by Bruce Berger

Solving a linguistic puzzle in the Baja backcountry.

A plunge into Spanish at its worst proved, in retrospect, an odd stroke of luck. The year was 1965 and I arrived in Spain ignorant of the language, though fluent in French from six years of study. It was the beginning of Generalisimo Franco’s last decade as dictator as well as the beginning of an adulthood I didn’t know what to do with, and while passing through Andalucia I wound up taking a job as a nightclub pianist. One gig led to another, I moved in with the drummer of a band I played with and, in a glorious cacophony, I was swamped by new sounds.

One wouldn’t choose to learn Spanish from Andalusians any more than one would choose to learn English from Cockneys, Mississippians or Valley Girls. Though Spanish is spoken from the front of the mouth, Andalusians speak it half-gutterally from the back of the throat. They don’t pronounce the endings of most words, their singulars and plurals sound alike, their l’s sometimes come out like r’s, and they spray these sounds as if from an AK-47. To make sense of what I was hearing, I bought the only grammar book in all of Cadiz, a second-year primer for English speakers. I don’t know what I missed in year one, for the book had the basics I needed, including the declensions of the infamous Spanish verb. I studied and talked, trying to correlate the two, often visualizing the spelling of the words my friends didn’t finish. French only helped by freeing me from English word order. When Andalusians eventually told me I spoke “better” than they did, I didn’t take it for a compliment, for I knew what they meant: I pronounced words entire because I imagined them in print, and I was structurally incapable of speaking simultaneously from the front of my mouth and the back of my throat. I spoke “correct” Spanish because it was so much easier than Andalusian, whose distortions I would never master.

In my failure to sound like my friends, what I didn’t appreciate was that three years of immersion in Andalucia paid off, for it enabled me to penetrate the language in its wildest distortions. Andalusian was not a dialect, merely a regional variant, and I couldn’t – and still can’t – make sense of such actual dialects as Galician and Catalan. On the other hand, through similarities among Romance languages, I am able to hold conversations with speakers of Italian and Portuguese as long as they, minding the gap, speak clearly and correctly – just as they can grasp my all-purpose Castillian. This linguistic baggage was put to the test when I left Spain in 1967 and made my first trip to Baja California, my verbal first step in Mexico, the following year.

Anxiety vanished with the first exchanges, for the speech was quite comprehensible. There was no th lisp on the z’s and soft c’s but the sounds were otherwise familiar, and the unexpected difference was in the vocabulary. Eyeglasses werelentes, not gafas; luggage racks were parrillas, not bacas – changes learned one at a time, easy to incorporate. The shocker was to be told to stop saying coger. I couldn’t understand it. Coger simply meant “to take” or “to hold”, and it was used in dozens of expressions – to turn right or left, to find someone at home, to catch a cold: it was one of the commonest, most nondescript and useful connectors in the language. But it turned out that in Mexico it meant only one thing. It meant fuck. It was not semi-respectable, like copulate; it was the f-word itself. So built was coger into my every second sentence that I had to learn dozens of dodges, a different substitute for each occasion. I told people that Mexican Spanish was in-coger-ent, pronouncing it “incoherent” while rolling ther, but no one in either language ever got it.

As I spent more time in Baja California Sur, making a social transition from American travel companions to local friends, I found there was a regional speech called choyero, after cholla, the most common and annoying local cactus, also spelledchoya. Unlike the engulfing verbal universe that was Andalusian, choyero was a set of slang words and country pronunciations made fun of in the city: muncho for mucho, noshi for noche, ‘orrasho for borracho (a drunken slurring of “drunk”). After a couple of decades of exploring the state, traveling into the mountains by burro and mule, skimming the coasts with fishermen, socializing with various strata in La Paz, I thought that I had experienced the verbal gamut. It wasn’t until 1990, twenty-two years after I had first set foot in the peninsula, that I started spending time in a mountain range called La Giganta, and there I heard something new.

