The title of the article that started all the ruckus appeared in the London Guardian, and was headlined, “Language at risk of dying out — the last two speakers aren’t talking.” Technically, when the last speaker of a language dies, it’s classified as extinct. This headline came across like something in between, a kind of linguistic TKO.
The article, which ran in 2011, was based on a story circulating about a dying language that could survive only if some old men buried the hatchet. After an impressive thousand-year run that brought the word cocoa to the world, the imminent death of the language made for a gripping and heartbreaking human-interest piece.
According to the Guardian, and other reporting at the time, neighbors Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez (sometimes identified as brothers) were the last two speakers of the Ayapaneco language, native to the small village of Ayapa, in the Mexican state of Tabasco. These two old men refused to speak with each other, though no one in town could remember why or when this wedge was driven between them. The grumpy old men themselves couldn’t remember. The language was going to die unless they let bygones be bygones — or unless someone convinced them to.
It’s a compelling story. Too bad it wasn’t true.
Still, it was convincing enough that the BBC, NPR, Macleans and dozens more distributed the tale nearly word for word, apparently without vetting it. The Guardian has astonishingly high ratings for transparency and reliably, a Pulitzer for Public Service Reporting and other distinctions that scream “trust us.” Vetting probably seemed unnecessary.
It wasn’t merely the public that trusted the Guardian’s reporting. Vodafone, one of the world’s largest telecoms, saw a public relations miracle in the making: Telecommunications company reunites some old neighbors, as telecommunication companies do, and by doing so saves a dying language for posterity. Vodafone called in Jung von Matt, a global advertising and PR company based in Germany, to take up the challenge.
The Admen Step In
If you’ve ever worked in advertising, it’s pretty easy to envision the brainstorming session:
“So! We drop into Ayapa, make sure it’s dusty, chickens in the street, the whole thing. We sit down the old guys for one-on-one’s. Intercut the different versions of their story, build some tension. In voiceover, we get an expert to spell out what’s at stake. Someone start googling ‘Ayapaneco expert.’ Next, the old men show up at the same place, and our expert gives them the good news — we’re gonna build a school so the village kids can learn the language. Cue the waterworks. It’ll be waterworks and Tears of joy and reconciliation right on camera from the old men — find out where to buy those tear-sticks they use in movies, in case they can’t cry on cue. We close out with titles cards that say Vodafone, yadda yadda, while a swarm of kids run into the new school for their first class. At the same time, we launch an ‘adopt-a-word’ campaign and put money behind it, go viral. Someone see if ayapaneco.com is available…”
The campaign’s motive was commercial and exploitative, but there was academic research backing up their approach and intentions. A book by David Crystal with the grim title Language Death listed Anthropologist Akira Yamamoto’s nine factors that keep a language alive, and a couple match Jung von Matt’s plan. For example, a collective ethnic identity, native-speaking teachers, something that involves the whole community as well as written materials. Of the 7,000 languages on Earth, one dies every 14 days. Maybe Vodafone and Jung van Matt unknowingly found a way to save one that, well, wasn’t really dying yet.
This is, clearly, a good thing. The benefits of learning ancestral languages are well-known. According to Dr. Knut Olawsky, Senior Linguist and Manager of the Mirima Language Centre and advocate for preserving the Miriwoong language of Australia, “People learning their ancestral language are more likely to be successful in life. Which means they are more likely to get a job; they are more likely to attend school. They are also less likely to struggle with substance abuse and less likely to commit serious crimes.”
A Little Linguistic Backstory
Preserving a written or oral record is an essential part of Human History 101. It’s no less valid than archaeologists digging up ancient jawbones and femurs. Jawbones tell us about our biological and physical evolution. Excavating what our ancestors threw into the garbage tells us about their daily life. Gravesites tell us about social hierarchy, spiritual rites and distribution of wealth. The amount of beer they drank indicates whether their water supply was potable or needed a little fermentation to clean it up. Genetics can tell us how they moved around. Each record comprises a piece of our ancestral portrait gallery, a coloring book with outlines of what was and probably was. Languages add hues to that portrait gallery. Words are akin to the crayons that fill in the coloring book’s pages and allow us to peek deeper into a culture’s psychology and values. It triangulates archeology and genetics and tells us who and what we are. Language is identity.
Kaity Tong, a Chinese-born American news anchor, offered a simple example of how language can provide a glimpse into societal values. The Chinese character for “good” is a combination of two other characters. On the left side, the ideogram for “mother.” On the right side, the ideogram for “child.” Combined, they stand for “good.” There’s a lot of hypotheses to draw from that. Perhaps the symbol for a mother with a child took precedence 5,000 years ago over housing, rain, benevolent government and feeding people.
