Not Speaking

Jenny Diski

Why should I worry me about the last white rhino leaving the planet, or the loss of a language that no one speaks any more? To tell the truth, I’m not sure. All loss is loss and needs noting, but do I really care apart from theoretically? Philologists and linguists will care that Ayapaneco, an indigenous Mexican language, is dying out, but since it’s the first I’ve heard of it, it would be dishonest to say I minded specifically about its passing. I’m never sure about museum-making. Nothing that was dynamic – species, language, music, spiritual artifacts, anything that people have actually used to get through their lives – is ever the same when it’s simply on show in a display cabinet or in a book or recording. No harm in having it, but it isn’t doing what it was supposed to do.

I must admit that I’m much more interested in, even delighted by, the fact that the last two speakers of Ayapaneco, although neighbours, are not on speakers. For one thing, they speak different versions of the language and don’t accept they way the other talks. In any case, they don’t like each other; no one, including them it seems, can remember why. So Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez, living 500 metres apart, do not use the language that only they can speak, because the great thing about language is that it is for communicating with other people. Or it isn’t. If you’ve got nothing to say, why say it? Someone said that.

Segovia and Velazquez, elderly keepers of a dying language, have declared it already dead, because, getting to the essence of being human, they don’t have anything they want to say to one another. They’re not going to waste their words on each other, even if they’re the only two that have them. Fortunately, Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist, is going between the two houses, compiling a dictionary of Ayapaneco, before the old guys fall silent for ever. Which will be useful for anyone wanting to say: ‘You bastard, you’re doing it all wrong.’


  • 18 April 2011 at 10:13am
    philip proust says:
    The last white rhino leaving the planet, or the loss of a language? They don't seem true equivalents. The extinction of a species is profoundly tragic and carries a load of guilt when it is caused by human beings. The sense of loss cannot be explained functionally; the white rhino's departure would not be measurable in terms of its impact on us; the continuation and value of this form of animal life is not wholly reducible to something else, such as the role it plays in the eco-system or our imagination.

    Human communities are reaching the stage where they might constitute an infestation, like locusts remorselessly destroying everything in their path. In this context, the demise of a tribal language looks like just deserts, though one is reminded that traditional societies are themselves victims of this industrially driven plague. Where there is too much humanity, our accomplishments all seem suspect and pyrrhic. We're like Oedipus: we didn't mean to do it but we did, and now we can't hold up our heads in the cosmos.

  • 18 April 2011 at 7:36pm
    Joe Morison says:
    I agree with the excellently named Philip Proust. A thought experiment, reductio ad absurdum: in the first case a world with only one language; in the second, a world with no wild animals. The former sounds okay to monoglot me: literature could all be read in the original, no need for phrase books on holiday, no more French irregular verb homework for the youth. But a world without wild animals, i find that a horribly miserable prospect. It's not that i have any special desire to see a white rhino, or any other exotic beast (the red deer in Richmond Park and London's foxes are enough for me), but I need to know that they are there and that i can turn on the telly to hear David Attenborough's awed tones as he encounters them.

  • 19 April 2011 at 12:54pm
    orlp says:
    I must strongly disagree with Joe Morison. A world with only one language would be every bit as bad as one without wild animals and indeed for much the same reason: lack of variety. Being monoglot is analagous to being colour blind, only that most colour blind people are aware of what they are missing, even if they not be able to imagine it fully. Monoglot people are unaware that each language gives a unique way of looking at the world, a small glimpse of which you even get when you use a phrase book.

    On the other hand I do agree with Philip Proust that human beings are becoming an infestation...

    • 20 April 2011 at 8:49am
      Joe Morison says: @ orlp
      I am envious of polyglots and i'm sure you're right about each language giving a unique way of looking at the world, but would it really be that bad if over the next few centuries humanity converged on a common language? That doesn't strike me as hideous in the way a world with no wild animals does.

      Polyglot Nietzsche said that the more languages a person speaks, the less well they speak their own. So, i tend to tell people that when i've learnt to speak and write English properly, i might take on another language.

