Archive for July, 2012


Maybe Some Day

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It seems like every trip to Oaxaca, some particular Zapotec word or phrase stands out and becomes the Official Word of the Trip.  In 2000, it was gwendi ‘a lot’ which can often be shifted to the front of the sentence.  In 2001, it was scanna, akin to rhetorical ‘pues’ and ‘then’, which hangs out at the end of the sentence.  In the winter of 2004-05 (I think), I picked up on eu?, a response my wife suddenly began saying when her name was called, and which I noticed others doing, too.  On that one, I’m not sure if it is a Zapotec or Spanish thing.

This trip there hasn’t been a clear-cut winner, but I have suddenly had several serendipitous encounters with =ttsa’, a clitic adverb meaning ‘sometime’.  For something I am currently working on, I asked one of my sisters-in-law to use the word eguittia ‘will play again’ in a sentence, and she came up with the following:

  • Gwayu’uttsa’laasayà’ eguittiayà’.  

I was momentarily stumped.  Although I didn’t immediately realize it, I knew the verb gwayu’ulaasayà’ ‘I would like’, but  the =ttsa’ in the middle of it was throwing me off.  Then, she explained it to me: it’s ‘sometime’.  The sentence means ‘I would like to play again sometime.’ Ttsa’ is an adverb, and like other adverbs (=ru ‘more/still’, =ní ‘fast’, =gwa ‘also’, etc.) it follows the verb, before the subject pronoun (=yà’ ‘I’ in this case).  And when there is a compound verb, with an incorporated noun like laasa, which is something like ‘heart/self’, the adverb may, and often does, come before it, immediately after the verb root.  Yay!  Problem solved.

And just to prove the point, she turned around and used =ttsa’ a different way in her next sentence:

  • Gwayu’uttsa’laasa’yà’ eyecchayà’ attsa’ tari’á. ‘I would like to return to the US another time.’

Here, =ttsa’ is attached to or fused with a- or attu, which means ‘another’.

Then, just last night, my other sister-in-law, hit me with another instance of =ttsa’ completely out of the blue (she hadn’t been there when we previously discussing it).  I told her xiaba ‘maybe’ in response to something, and she told me that if I wanted to make the possibility seem very remote, I could say xiattsa’ba!  I was ready this time.  That’s =ttsa’ attached to =xia ‘maybe’, itself another adverb, and before =ba, an emphatic element, required for xiaba to stand as an independent word, not attached to the verb.  And the combined xiattsa’ba would be something like ‘maybe sometime’ or perhaps even better in English would ‘maybe some day’, as in Xiattsa’ba iteeliintè’ ttu ttu tiisa’ què’ xtiisa’cayé, ‘Maybe some day I will understand every word of their language.’


zapoteco serrano, del oeste

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I got my first look at the Catálogo de las Lenguas Indígenas Nacionales put out by INALI (Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas) in 2009, which attempts to list all of the native languages of Mexico.  (And I even found out my sister-in-law and her husband had participated in workshops for developing the catalog.)  Of course, I was interested to see how the catalog categorized MacZ.

The first question was whether they were low counters or high counters.  For some reason, exactly how many Zapotec languages there are is a rather contentious question among Zapotecanists, with low counters insisting the number is somewhere in the 4 to 10 range ( claims this is the view of most linguists), while others believe there are several times more–the Ethnologue lists 57 Zapotec languages.  I fall in the latter camp, as does the INALI catalog.  It lists, if I counted correctly, 64 varieties of Zapotec.

Despite the few extra varieties, it still groups Macuiltianguis with Atepec.  While I have certainly seen a great deal of intelligibility between the two towns, there are so many striking differences between them that I think it is better to treat them as separate languages.  And certainly for revitalization efforts, it helps to keep them separate.  Otherwise, there would be unending conflicts on the “right” way to say things.

