Grant funds IU project to preserve endangered Ayook language in Mexico

  • Sept. 9, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana University linguistic anthropologist has been awarded funding from two federal agencies for a project that seeks to preserve and potentially revitalize an endangered language spoken by a few thousand people in rural Mexico.

Dan Suslak, associate professor of anthropology in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, is co-principal investigator for the project along with documentary filmmaker Ben Levine, director of the nonprofit Speaking Place.

The two-year project, “Community Directed Audio-Visual Documentation of Ayöök,” will use a technique called facilitated-feedback filming to encourage community members to recall events, share ideas and take part in discussions centered on their shared language and culture.

The $253,393 grant is one of 27 awards totaling more than $4 million announced recently by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. The awards, part of the agencies’ Documenting Endangered Languages program, support digital documentation of nearly 40 languages. The NSF estimates that, every three months, a language somewhere in the world is losing all of its remaining speakers.

Ayöök, part of the Mixe-Zoquean language family, is spoken in and around the community of Totontepec in a mountainous region of Oaxaca state in southern Mexico. Linguists say Mixe-Zoquean languages occupy a pivotal position in Mesoamerica: They influenced and were influenced by Aztecan and Mayan and are likely related to the language spoken in the Olmec civilization, which flourished in the region about 3,500 to 2,500 years ago.

The goal of the project is to involve community members in documenting the language and to create an Ayöök Portal, an online archive of high-quality videos, with Ayöök, Spanish and English subtitles, that will serve as a resource for Ayöök speakers in the region and elsewhere and for scholars who are interested in studying the language and culture.

The grant builds on a 2012-13 project, funded by the National Science Foundation, in which Suslak, Levine and University of California, Davis, botanist Pablo Zamora used video to document the cultivation of an extraordinary variety of maize types in the region. Suslak conducted research in the area in the 1990s and created an Ayöök analytical dictionary.

Until the past few decades, Totontepec was largely cut off from the outside world, and Ayöök was the primary language spoken in the area. But its use declined with the arrival of government-sponsored education, conducted in Spanish, and the construction of a highway linking the community to Oaxaca City in the 1970s. Ayöök speech was discouraged, and generations grew up able to understand the language but not to speak it.

Now the tide has turned. Local people increasingly see Ayöök and their farming culture as a course of pride, and children are learning the language.

An Ayöök Advisory Group, made up of community leaders, educators and activists who are enthusiastic about the language, is helping guide the project, suggesting themes and activities to document. Local residents will be trained in videography, video editing, Ayöök writing and transcription and will serve on teams that create material for the Ayöök Portal.

While scholars can study endangered languages, Suslak said, it’s ultimately up to speakers of the language to maintain its vitality. The Ayöök project aims to transfer responsibility for documenting and preserving the language to Totontepec community members and to give them the tools and training to sustain the effort over time.

Related Links

Dan Suslak works with members of the Ayook subtitling team.

Dan Suslak works with members of the Ayook subtitling team. | Photo by Daniel Quintanilla, 2014

Print-Quality Photo

An Ayook video team films traditional food preparation.

An Ayook video team films traditional food preparation. | Photo by Daniel Quintanilla, 2014

Print-Quality Photo

Project linguist Melania Cortes explains the Ayook writing system.

Project linguist Melania Cortes explains the Ayook writing system. | Photo by Daniel Quintanilla, 2014

Print-Quality Photo

Media Contacts

Steve Hinnefeld