Aug 2021 / From ALERT

Complex Identification Process

“What language do you speak?” That should normally be an easy question to answer. But not in the Mexican migrant labor camp we’re visiting today. We’ve been there before and we understand the man in front of us could speak any one of several hundred indigenous Mexican languages. He might answer in Spanish, “I speak Zapoteco,” or “I speak Mixteco.” But, from the research we’ve done, we know there are 73 varieties of Zapotec and 77 varieties of Mixtec. How can we find out which variety he speaks?

Fortunately one of our GRN field staff came up with an effective plan, so we ask a different question. “What state and district are you from?” He knows the answer and tells us, “Cuicatlán Distrito en Oaxaca.” A team member whips out a custom made Oaxaca map and points to three speech varieties in Cuicatlán. Each has a unique code. I play a 30 second sample of the first variety. The man listens intently, but shakes his head. After the second sample, he smiles and says, “Un poco” – a little. But when he hears to third, he puts his hand to his mouth so we can’t see him grinning. Jackpot!

In addition to Spanish, there are officially 289 indigenous languages in Mexico, depending on who is counting. But when you add all the varieties there are over 400. GRN has made recordings in two thirds of these varieties. Our aim is to tell the Good News in every one of them. That’s why we’re training more recordists. The migrant camps are a great way to spread the gospel message because the laborers readily accept the recordings and when the harvest is over they carry them back to their remote villages in southern Mexico. God has promised, “The words that come out of My mouth will not come back empty-handed. They’ll do the work I sent them to do, they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.” (Isaiah 55:11, The Message)

Allan Starling is our Historian and Speech Variety Research Director