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Saving The Endangered Languages Of The Monterey Bay Area

UC Santa Cruz.
Maziar Toosarvandani (left) is a professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. Here he is working with a Zapotec speaker in Oaxaca, Mexico.

A group of linguists at UC Santa Cruz are on a mission to save a rarely studied endangered language. Through investigation and collaboration, they hope to preserve an indigenous language spoken by communities from Mexico now living in the Monterey Bay area.

Within the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville are Zapotec speakers. They are diaspora communities -- meaning they’re a scattered population originating from somewhere else. In this case, these indigenous communities originate from Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Many came to California as migrant farm workers, particularly in the 1980s.   

Maziar Toosarvandani is the lead linguist on this project. (His team received a $411,058 grant from the National Science Foundation last year to support their research).

He says Zapotec is a group of languages that hasn’t been very well studied. 

“We have a general sense of what these languages are like at a sort of high level. But when you go down to the level of like how do people in a specific town speak, for most towns in Oaxaca, there's nothing written,” said Toosarvandani. 

The linguists will be focusing on one variety of Zapotec. He says this language has a really vibrant way of referring to things in the world. 

“Zapotec has a particularly rich system of pronouns that encodes fine degrees of animacy, so how alive or human something is. As in fact four pronouns that refer to elder humans, non elder humans, animals and things,” said Toosarvandani.

Linguists refer to a language as being endangered when there is a threat to the number of speakers. So why does a language become endangered? 

“A lot of minority communities are under pressure, not necessarily from a single powerful group, but they're under pressure nonetheless to give up speaking their language for a variety of reasons,” Toosarvandani said. 

Globalization being one of them. 

“They may be, in some sense, forced to give up their language because in order to make a living they need to speak the language of the outside, maybe of the nation or of other communities,” said Toosarvandani. 

He and his team are approaching the preservation of this indigenous language in two ways. The first way -- investigation. 

“Part of our work is basic documentation, understanding the basic properties of the language. How does it construct its sentences, those kinds of questions,” Toosarvandani said. 

This investigation includes previous and future travel to Oaxaca, Mexico.   

And the second way they are working to save the language is through preservation. 

“It’s important to the speakers. Speakers want to speak their language,” said Toosarvandani.

And if these languages are not preserved, we risk losing them and the stories of their speakers. Like this traditional tale in Zapotec about a saint’s festival, preserved by UC Santa Cruz linguists. The story is told by deceased Oaxacan elder Isidro Vasquez Jerónimo. 

(Zapotec language with English translation):

Nhats ka ellinh llah lni, ka ellinh tiemp lni, nha’ selha'a wekwelle'nh.

Now, when the day of the fiesta comes, when the time of the fiesta comes, the musicians arrive.

Primer chichjwe' tu kwet.

First, they light fireworks.

Nhats bene' yulawe' shnhe' lu apartw tse'e bene'nh tsjaxidzu bandanh ba za'ak.

Then, the municipal authorities announce through the sound system that the people of the town should come welcome the visiting band.

Nha' chi ba beselha'a banhda, tu bene' yulawe’ shnhe' dze'e banda visitante, "Wenhte ba blha'alhe suashkalhe. Kwa sulho, dzi'itetu'."

When the visiting band arrives, one of the municipal authorities says to them, "So good that you have arrived, feel at home. When you start, we will each take our seats."

Nhats yiyulle' yuge'lol banda yisekwelle' tueje diana.

When he is finished, the whole band plays a song.

Nhats ene' bene' tse banda tal yelle' ye'e, "Ba blha'atu'. Gunhdzu txhenh lni tse lhe'."  

Then, the person leading the band from the other village will say, "Here we are, we will do your fiesta together".

By studying Zapotec, local linguists are able to go beyond saving the language and also serve this local community -- one of their main goals. Toosarvandani says many Zapotec speakers are not able to receive basic services because of language barriers.

Credit Maziar Toosarvandani,
Fe Silva Robles, from Santa Cruz nonprofit Senderos, teaching students her Zapotec language.

They’ve collaborated with the Santa Cruz nonprofit Senderos, which helps local indigenous communities stay connected to their Oaxacan roots through dance, food and language lessons.  

And the Monterey Bay area is full of linguistic diversity -- Zapotec isn’t the only indigenous language spoken locally that linguists are working to preserve. There’s also Mixtec, Mixe and Chatino to name just a few. 

UC Santa Cruz is one of KAZU’s many business supporters.

From 2019 to 2021 Michelle Loxton worked at KAZU as an All Things Considered host and reporter. During that time she reported on a variety of topics from the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid epidemic and local elections. Loxton was part of the news team that won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for the continued coverage of the four major wildfires that engulfed California’s Central Coast in 2020.