Try asking the next person you meet what the official language of Mexico is and the chances are they will tell you it's Spanish. They would be wrong. Believe it or not, Mexico has no official language thanks to the 'General Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples,' introduced by the government in 2003. This law makes no special provision for Spanish as an official language, instead considering it a national language alongside 68 of the country's 280-odd indigenous languages.
In a country with a population of over 120 million, and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, where only a small percentage of the population speak an indigenous language (estimates suggest around just 6 million), this is quite remarkable. In one fell swoop, the government not only elevated the status of indigenous languages, a laudable act in itself, but also put Spanish on an equal footing with the languages of Mexico which pre-date the arrival of the conquistadores.
This law is a huge leap in the right direction, in a world where around half of the 6,000 plus languages spoken today are at risk of dying out before the end of the century. When unwritten and undocumented languages disappear, humanity not only loses cultural wealth, but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.
Linguists, especially, lament language loss because with each language death goes another opportunity to explore the degree to which languages are similar to, or vary from, one another. A phenomenon unique to a language which has become extinct may never be discovered, thus skewing linguists' understanding of what is, and what is not, possible in human speech. Also, with the death of a language dies a unique human way to think about the world.
The Oto-Manguean languages, a large family of indigenous languages spoken in Mexico, are a case in point. If you learnt Spanish at school you may have struggled to learn the three different sets of endings for verbs belonging to the three main classes (i.e. -ar verbs, such as hablar 'speak'; -er verbs, such as beber 'drink'; and -ir verbs, such as sentir 'feel'). But if you thought three classes was tricky, spare a thought for speakers of Tlatepuzco Chinantec, a language spoken in the state of Oaxaca, who have to deal with about seventy classes...
Many Oto-Manguean languages display similarly complex systems of verbal inflection (i.e. conjugation), but these are often poorly understood. Yet such systems can reveal a great deal about the extent to which the human mind can handle linguistic complexity. If all the Oto-Manguean languages had already disappeared, we may never have encountered such systems and simply assumed that they cannot exist.
Fortunately, that is far from being the case. Many Oto-Manguean languages are still spoken across Mexico today and published resources are available for a growing number of them.
This has allowed researchers at the Surrey Morphology Group of the University of Surrey to begin to unravel the complexities of these systems and gain a deeper understanding of what is possible in human language. As part of this research, Dr. Enrique L. Palancar and Dr. Timothy Feist encoded and analysed data from twenty Oto-Manguean languages, culminating in the creation of an open-access, online database, containing over 13,000 verbal entries together with information relating to their inflectional class - more on that in our next blog post.
The case of inflectional classes in Oto-Manguean languages, however, is just one small example of the vital role indigenous languages play in informing our understanding of language. Not all indigenous languages enjoy the same status as those of Mexico, yet each one is as valuable as the next.
1) An elaborately embroidered Otomi textile. http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk/languages/
2) Three excellent speakers of Northern Otomi, from the community of El Bothe, San Ildefonso Tultepec, Querétaro. From left to right: Mrs. Estela Andrés, Mrs. Amalia Miranda and Mrs. Anastacia Cruz. http://www.oto-manguean.surrey.ac.uk/