Since the 1990s, Carolyn J. MacKay and Frank R. Trechsel have been collaborating on the description and analysis of Misantla Totonac and Pisaflores Tepehua, two indigenous languages of Mexico that are currently in danger of extinction.

Like many other minority languages in Mexico, Totonac and Tepehua are increasingly being replaced by Spanish. With the support of Ball State and other institutions, MacKay and Trechsel have produced grammatical sketches of both of these languages, along with numerous texts, vocabulary lists, and other publications. Most recently, they have produced a series of illustrated children’s books to help native speakers learn to read and write their language and teach it to their children. MacKay explains that “without intense local efforts to preserve and maintain these languages, they will likely be lost within one or two generations.”

Since there was no consensus on how to represent these languages in writing, MacKay and Trechsel had to develop their own practical orthography or writing system. “That was one of the hardest aspects of the project,” says Trechsel. “Several of the sounds in Totonac and Tepehua do not occur in Spanish, so some of our spelling conventions are unique. You’d be surprised how sensitive people are about how their language looks on paper.” The books were written in close collaboration with Totonac and Tepehua consultants and illustrated with full color drawings produced by a local artist.

MacKay and Trechsel plan to return to Mexico to continue their research and to distribute the latest children's book Jon paataa'wana' qa'tiilh waalh jon pavoreal, The Peacock and the Whip-poor-will. The books will be donated to schools and libraries within the community, as well as private homes.

“If we can motivate just a handful of families to continue to use the language in their everyday interactions and pass it along to their children, we have a chance of reversing the trend toward abandonment,” says MacKay. “These books constitute just one small part of a long-term strategy of language maintenance and revitalization.”

Trechsel states that “ours is part of an ongoing effort by linguists and others all over the world to record and document as many languages as possible before they become extinct. The loss of even one language is a tragedy for all of us. Once a language is no longer spoken by a community, it is lost forever. Just like an extinct plant or animal, you can never get it back.”

MacKay and Trechsel’s research on Misantla Totonac and Pisaflores Tepehua has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Endangered Language Fund, the Alice Cozzi Heritage Language Foundation, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, and the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indigenas.