I was attracted to La Giganta because it contained the peninsula’s last unroaded coast, over one hundred kilometers of soaring volcanics, secret recesses, isolated fishing communities and sporadic oases, a stronghold that that fended off vehicles with an escarpment that fell, in many stretches, straight from the sky to the sea. Behind the continuous eight hundred meter cliff were isolated drainages peopled by a scattering of ranches accessible from the interior by an hour of careening on crumbling back roads. It was in La Giganta that I became friends with a rancher I called by his nickname, Lico, and I spent increasing time in a pair of ranches founded by his family, one on the coast and one up top, beyond the escarpment. Life led Lico from one ranch to the other, and at the ranch of the moment I got to know his extended family and, up top, his neighbors. Because these were working operations with nonstop chores, I was not a guest to be entertained but a companion and observer of what would have been the same without me. When the word “embedded” was used for reporters who lived with the troops in Irak, it occurred to me that I was embedded with La Giganta ranchers.

What I heard were two kinds of speech, one of them ordinary choyero. The other, delivered only at close range, was nasal, higher in pitch, nearly lacking in consonants, and might be described as a “fast mumble”. I was, to be sure, never addressed in this manner myself, but others spoke it freely around me, at mealtime, around the campfire, when they crossed paths at close quarters. When Lico and I took off to visit other ranches, or to camp and explore in La Giganta, I noticed that people who knew each other well sometimes spoke in this manner, while those in the area who presumably knew both manners of speech but were meeting for the first time addressed each other in choyero. Vertical terrain cut off contact by cellphone, but when Lico called accessible relatives from my apartment during visits to La Paz, he stuck to choyero because of the cellphoner’s incessant need to project.

I had thought that an ear trained to penetrate Spanish at its most twisted, flexible enough to pry meaning out of other languages, would not be balked by a variant in a pocket between La Paz and Loreto, but such was not the case. I let the sounds flood the whorls of my inner ear, wielded my Andalusian chops – and did, in fact, pick up occasional Spanish words and even topics of conversation, if not what was actually being said. As an experiment, when I felt that I understood enough to suggest that they were discussing, say, where the cattle had wandered, I would remark in an equally soft voice that I had seen three cows in arroyo San Felipe – mainly to see if it startled anyone that I had caught the thread. Such interjections, no doubt irrelevant, were ignored. Year after year I fought for purchase, my ears on point, but never made headway. None of my outside friends were familiar with the area, and I didn’t ask Lico himself about it so as not to seem intrusive, or make him self-conscious about how he spoke, or scare his family off from speaking normally in my presence.

I hardly expected so remote mystery to turn a corner in my hometown of Aspen, Colorado, but it was there, during dinner with physicist Murray Gell-Mann, that a new factor surfaced. Known to the outside world for quark theory, Murray is also a virtuoso linguist fluent in some three dozen languages, with knowledge of scores more. Having traveled with him in mainland Mexico and Spain, I can vouch for the perfection of his Spanish, though he modestly says his French is better. What most bonds us, I think, is a mutual obsession with words, for analyzing our words as we communicate with them, for speculating about others, and most of all for playing with them without shame in the process. When I told him that Mexican Spanish was in-coger-ent, he instantly issued its overdue laugh. In Baja California he had only been as far south as Guerrero Negro, but even about the town’s name he had a theory. “It is well known that Guerrero Negro is the translation of an American boat shipwrecked there, named Black Warrior. My own belief is that the boat was built in Tuscaloosa, for Tuscaloosa is Choctaw for ‘black warrior’. The name ‘Guerrero Negro’ has its ultimate origin in Choctaw.”

“Tuscaloosa is pretty far inland for boat-building,” I said, “and that theory strikes me as naval gazing. But there is a curious phenomenon further south.” I described, in full, the phenomenon in La Giganta.

“Well,” stated Murray, leaning back in pre-lecture mode, forgetting about food. “There were three indigenous languages in the southern part of Baja California. Pericu and Guaycura were independent languages, not much is known about them, and they’re gone. But the northernmost language, Cochimi, was part of the Yuman family of languages, some of which are still spoken in southern Arizona and California. If Cochimi was cut off for centuries and perhaps millenia from its Yuman origins, it would have gone its own way, but if enough of its words survive, linguists might be able to trace the degree of transformation from Yuman that remained in Arizona. Rate of change is a measure of when speakers of a language separated, and if Cochimi’s degree of change from other Yuman languages can be established, it might be possible to fix an approximate date for the Cochimi migration to Baja California. Since the speech your talking about is between Loreto and La Paz, any words that survived would have been Cochimi.”

