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Anthropologist uses video, citizen engagement to boost endangered language

Milana Katic

Oct. 30, 2014

Why should we care about an obscure language spoken by a handful of people from an isolated region in southern Mexico? Dan Suslak doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“Like any language, like any one of the 7,000 or so languages spoken around the world, it’s the product of a lot of human effort and creativity,” said Suslak, an associate professor of anthropology in the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

“And not just over the past week or the past year but over centuries,” he said. “From a humanistic perspective, it’s a great work of creativity and ingenuity. It deserves recognition and appreciation just like any pyramid or great work of art.”

The language he’s speaking of is Ayöök, a part of the Mixe-Zoquean language family spoken in and around Totontepec, a community in a mountainous region of Oaxaca state in southern Mexico. Partnering with a team of documentary filmmakers called Speaking Place, Suslak is working on a project to document the language and make the information available to community members.

The project was awarded a $253,393 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation as part of the agencies’ Documenting Endangered Languages Program. According to the NSF, a language spoken somewhere in the world disappears every three months.

The work builds on an earlier effort by Suslak, Speaking Place and a botanist at the University of California, Davis, that used video to document the cultivation of an extraordinary variety of maize types in the region. Suslak first worked in Totontepec in the 1990s, creating an Ayöök dictionary.

Ayöök is spoken by about 7,000 people, Suslak estimated. Many are in Totontepec but some have moved to Mexican cities and some have emigrated to the U.S.

The goal of the project is to make language resources and materials available to all those people as well as to scholars through creation of an Ayöök portal. Suslak described it as “a collection of documentary films shot and edited and subtitled by members of the community” that will be linked to an interactive website with information about the Ayöök language and its vocabulary.

“This particular language is kind of an outlier,” he said. “It’s a little different from other varieties of Mixe. In some ways it’s very, very innovative and in other ways it’s pretty conservative. It has lots of features that resemble the pre-Columbian, ancestral version of the languages.”

While many obscure languages died off as regions where they were spoken became less isolated, Ayöök did not. “It’s really only in the last several decades that Spanish has poured into the community via public schools and media and increasing movement of people back and forth,” Suslak said.

For several decades, Ayöök speech was officially discouraged, and generations grew up with the ability to understand the language but unable to speak it. But now the tide has turned and the people of Totontepec see Ayöök and their local culture as a source of pride.

“People have become increasingly concerned of what that means and how they can take control of their language and cultural destiny,” Suslak said. “They are looking to projects like this one to try to do something and maintain the vitality of their language, to maintain its relevance for their children.”

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