IU Researcher Working To Preserve Endangered Language

Sep 15, 2014

Sample Gates, IU Bloomington
Credit Clint Mickel / https://www.flickr.com/photos/30649191@N00/

An Indiana University researcher has begun a two-year effort to preserve a language spoken by just a few thousand people in a mountainous region of Mexico.

The Ayook or Mixe language contributed the word "cacao" to English, but has remained distinct from the other languages which arose in and around south central Mexico‘s Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains.

Linguistic anthropologist Dan Suslak is working on an Ayook dictionary, but his research doesn‘t stop with the language itself.

He‘s collaborating with a filmmaker to record hours of videotaped recollections about aspects of Mixe life from genealogies to methods of cultivating corn.   

And Suslak says the language itself offers clues to Ayook history by reflecting the influence of other cultures in the region.   

Suslak says Ayook differs from other languages in the way it sorts the world into a hierarchy.

Where English uses word order to make clear who did something to whom, Ayook assumes a higher-ranking noun is acting on a lower-ranking one.

If it‘s not, the sentence adds a suffix meaning "other way around."

" A lot of the vocabulary could suggest things about, maybe, who the elites were a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago," says Suslak. "Also who was teaching whom about what plants were good to eat, how to keep track of time."

Suslak spent time in Mexico this summer and will return this winter for a couple of months.

The research is being funded by a federal grant.