The geography of the Spanish language: how important is Spanish around the world?

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Aug 242015
 

The Index of Human Development ranks Spanish as the second most important language on earth, behind English but ahead of Mandarin.

Spanish is the third most widely used language on the internet (graph), although less than 8% of total internet traffic takes place in Spanish. Spanish is the second most used language on Facebook, a long way behind English but well ahead of Portuguese.

Languages used on the Internet (2015). Source: Internet World Stats

Languages used on the Internet (2015). Source: Internet World Stats

According to El español, una lengua viva – Spanish, a living language, a report from the Instituto Cervantes in Spain (which promotes the Spanish language abroad via language classes and cultural events) there are about 559 million Spanish speakers worldwide. This figure includes 470 million native speakers and an additional 89 million who have some command of the language.

While Mexico remains the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, with about 121 million Spanish speakers, second place belongs to the USA, followed by Colombia. The USA has an estimated 41 million native speakers of Spanish plus 11 million who are bilingual; Colombia has 48 million Spanish-speakers.

In terms of economic importance, the report’s authors calculate that Spanish speakers contribute 9.2% of the world’s GDP. About two-thirds of Spanish-linked GDP is generated in North America (USA, Canada and Mexico) and the European Union, while Latin America (excluding Mexico) accounts for 22%.

The main concentrations of Spanish speakers in the USA are in the states of New Mexico (47% of the population), California and Texas (both 38%), and Arizona (30%). 18% of New Yorkers speak Spanish and, somewhat surprisingly, more than 6% of Alaskans are also Spanish speakers. Interestingly, the US Census Office estimates that by 2050, the USA will have 138 million Spanish speakers and could then overtake Mexico as the largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world. This assumes that current predictions for Mexico’s population increase over the next 35 years hold true.

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Apr 212013
 

One of the most curious of Mexico’s dozens of indigenous languages is the whistled language of one group of the Chinantec people who live in the state of Oaxaca. This group’s conventional spoken language is complemented by a language based entirely on whistles. Only a few people remain who speak this whistled language fluently. The language is whistled primarily by men (and much less fluently by children); female members of the group understand it but do not use it.

It is thought that whistled languages developed to enable communication between isolated settlements in areas that were too remote for conventional spoken languages to be effective. The Chinantec’s whistled language has three distinct subsets, designed to be used over different distances. The loudest enables effective communication over a distance of around 200 meters (650 ft).

The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

The Chinantec whistled language is now largely confined to the mist- and fog-shrouded slopes of the eastern side of the Sierra Juárez in the northern part of Oaxaca state, a region of high rainfall totals and luxuriant vegetation.

This 27 minute documentary relates the field studies investigating the Chinantec whistling language conducted by Dr. Mark Sicoli, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. The main center of population of speakers of the whistling language is San Pedro Sochiapam. Sicoli believes that the whistled language may become extinct in the next decade; he hopes that his work documenting the language may one day provide the basis for its reintroduction or restoration.

A transcription of a whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec between two men in different fields is available on the Summer Institute of Linguistics website, which also includes this useful summary of the Chinantec people and language.

If you only have a few minutes to devote to this video, then look at the section around 16 minutes in, where in a controlled experiment, one experienced Chinantec whistler helps a friend “navigate” through a fictitious village. The men each have a copy of a made-up map of the village, but are out of sight and able to communicate only by whistling.

The astonishing whistled language of the Chinantec is yet another of Mexico’s many cultural wonders that currently appears to be headed for extinction.

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Oct 132012
 

Several of the 62 indigenous languages currently spoken in Mexico are considered “endangered”, spoken by so few people that they will die out in the next few years. The most extreme example is Ayapaneco, a language believed to be spoken today by only two individuals.

Ayapaneco (also known as Ayapa Zoque, Tabasco Zoque and Zoque-Ayapaneco) is one of several Zoque languages and dialects. The only remaining native speakers live in Ayapa, a village 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Comalcalco, in the state of Tabasco. The native name for the language is Nuumte Oote (True Voice).

