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One-Hour Field Methods

Friday, January 23, 2009

Although it came together very quickly and we were still planning right up until the end, our class demonstration about Zapotec turned out to be a lot of fun, and, I think, a success with the students.

Before I had left LA to return to Oaxaca, my friend Nacho had called me about possibly doing a class/demonstration at the school where his cousin works. The school, Federico Froebel, is a private bilingual school here in Oaxaca. They have a focus on language here, covering at least Spanish, English, and French. The director of the school is really interested in linguistics and languages and is interested in having his students know something abut the languages of Oaxaca. It had come up that Nacho’s cousin is of Zapotec decent so he asked her if she could put together a presentation. She contacted Nacho who put her in touch with us.

Nacho, Margarita, her sister, and I arrived at the school about 10:30am and spoke with the director for awhile and then went for our presentation. When we arrived, I thought we’d be meeting with both high school and junior high kids, about 60-70 students. I was a little worried that that might be too big a group, but for whatever reason, we ended up with only the high school students, about 40 students. A good size.

Nacho kicked off the presentation, introducing us, telling a little about Macuil and the language. Then I was onstage. At first, I told them a little bit about the language diversity of Oaxaca and why we might be interested in preserving the languages of Oaxaca (and the world). I always worries such arguments alone aren’t very convincing and I didn’t want to bore them with a lecture, so I quickly moved on to the fun stuff: analyzing the language (although before I did, they did at least ask some questions about how I had gotten involved working on Zapotec and how I had met my wife–something I should post on one of these days).

For the analysis, I started with a few simple words, with Margarita providing the speech, like ‘face’ loo and iccha ‘head’. For the last one, I solicited input for how it should be spelled. The consensus seemed to be icha, which is a very reasonable suggestion, but one student did suggest itcha. I surmised that the <t> might be a reflection of the fact that the <ch> is long in this word, a fact we capture with the <cch> spelling. We spent a little time comparing iccha to Naachu, which doesn’t have a long <ch> sound. We then picked up the word ‘hand’ naa’. I had a volunteer come up and write the word and that gave us a chance to discuss the final glottal stop at the end, represented in the orthography by an apostrophe.

I then asked them for more words to elicit, and someone suggested ‘eye’ (Good! I was hoping I could lead them in to more body part terms). That is iyyaloo. I told them we were looking for patterns and asked if it looked like anything else we already had. They picked up on the connection to ‘face’ and so we asked what iyya might mean. It turns out to be the word for ‘stone’, so in Zapotec, your eyes are literally your face rocks.

Someone asked for the word for ‘dog’ beccu’, which here and throughout, I had a volunteer to come up and spell. Again, the itcha student suggested it might be betcu’, and I wondered if it still might be the long consonant he was hearing (though with a [k] sound, this seems more surprising than with a <ch> sound).

We followed this up by pluralizing the words we had so far, giving ca loo ‘faces’ and ca iccha ‘heads’. The students easily identified ca as the plural marker and successfully extended its use to the other nouns we had. We then compared plural formation in Zapotec to that of English and Spanish. In the former, the plural marker precedes the noun (it is in fact a proclitic rather than a prefix, although I didn’t mention that to the students) versus the European languages which pluralize by means of suffixation.

The students then asked for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, padiuyhi and gweesabariu’, which is something close to ‘until we meet again’.  I was impressed with the volunteers who came up to write these words, getting very good representations of the sounds up on the board.  It was unsurprising to see them use <sh> to represent the MacZ sound that is similar to English <sh> rather than an <x>, which was traditionally used in colonial documents, and is still found in some place names, though it frequently represents a different sound in modern pronunciations.

We also got the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, o’o and abii.  Margarita’s pronunciation of the ‘yes’ word had a clear glottal stop in it, not something I always hear with this word.   The ‘no’  word, the student volunteer chose to write as avi.  The letters <b> and <v> are homophonous in (Mexican) Spanish, so I am curious in a novel spelling like this, which someone might choose.  The letter <v> turns up a lot, and I wonder if it might have been a better choice for MacZ.  We mainly picked <b> following the tradition of the Atepec dictionary.  I wonder why they chose that letter?

Another student asked how to say ‘love’, which as a word by itself is kind of strange in MacZ, so Margarita volunteered a sentence: arcasi’ite’lu’ ‘I love you.’  This was perfect since it could lead us in to analyzing sentences.  We then asked for arcasi’itena ‘I love him’, allowing the students to figure out that =lu’ is ‘you’ while =na is ‘him’, or as we discovered with our next sentence, ‘her’, since MacZ does not have gender distinctions in the pronouns, unlike both English and Spanish.  The sentence ‘I love them’ arcasi’itecana allowed us to see the plural ca in use before the =na pronoun, so ca+na is ‘plural him/her’, which equals them.  A sentence like ‘you love him’ arcasi’inlu’na allowed us to see =lu’ as a subject pronoun ‘you’ as well and to determine that =te’ must have been the ‘I’ subject in our earlier sentences.  (It should be noted that ‘I’ takes the form =ya’ with most verbs, and we should also worry about that intrusive n showing up in ‘You love him.’–it’s an incorporated preposition which also causes the unique form of ‘I’ in these sentences.)  I mentioned that the words (really morphemes) follow a Verb Subject Object (love I you) pattern in the language.  This is different than English’s SVO (I love you), and is not so common in the world, but is common in Mesoamerican languages.

We then looked at tense inflection for our example sentence.  I asked Margarita how to say ‘I loved him’, meaning I did so in the past, but probably not any longer.  This took a little while for her to figure out (out of context, it’s an odd sentence) with consultation from Nacho and her sister, and while she was figuring it out a student volunteered avi arcasi’ite’na. Fantastic!  That’s literally ‘I don’t love him/her’ but it showed that the students had gotten into what we were doing and I was impressed with his creativity and bravery.  He ventured a guess at a sentence and came up with something grammatical.  Nice!

Margarita eventually came up with the way to say what I was after: uccwasi’ite’na ‘I loved him.’  And then we got the future form accasi’ite’na ‘I will love him’.  This allowed us to see that the verb root is -asi’i (or probably just -si’i, the a is probably part of the prefix) and that verbs in Zapotec inflect for tense not with the use of suffixes but with prefixes.

After that, we had a little time to wrap-up.  I told them about the dictionary project I am currently working on and invited them to participate if they’d like.  Margarita’s sister then gave final closing remarks discussing the languages of Oaxaca, different varieties of Zapotec, and the importance of the language.

The students seemed to enjoy it.  Several came up afterwards and said a little bit to us and a couple of girls hung around for awhile afterwards chatting with Margarita’s sister, who at one point even sang a little song in MacZ, something I didn’t know existed!  I will definitely have to get a recording of it.

It was really a great experience.  I hope we get to go back and do it again.

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