I had no further information of my own to supply, Murray resumed eating and the conversation changed course, but I left the meal with my mind racing. Was I unable to penetrate the fast mumble because it was laced with Cochimi? Was there enough language left that linguists could determine when the Cochimi migrated to the peninsula, speaking a branch of Yuman that would have evolved at a rate measurable by linguists? The area of Cochimi speakers coincided with that of the great cave paintings, whose makers remained unknown. If it could be determined linguistically that the Cochimi arrived as far back as the first images, could it be determined that the Cochimi, in fact, were the mysterious painters? Soon after dinner with Murray I encountered an article on the lost indigenous languages of Baja California, authored by a team of linguists and posted on a La Paz website, which mentioned as a long-established fact that Cochimi indeed belonged to the Yuman family of languages. Murray might have been winging it about Choctaw, but about the origins of Cochimi in Yuman he was on solid ground.

In March of 2009 I was asked by a La Paz environmental organization of which I was a board member, Niparaja, to co-author a book with photos on La Giganta and its contiguous mountain range to the north, Sierra Guadalupe, with the goal of promoting biosphere reserve status for the whole cordillera. Such a designation would complement existing biospheres El Vizcaino to the north and Sierra de la Laguna to the south, extending protective measures to the state’s volcanic spine. I quickly agreed. The integrity of ranching culture was central to the plan, and I realized the moment had arrived to bring its speech anomaly to public attention. As part of its ranching tradition, La Giganta boasted a linguistic phenomenon that deserved preservation – and study. The book itself would draw attention to the speech, and because the supervising structure of biosphere reserves attracts grant money, somethere down the line a linguist might actually be dispatched to check into it.

I also realized that what I had to go on – personal obsevation, inability to understand, stray facts and speculation – were less than the basis I needed to introduce a new phenomenon to print. I needed someone with academic discipline who might have encountered this enigma. A name leapt into my mind: Fermin Reygadas. An anthropology professor from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur, Fermin had explored the state by vehicle, foot, mule, archeological dig and ties to living ranches, and I was sure that his aptitudes included speech. I had known him socially for years, had interviewed him formally for a previous book, set up the interview and punched the tape recorder.

I told Fermin that I had heard an alternate form of speech in La Giganta and asked if he had encountered it. “I know exactly what you´re talking about,” he declared, and as he began, I realized I didn’t need to ask questions, only to listen.

When Fermin first visited La Giganta with a colleague, who was also from Mexico City, they made a list of one hundred-fifty words they did not know. There were areas of usage. When ranchers spoke of cars they used contemporary Spanish, and when they spoke of cattle, pack animals or plants they employed a vocabulary out of use elsewhere. Fermin and his friend began to investigate these words, found them to be indeed legitimately Spanish, but to represent a seventeenth century vocabulary long superseded in the rest of the peninsula. The Giganta, communities, isolated from such new influences such as mining to the south and north, spoke a language still frozen in the seventeenth century, which is to say, the language of the artisans and growers of crops that the padres recruited from the mainland, principally from Sonora.

There was indeed another influence, but it was from the area itself, for many of the bachelors from Sonora married Indian women, and the children grew up speaking with their mothers as well as their fathers. Fermin and his associate didn’t identify actual Cochimi words, but the nasal sound of the alternate speech could well derive from inflections of the aboriginal tongue. “It sounds like this,” said Fermin, and he suddenly abandoned his professorial bass for a nasal whine in which he squealed “Nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh!” Was he demonstrating or lampooning? After multiple replayings of the tape I couldn’t decide, or help laughing.

Two well-studied sources offered remnants of the lost languages of Baja California Sur, he continued. The journals of the missionary padres, above all those of the Jesuits glutted with free time after their expulsion from the Americas in 1767, were full of linguistic information about the tribes they tried to convert to Christianity. Further clues lay in La Giganta’s toponyms, its place names. In the Sierra de la Laguna, for instance, there were only a half-dozen toponyms that derived from Pericu, and everything else was named for saints. In La Giganta, by contrast, there were literally hundreds of place names that derived from Cochimi, providing further data for linguists. Through anthropological studies, the meanings of some of those names could be determined – whether a location was a canyon, a hill or a plain; the presence or absence of water; the abundance of animals to hunt. Some of these words could be correlated with versions in the records kept by the padres, and all the language that had been converted to European spelling and survived in written form had been studied in minute detail. But since the twenty-year-old collection of antique words by Fermin and his colleague, study of living speech in areas formerly occupied by the Cochimi had been zero.