The language fell into disuse in the middle of the 20th century. Among the factors involved were the introduction of compulsory schooling in Spanish and the migration of many native speakers to towns and cities where the language was not spoken.

Manuel Segovia (77), one of the last native speakers of Ayapaneco (Credit: Cuartoscuro).

Manuel Segovia (77), one of the last native speakers of Ayapaneco (Credit: Cuartoscuro).

The last two known native speakers of the language are Isidro Velazquez (aged 70) and Manuel Segovia (77). The bad news is that they are apparently reluctant to talk to each other! They also disagree about some of the language’s details. The only one of their relatives attempting to learn the language is Manuel’s son (also named Manuel) who, for the past five years, has studied several hours a day in an attempt to become sufficiently fluent to teach it and keep it alive.

There is some good news. Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University, is trying to complete the first ever dictionary of the language, and two young Mexican film-makers plan to shoot a documentary entitled “Lengua Muerta” (Dead Language) starring the last two native speakers. The film’s director, Denisse Quintero (28), hopes to create an audiovisual memory that will serve future generations, while at the same time increasing awareness among the present generation of the need to preserve the remaining indigenous languages, together with the cultures that they represent. For more about their project (in Spanish), see the documentary-makers’ plea for funding and this Youtube video.

Some estimates put the number of different Indian languages in the 16th century in what became “New Spain” as high as 170. This number had dwindled to about 100 by 1900, and has continued to decline to the present day. The latest estimates are that at least 62 distinct languages (and 100 dialects) are still spoken somewhere in the country. The precise numbers are often debated by linguists, given that the distinction between a dialect and a language is not universally agreed.

Language is an essential part of culture, and every time a native language is lost, Mexico’s rich cultural tapestry loses a few more strands.

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Sep 032010
 

The “China galleons” greatly stimulated spatial interactions between Acapulco and Manila, 15,000 km away. Many Mexicans settled in Manila and scores of Nahuatl words entered Tagalog, the main Filipino language. These included atole, avocado, balsa, cacao, calabaza, camote, chico, chocolate, coyote, nana(y), tata(y), tocayo and zapote.

The Nao de China galleon

The China Galleon

As well as vocabulary, some aspects of Mexican cuisine, customs and dress were also introduced to the Philippines, along with a variety of plants and flowers. In addition, the Filipino currency has the same name as Mexico’s: the peso.

Mexico’s long connection with the Philippines – exploration, seafaring and geopolitics

A large number of Filipinos migrated in the other direction, escaping from their life of servitude aboard a galleon by jumping ashore on the coasts of Colima and Guerrero. One sizable Filipino community settled in Coyuca, on the Costa Grande, 50 km north of Acapulco. Coyuca was apparently known as Filipino Town at one point in its early history.

The Filipinos settling in Mexico introduced mangoes and a game called “cara y cruz” (heads and tails). The settlers were known locally as “Chinese Indians” and brought their expertise in the cultivation and use of palm trees with them. In Tagalog, palm fronds are known as “palapa” and by the end of the 18th century, this name was in use, too, for the palm-roofed shelters which remain a distinctive style of architecture along Mexico’s coasts.The coconut palm’s sap is known locally as tuba. Filipino newcomers fermented the resulting coconut wine into a potent drink. Henry Bruman, a University of California geographer, documented how Filipino seamen on the Manila Galleon also introduced simple stills, for making coconut brandy, to western Mexico during the late 16th century. These techniques were quickly adopted by Mexicans who were then able to turn the hearts of their native agave plants into tequila.

This is an excellent example of how developments in transportation can encourage cultural exchanges, and diminish the social, economic and cultural distance between places.

According to some historians, Mexico’s “China Poblana,” the woman who supposedly arrived from the East as a slave during the early 1600s and subsequently captured the hearts and minds of the people of Puebla, was actually a Filipino noblewoman who had arrived in Mexico aboard one of the Spanish galleons.

Mexico’s independence from Spain (1821) brought an end to the Manila–Acapulco galleons, though the network of shipping links then expanded from Veracruz to New Orleans and New York.