By contrast, in what is now Northern Europe, an early definition of their word for “good” was entirely different. It loosely translates as “to throw a party.” One word doesn’t tell the whole story or psychology of a people, but it’s a prelude.
The Madness Begins
Moving ahead, the production team for Jung von Matt arrived in Ayapa. It didn’t take the team long to figure out that no one had vetted the Guardian article.
According to Daniel Suslak, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Linguist at the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University who witnessed the situation, the two indigenous speakers didn’t have a lot in common—and nothing more. There was no feud. In fact, they were trying to keep the language alive. One man’s wife clearly understood every word her husband said in Ayapaneco. Dozens of other people in town knew a bit of the language.
Even worse for the production team, there weren’t just two speakers: Four fluent speakers were already actively involved in its preservation. One was Manuel’s brother, which is probably why the story showed up in the press alternately as “feuding brothers” and “feuding neighbors.”
Looking back on the situation, Suslak takes offense at the accusation that two people could be at fault for the death of a language or responsible for bringing it back.
“The key idea in the story about ‘the last two speakers who refuse to speak to each other’ is that somehow it’s their fault that the language is dying, and if only they could settle their differences, then they could work together to bring it back to life,” he says. “But that’s not how it works, and in fact, these two men have done more than anyone else on the planet (separately and together) to keep their little language going.”
It’s unfair to place the blame on these two individuals, Suslak says.
“Languages die for a whole host of reasons: political and economic changes, natural and human-made disasters, educational policies designed to assimilate indigenous or colonized groups, etc. But those stories are a lot harder to tell.”
But the slow death of a language doesn’t make for catchy headlines—or marketing videos. The production team stuck to the plan.
The other two fluent speakers — those never mentioned in the press —were reportedly paid to stay quiet, and Manuel and Isidro were paid to play along with the feud narrative. Manuel had to pretend that he liked children, even though he didn’t. They found their Ayapaneco expert, Dr. James A. Fox of Stanford, and flew him to Ayapa for the shoot.
Dr. Fox’s motives, it must be noted, were not to serve Vodafone’s interests. Manuel and Isidro were his longtime friends from years of studying the language; this trip offered him an opportunity to see them again. As for the reconciliation between Manuel and Isidro, as seen in the video—we don’t know if Fox and friends were playing along for the producers, or if a clever editor created the tableau from whole cloth.
Finally, there was the problem of the school. With so many residents speaking or learning Ayapaneco already, there was no reason to actually build one. Undeterred, the production crew took the Potemkin approach: They painted over the old school, added a logo that featured Manuel’s and Isidro’s faces and staged a grand unveiling. A gaggle of kids was sent flocking to the school, where they took their seats with gleaming smiles of anticipation. (According to Ripley’s, the men “painted over [the logo] in embarrassment as soon as the film crews left.”)
On its face, the result is a well-produced and gripping short film. Like everything else ever made, it survives on YouTube:
Then, The Movie
Thanks in large part to this video, the false-feud story continued to mutate and take on other forms in mass culture. In 2017, a feature film by director Ernesto Contreras, I Dream in Another Language, was released. Clearly inspired by Manuel and Isidro’s supposed feud, it tells the story of “a linguist [who] arrives in a small jungle settlement hoping to record a conversation between two elderly men, the last two remaining speakers of the Zikril language. Unfortunately for him, the men are feuding and haven’t spoken to each other in 50 years.”
According to a review in Variety, the film has “beautiful ideas seldom raised in cinema, making this tale nearly as rare as the culture it depicts.”
Truth, fiction and opinion have always been interchangeable. Historians, philosophers and various fields of science suspect, if not proved, that our limited human brains forget parts of the past and fill in the blanks with what should have been, or what seems most logical. People have lived with and worked around that flaw for thousands of years. Today, rather than Herodotus’ possible senility, it’s money, power and ratings with limitless ability to turn the chatter of fiction and opinion into reality.
As for Manuel and Isidro? In the years since, they—together with the other two fluent speakers—have continued their efforts to teach Ayapaneco to the next generation. They’ve received funding and support from the Mexican government, and they held their most recent workshop last July.
Meanwhile, Vodafone’s ill-fated “Viva Ayapaneco” website, aptly ayapaneco.com, can be yours for $295.
Also view on News To Table.