There are, however, some surprising things in the Zapotec varieties listed for the Sierra.  I have (crudely) drawn the INALI Zapotec groupings for district of Ixtlán and some of the Villa Alta on the map below (map from García García, Angel (y colaboradores). n.d. [1995]. Oaxaca, distritos municipios, localidades y habitantes. Oaxaca, Mexico: A. García García):



Grey zapoteco de San Miguel Aloápam Dark Blue zapoteco serrano, del sureste
Red zapoteco serrano, del noroeste Brown zapoteco serrano, del sureste bajo
Orange zapoteco serrano, del oeste Pink zapoteco serrano, del oeste medio
Yellow zapoteco serrano, bajo Lime Green zapoteco serrano, del sureste medio
Green zapoteco serrano, noroeste bajo Purple zapoteco de Santiago Laxopa
Light Blue zapoteco serrano, del este

One thing I really like about the INALI catalog is that it explicitly lists all towns where the variety is spoken, something that sometimes has to be inferred in the Ethnologue.  (Caveat about the above:  I believe every town that is included in a circle is described by INALI as belonging to that variety; however, some towns may have accidentally been left out.)

The most surprising things on the map are the groups on the left side:  the grey, pink, and yellow groups, but especially the red and orange group, the latter of which contains Macuiltianguis.  The first three groups seem to line up pretty well with what is listed in the Ethnologue:  the grey group corresponds to the Ethnologue’s Aloápam Zapotec, the pink group with Yareni Zapotec (which the Ethnologue claims has an 80% intelligibility with Sierra Juárez Zapotec, their name for the group that includes MacZ), and the yellow with Southeastern Ixtlán Zapotec, a fairly new grouping in the Ethnologue (with 63% intelligibility with Sierra Juárez and 43% with Yareni).

The Ethnologue does not have anything corresponding to the red group, which encompasses the towns of Abejones and Jaltianguis.  This group on its surface is surprising since, as can be seen on the map, they are not the closest towns:  Atepec and Analco are both closer to each of these towns than they are to each other.  I don’t know if there was some historical connection between the two or exactly how this grouping was determined.

The other odd thing about the red group is that it bisects the orange group, the group containing Macuiltianguis.  The Ethnologue does not explicitly list which towns are included in its somewhat analogous Sierra de Juárez group; its membership has to be inferred from a not so detailed map (Sierra de Juárez is number 202 on the map).  I would guess from the Ethnologue map that they group the red group and northern orange group together and it looks as though the southern orange group is part of the yellow group (Southeastern Ixtlán Zapotec).  One final possibility that should be considered is that in some of these towns, Zapotec is no longer spoken and the connections between the varieties is a conjecture.

If nothing else, the groupings and map certainly pose a lot of interesting research questions.  Now, if only I can find the time to visit all of these towns.


Are They Brothers?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An enlightening conversation showing where Benjamin is in his (re)acquisition of Spanish:

Margarita:  ¿Son hermanos?

Benjamin:  No, because Chucho is a boy and Jaquelina is a girl.

Me:  Are they brother and sister?

Benjamin:  Yes.

Clearly, he understood the Spanish question, but filtered through an English mindset, where hermanos equals brothers but not the brother-sister relationship.

This got me to thinking about the Zapotec sibling terms and how in a way they are closer to the English than the Spanish.  In both English and Zapotec, distinctions are made between brothers, brother and sister, and sisters.  Spanish collapses the first two groups, as shown below:

Zapotec English Spanish
male-male ¿Naacanà bettsi’? Are they brothers? ¿Son hermanos?
male-female ¿Naacanà daana? Are they brother and sister? ¿Son hermanos?
female-female ¿Naacanà yhiila? Are they sisters? ¿Son hermanas?

Zapotec and English keep these three relationships distinct (in certain contexts).  But while English has to rely on the circumlocution brother and sister, Zapotec is more efficient using a single word, daana, to encode the brother-sister relationship.  And because it has that term, it generally keeps the brother-sister relationship distinct.  So a man may talk about ca bettsi’nì ‘his brothers’ and a woman about ca yhiilanì ‘her sisters’, but he talks about ca daananì ‘his sisters’, and she talks about ca daananì ‘her brothers’.