Mexico-Phillipines friendship has continued down the years.

For instance, in the second world war, several Mexican air force pilots, in the elite Escuadrón 201, were sent by the US government to lend their support in the Philippines. The pilots were decorated by the Philippine’s government for their heroism.

Highlights from the Mexican-Philippine Historical Relations Seminar New York City- June 21, 1997

The development of Mexico’s transportation system is discussed in chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Its cultural geography is the subject of chapters 10, 11 and 13. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages
Apr 232010
 

Most people realize that the national language of Mexico is Spanish and that Mexico is the world’s largest Spanish speaking country. In fact, its population, now numbering 105 million, represents about one-third of all the 330 million or so Spanish speakers in the world. Spanish is the majority language in nineteen other countries besides Mexico, and is the world’s third most spoken language, after English and Chinese.

Far fewer people realize that, in addition to Spanish, another 62 indigenous languages are also spoken in Mexico. This makes Mexico one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, in terms of the number of languages spoken, behind Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India, but well ahead of China, Brazil and just about anywhere else.

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

Some estimates put the number of different Indian languages in use at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century as high as 170. This number had dwindled to about 100 by 1900, and has continued to decline to the present day. The latest estimates are that at least 62 distinct languages (and 100 dialects) are still spoken somewhere in the country.

The largest indigenous groups are those speaking Nahuatl (2,563,000; dispersed locations, and therefore not shown on the map), Maya (1,490,000), Zapotec (785,000) and Mixtec (764,000), followed by those using Otomí (566,000), Tzeltal (547,000) and Tzotzil (514,000). Other well known groups include the 204,000 having Purépecha (or Tarasco) as their first language and the 122,000 speaking Tarahumara.

At the other end of the spectrum, only about 130 people still speak Lacandón and only 80 use Kiliwa. Only 60 people still use Aguacateco in Mexico and only 50 speak Techtiteco (or simply Teco), though both languages are spoken by several thousand Indians in neighboring Guatemala.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that many Mexicans not only speak Spanish and/or an indigenous language, but also manage pretty well in English, French, Japanese and many others!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect – click here for the original article

Indigenous languages and cultures are analyzed in chapters 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

A language “googly” from Google is one more reason to buy Geo-Mexico

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Mar 282010
 

Defn.: Googlya ball bowled in the game of cricket which bounces in an unexpected direction, commonly referred to as a “wrong one”.

Google, the internet search giant, recently announced it is adding two native Central American languages—Maya and Nahuatl—to its universal search service. In a press interview, Google’s Mexico marketing technology director Miguel de Alva said that,

“Searches in these two pre-Columbian languages and mobile satellite-linked connections to the Internet are part of Google’s growth strategy…. The two languages are of interest to online searchers because the first (Maya) is spoken by 1.5 million people and the second (Nahuatl), by more than one million.”

Geo-Mexico feels that these figures are probably about right, given that the National Statistics Institute’s 2005 mid-census Conteo in Mexico found 1,376,026 Nahuatl speakers and 759,000 Maya speakers  (the Maya figure excludes Guatemala and the handful of Maya speakers in Belize).

Initial press accounts all contained the following description of where these two languages are spoken:

“Nahuatl is mostly spoken in southern Mexico and northern Central America, while Maya is spoken across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and Belize.”

Hmm… maybe the newspapers, websites and  Google should have verified this first by consulting a certain very famous search engine, or (better yet) Geo-Mexico.

While the Maya language is indeed concentrated where Google says it is, Nahuatl is not commonly spoken in southern Mexico, or in northern Central America. Instead, it is mainly spoken in central Mexico. The states with most Nahuatl speakers in Mexico are Puebla, Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero and the State of Mexico. What is more, only a few hundred people at most speak any dialect of Nahuatl in any of the Central American countries south of Mexico.

One more reason why everyone, even including Google, should invest $30* to get their own copy of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico! Introductory prices do not last for ever. Buy yours today!

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