Archive for November, 2008


Now I Know My [ei] [bi] [si]’s

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Today we finally made it for the first time on this trip to the Proveedora Escolar, a fantastic bookstore in the centro (It seems funny to me to refer to this area as downtown Oaxaca, although it is, since it doesn’t fit my conception of “downtown” for a city the size of Oaxaca. Instead of having modern skyscrapers and buildings, it is a beautiful colonial area; most buildings are only two, maybe three stories tall, with church domes and towers poking up a few stories higher). At the bookstore, we bought a couple books for Benjamin and a couple foam puzzles. One is really for me: a puzzle in the shape of the state of Oaxaca with the individual districts making up the puzzle pieces. The other one is an alphabet puzzle with foam pieces in the shape of letters. This is the second one of these we’ve bought for Benjamin-the last one, he ripped many of the letters into little pieces and we left behind what’s left of it in Macuil. But recently, he’s taken to singing the alphabet song-where he picked it up, I’m not sure-and seems more interested than ever in letters, so we decided to get him another alphabet puzzle.

These alphabet puzzles have a couple of interesting features. One, they only seem to come in the English alphabet, I haven’t seen a Spanish one yet. True, there’s not much difference in the English and Spanish alphabet. If ch, ll, and rr aren’t counted as distinct letters, that only leaves the existence of ñ in Spanish as the only difference between the alphabets. Still, I have yet to see a version that included ñ.

Even more interesting to me, though, is the pronunciations of the letter names that are stamped on each of the letters. They are intended to represent the English names of the letters, which is a fine goal I suppose. At first glance, I thought the names of the letters were being written according to Spanish writing rules-it would be like telling you to pronounce hola as you would pronounce something written owe-lah in English. This makes sense: a Spanish speaker who didn’t know English could buy the puzzle for their kid and make a stab at pronouncing the English names of the letters. This hypothesis works for the first six letters of the alphabet which are stamped with ei bi si di i and ef. Things get a little strange after that and I eventually realized the letters are stamped with rough, not entirely accurate, IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) representations of their pronunciations.

The first clue is the stamp on the letter g. It’s given as dyi (and similarly j is stamped with dyei). This is an odd choice to help Spanish speakers. A combination of d and y aren’t really used in Spanish. Of course, Spanish (and here and throughout I’m talking about Mexican Spanish) doesn’t exactly have this sound so something must be done. But the letter y often represents a sound that is close, though it sounds somewhere between an English y-sound (as in you) and the j-sound (of Jill)-these sounds aren’t distinct in Spanish, which can trip of those learning English when they are faced with pairs of words, like yellow and Jell-O, which are identical in pronunciation except for these consonants. Anyway, dy is not a totally unreasonable representation of this sound and maybe the d was added to make sure the y comes out more like English j than like English y.

But there’s some other odd choices on the stamps that this doesn’t explain. The alphabet elsewhere uses the letter j to represent the English y-sound. Thus, q is stamped with kju, u is stamped with ju and w with dobelju. This doesn’t really make any sense for Spanish. In Spanish, the letter j typically represents a velar fricative like the German ch in Bach or is often closer to English h in house. This would be a totally misleading way to stamp the names of the letters. But it makes sense if you are following IPA conventions, because in the IPA [j] represents this sound. So, in a broad transcription of English alphabet names [kju] and [ju] make perfect sense in IPA. (Dobelju has some problems, which I’ll come back to.)

The real clincher to me that this is supposed to be IPA is the name for h. It’s given as eift, which doesn’t work in English, Spanish, or the IPA. But it does look like the IPA with a few mistakes thrown in. If we were trying to spell the name of the letter h following Spanish conventions then it should have been given as eich, since Spanish represents that final sound with ch. The IPA representation of the name would be [eitʃ], which is starting to get us in the ballpark of what’s stamped on the letter. The IPA transcription involves a funky symbol [ʃ], which apparently the makers of the alphabet didn’t have access to. So they used (or their keyboards without the proper font installed used) something that’s visually kind of close: f. Then it looks like that working with symbols they weren’t familiar with, they accidentally switched the t and f, not that eitf would have been clear to anyone either.


This now explains g and j: the initial consonant in their names would be [dʒ] in IPA. Again, we don’t have the exact symbol, so something close (for some value of close) was put in, in this case y. Similarly, the name for w contains many sounds that aren’t in Spanish and are represented by special characters in IPA. With a broad transcription, the name would be rendered something like [dʌbəlju]. How this would get to what’s on the letter (dobelju) is not clear. Perhaps that initial vowel was represented with [ə] instead of [ʌ] or maybe the Spanish word doble, which is part of the letter name in Spanish influenced the choices. Finally, I guess it should be noted that the names of the letters f, l, m, n, s, and x would begin with [ɛ] in the IPA, but begin with e in the puzzle.

The surprising thing about all of this is that since there is no pronunciation guide offered on the puzzle mat, even if the manufacturer had gotten the IPA symbols right, it would require familiarity with the IPA, but it seems to me that familiarity with the IPA here must be as about as common here as is it is in the US, which is not very. And I don’t think it was intended for another audience, such as Spanish speakers from Spain, who might (I guess) be more familiar with the IPA, since it seems to be trying to capture standard American English pronunciations of the letter names, as evidenced by the r-ful pronunciation of r as ar and the inclusion of zi as the name for the letter z instead of zed.

