It is becoming more and more common to hear about some language on the verge of extinction, one spoken by only a few living speakers, sometimes a dozen, sometimes two, sometimes only one. In a desperate rescue attempt, before they disappear from the face of the earth, linguists armed with recorders compile dictionaries and grammar guides of these languages, collaborating with those who still speak them. Let’s look at one of these last speakers. He’s an old man, monolingual, who leads a poor and secluded life. His only relatives are two granddaughters who translate for him. They don’t speak his language, but know enough to help him understand the questions the scholars ask. The man utters the words of his dying language, which the linguists write out with great care. But it turns out that, in addition to his advanced age and his near deafness, he stutters. He is the last speaker of his language and he can’t utter a single word of it fluently. The two granddaughters are familiar with their grandfather’s shortcomings and try to guess the correct form of each word, “removing” the bits added by his stutter. The linguists have no other choice but to rely on them. They recognize that, for their rescue work, the stuttering makes things easier, because it leaves every word in a pure state, without accent and perfectly spelled. In a sense, every stutterer is a philologist. But a question arises: does that old man who has lived with his language incubated inside him during these last years, unable to speak with anyone, does he remember the “healthy” words of his language or does he evoke them already contaminated by his linguistic flaw? What language does he remember? The language of his people, free of stuttering, or the one he disfigured throughout his life, certainly earning the mockery of his people? Thus arises the question of whether, in a premeditated way or not, this man is taking his vengeance or not, handing down to posterity his jammed up version of the facts, after enduring an entire life of jokes from his peers, for whom he was a kind of madman or invalid.
Fabio Morábito lives in Mexico City and teaches in the Autonomous University of Mexico. He is a celebrated translator from the Italian and the author of more than fifteen books of poetry, short stories, novels and essays, including El idioma materno, from which this sample is drawn.
Curtis Bauer is a poet and a translator of poetry and prose from the Spanish. He teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Texas Tech University.