Now that I was researching a book instead of just being nosy, I felt secure about asking Lico himself about what he was speaking. They had two forms of speech, one of which I couldn’t understand, and I proceeded to describe my impression of it. Lico rushed to assure me that there was no wish to exclude. It was only a kind of shorthand they used for talking about practical matters on the ranch.

I reassured him that I hadn’t been offended but was just curious. I had been in ranches all over the state and had heard that sound only in La Giganta. Now that I was writing about the area, I felt I should account for it. I had interviewed a professor from the University of La Paz about it and had the tape with me. Did he want to hear it?

We opened beers and Fermin held forth on the dining table with a view toward the enclosing peaks. I paid close attention to Lico’s face when Fermin reached his nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh. This, I thought, might finally offend, but Lico listened with no change of expression. Lico had little to say about Fermin’s discourse, finding it an elaboration of what I had already said. I raised the possibility that there might be Cochimi words mixed with the Spanish. No, there were no Indian words, said Lico, just Spanish spoken another way.

Fermin and associate had found Spanish but no Cochimi, and Lico denied any non-Spanish words, but for me the case wasn’t quite closed. In La Giganta, any word that survived nine generations since mestizo children grew up talking Spanish with their fathers and Cochimi with their mothers would have gained a fully Spanish pronunciation and been assimilated into the language. In English, for instance, we routinely refer to coyotes and chocolate, staples of English vocabulary, unaware that both terms derive from Nahuatl, which descends from Aztec. The same process would have transformed Cochimi originals into local choyero. Fermin and friend, widely knowledgeable and focused in the detail, were not finally linguists schooled in the permutations of Yuman. It was conceivable, desirable – and unlikely – that a Yuman specialist would venture into La Giganta for field work, but even a linguist with more general training might collect words that couldn’t be accounted for in Spanish and send them to a Yuman specialist, wherever he or she be.

Before the book introducing the fast mumble to the public was published, a biologist friend to whom I had described the phenomenon sent me an emergency e-mail: a young man who was leaving the next day to pursue a doctorate in linguistics in Mexico City, and who would be gone for two years, could meet me that very afternoon for coffee. My friend thought it important that the doctoral candidate arrive in the capital aware that there was a local linguistic anomaly to be accounted for. I sped to the internet cafe.

In his early twenties, the student was intelligent and personable. My friend accompanied us for an hour, then left us for another hour to ourselves. The young man was passionate about words, and had taped choyeros discussing the topics of their choice so he could collect and compare accents. He had never visited the area of the fast mumble or heard of its existence, but he found it fascinating. I told him it wasn’t speech they used with strangers, but I would be glad to introduce him to my friends, and once they were used to his presence he would hear all the mumbling he liked. He replied that the doctoral program required two years of book and class study before he could do field work, but his ultimate plan was to return to Baja California Sur and become one of its few resident linguists. The fast mumble would itself vary from place to place, he said, so he would need to study it across its range. As an unstudied phenomenon it might even be a possiblility for a doctoral thesis, though it was far too early to tell. A turn of conversation revealed that we were both pianists dedicated to Chopin, which gave me new confidence in his ear. I left the conversation elated that a seed had been planted, however long it would take – if it did – to fructify.

As for my own inability to penetrate the fast mumble, I realized that its inclusion of 150 Spanish words so old they were new to Fermin, delivered in a slurred sotto voce, was enough to render their sound opaque to my foreign ears even without permutations of Cochimi. Purely my own was the notion that the Cochimi might be established as the creators of the unattributed cave paintings, simply because the degree of change in their speech from a remote mother tongue indicated that they were around when the murals were created. Such a historical bank shot was so tenuous that it was less hypothesis than personal fantasy. But, as the genre of mystery books and movies shows us, the human being delights in inventing conundrums, then solving them.

Bruce Berger has published eleven books, the majority of which investigate the intersections of nature and human culture in desert environments. Among them are The Telling Distance, winner of the Western States Book Award and the Colorado Book Award, and Almost an Island, an account of thirty years’ experience in Baja California. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Orion, Outside and many other publications. For recreation he plays benefit classical piano concerts in Mexico.