As an interesting side-note, one of the books we picked up for Benjamin was an English book Times 1000 Word Dictionary by Myra Ellis which also includes IPA transcriptions of words. It, however, includes all the funky symbols and a pronunciation guide and seems generally accurate, although it is not based on an American standard dialect (it was published in Singapore) as it includes words like lorry, pronunciations like [mɛdsn] with two syllables for medicine, and non-rhotic variants as seen in [mɑ:tʃ] for march and [ˈfɪŋgə] for finger among many others (for a nice map on the distribution of r-lessness see here).

Overall, it was a very good outing with two linguistically interesting finds in one trip.


El Día de Pavo

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Well, El Día de Pavo, i.e. Turkey Day, is not actually a holiday in Mexico, although immigrants to the US do celebrate it.  I’ve had some delicious turkey tamales for the day back in LA.  But I did notice one American tradition making inroads (or possibly just trying to make inroads) into Mexico, and that’s football–yes, American football.  I caught a commercial saying that one of the stations here will be broadcasting (one of) the annual Thanksgiving day game(s) here in Oaxaca.  We’ll get to “enjoy” the Tennessee-Detroit game, even if we won’t be doing it while shoveling turkey into our faces (I’m not sure how exciting a game between a 10-1 team and an 0-11 team will be).  Unfortunately, I think the channel it’s being shown on here doesn’t make it to Macuil, so they’ll be without the game, unless, of course, they catch it on Sky.  So far though, I haven’t heard anyone in Mexico express much interest in football, except one person who said he enjoyed watching the Super Bowl.  But maybe it is succeeding here.  I wonder how the ratings are for a regular game here, especially one being broadcast during the day, when nobody has the day off?  Does American football here beat soccer games (in terms of ratings) there?  Something to discuss at the dinner table, unless you want to argue over politics.  Enjoy!


20 de Noviembre

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Benjamin Getting Ready for the Revolution

Today is 20 de Noviembre, celebrating the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.  In Macuil, observations for the day include a parade and dressing children up as revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata, both of which seem to be common practices for observing the day.

Benjamin’s daycare is doing the same so we dressed him up for the part.    The costumes for kids aren’t quite as flamboyant as what Zapata himself wore, I guess reflecting what his followers more likely would have worn.  The costumes for kids include the white shirt and pants traditionally worn by farmers of the past.  This is usually accompanied by toy rifles and bandoliers.  Huaraches ‘sandals’ are typically worn on the feet, although looking around for pictures of Mexican Revolutionaries, I mostly see them wearing boots.  Either way, we ending up going with what we already had for Benjamin, which was tennis shoes.

To complete the outfit, you need the giant sombrero (also called a charro) and a good Zapata-style moustache.  Benjamin’s not into hats so we didn’t bother getting a special one for the occassion, but just used what we had at hand while he would let us, which wasn’t for long.  Our efforts to paint on a moustache were going along okay, except he kept wiping our first attempt using soot away on his sleeve.  Our second attempt with eyeliner went a little better, until he saw himself in the mirror and freaked out.  Then we had to wipe off the moustache, though we managed to keep on some painted-on sideburns.  I managed to get in a few quick picks though with the hat and ‘stache:

El Zapatista

El Zapatista


Torito Serrano

Sunday, November 9, 2008

My nephew has to do a report on Macuiltianguis for a school project for his secundaria.  He asked me if I had any pictures of the town, and I shared with him what I happened to have at hand electronically at the moment.

Then, he showed me some of what he had already, and he had found that someone had posted a video of the Torito Serrano [Gu’na I’yato’] to YouTube.  Great!  This is a dance performed in Macuiltianguis in which the women represent bulls and the men matadors.  The women then proceed to try to knock the guys down, often succeeding.  It’s great fun, as you can see below.

Last year, I had given a presentation on Macuil culture and had tried to find a Torito Serrano video on YouTube but there weren’t any.  Glad to see there’s one up now and it is even of a performance in Oaxaca at the Guelaguetza.  If you search YouTube, you’ll find there’s even a couple of other versions up too, including a clip of the dance being performed in front of the municipio in Macuil, but this one seems the best:


Fish Are Cold Even When They’re Cooked

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I got a quick primer today in traditional medical beliefs, something I will have to investigate further.

I had known that there is a belief that the cold is not good for you, or at the least, you have to be careful with it. So, even though the weather is quite warm here in the city and in Mexico City, people bundle up their small children. And once I was suffering from a sore throat here, and thought what better thing to have than a Popsicle? I had no idea it would be frowned upon until people saw me and wondered what on Earth could I be doing to my health.

Today though, I found out that the beliefs are more complex than I originally understood. Apparently, it is not merely whether something is cold or not, but what its essence is. So, everything is classified as being caliente ‘hot’ or frío/fresco ‘cold/fresh’ and one must know how these things interact. Hot things are good for certain things, cold things for others.

And things are classified according to their essence, rather than to the temperature they happen to be at the moment. So, I was complaining of a delicate stomach and commenting on some fish I ate. My sister-in-law said I shouldn’t have eaten the fish (I agreed, but for different reasons) because it was cold. But, I pointed out, the fish was cooked and warm when I ate it. No, she said, fish [béllá] is classified as being cold—that’s its essence—even if it happens to have been cooked. She then gave me a few more examples of how various foodstuffs, medicines, and even people can be classified.

It was very interesting and I will have to sit down with her again to make sure I have all the details and to find out how everything is classified.