Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category


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.


Friday, June 22, 2012

The LinguistList just announced that a site is up which hopes to serve as a repository for material on endangered languages:  It looks really promising, kind of a beefed up Ethnologue, to which scholars and community members will be able to make contributions, posting documents, photos, videos, audio files, etc.  It sounds exciting.  I have been in contact with them about getting MacZ on the map (literally).  If we can get over that initial hump, I hope lots of exciting things will be posted up by the community (and yours truly).


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.


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.