    • 20 April 2011 at 11:24am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Joe Morison
      In the mean time you'll be missing out. Some of my favourite books of all time are books I've read in Italian (not by choice, I should say, just because they haven't been translated).

    • 20 April 2011 at 3:27pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Phil Edwards
      I know, i'd love to be able to read Victor Hugo in the original; i'm told he's impossible translate in a way that conveys the genius of his writing.

  • 19 April 2011 at 1:06pm
    Daniel Suslak says:
    Of all the reactions that I have seen -- both silly and serious -- to that Guardian article, I feel that this comes the closest to capturing the truth of the situation.

    When I signed on to do this dictionary project I foolishly believed that I could wrap up the work in about 8 months (I was picking up where several predecessors had left off). It turns out that even dying languages are large and complex and take years to start to truly grasp. During my seven year involvement with Ayapa a number of elderly people who spoke the language in their childhood and still remembered bits and pieces of it have since passed away. For instance, there was Manuel Segovia's cousin doña Carmela who -- according to Manuel -- didn't speak Ayapaneco very well, but "spoke it very loudly!" These are all tough, stubborn people and it's worth emphasizing that to become the last of anything requires a certain ambivalence about the rest of humanity.

    While life will indeed go on if/when Ayapaneco ceases to be spoken, your readers may wish to know that it's Ayapaneco and its close relatives (the Mixe-Zoquean language family) that contributed the word "cocoa" to our common global vocabulary. Something to smile about the next time they wrap their hands around a cup of hot cocoa on a chilly morning.

  • 20 April 2011 at 4:51am
    MickNara says:
    1. I think that it will probably only be when we have one language and one skin colour (tea) that we will have peace. Rather sad, because I, too would like many languages in the world. Actually becoming able to speak French fluently in my twenties after being put down in my teens by teachers for 'just not having any language ability - some do, some don't' was a life-defining moment for me.

    2. orlp says: "a world with only one language would be every bit as bad as one without wild animals and indeed for much the same reason: lack of variety," but he is quite wrong. A world with only one language is almost inconceivable (despite what is said in point 1 above), and would quickly degenerate with the aid of a few land and resources disputes and wars into a world with quite a lot of languages, as the collapse of the Roman Empire showed. A world without any wild animals would lead to psychological death for any type of human that I would want to be or to meet, and it would take millions of years for this to be rectified.

    3. The IMPORTANT bit, which I registered in order to say (though I have subscribed to LRB for 20 years, so I'm not freeloading). It is very kind of Daniel Suslak to reply to Jenny Diski's post. I would be fascinated to hear to what extent Professor Suslak has himself become a speaker of Ayapaneco which, after all, he has been studying via native speakers for over seven years, and why he has or hasn't been successful, or why he has or hasn't made this one of his goals.

  • 20 April 2011 at 11:51am
    mototom says:
    If there were more polyglots 200 years ago the endangered rhino would likely be called the "wide" rhino. Your English speakers in southern Africa confused the Dutch word "wijd" with their own word "white". What is wide about this particular beast apparently is its mouth.

    • 21 April 2011 at 9:25pm
      alex says: @ mototom
      ...which made me remember that rhino means nose. Pity then, if it's really wide-mouthed and not white-nosed, that it doesn't talk more, possibly even in Ayapaneco, thus increasing the potential regrettability of its disappearance.

    • 13 May 2011 at 10:58pm
      alex says: @ mototom
      PS it may be relevant that the Dutch word 'verwijderen' means 'to delete'...

  • 22 April 2011 at 12:02pm
    deacon says:
    In Ireland, we spend about a fifth of our primary school hours learning Irish - a fact which has not slowed the decline in the number of native speakers. The fewer Irish speakers there are, the less they seem to have in common. I remember the glee with which my secondary level Irish teacher realised I had previously been taught by a Donegal woman - he was from Kerry - as this rendered all I'd previously learnt useless.
    And like the white rhino, the fíor-Gaeilgóir (Irish-language fundamentalist) has short sight, a thick hide and a short temper.

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