz state has only 15 speakers left.

"Imagine how many years it takes for a language to emerge," Zavalo says. "It's not the language that has this knowledge, it's the people."

"Some people think a language can die out, but the culture and the knowledge will persist," Dr. Lastra says. "I do not. I think the language and culture die together."

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