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Review of  Díʔzte o zapoteco de San Agustín Loxicha, Oaxaca, México


Reviewer: Juan J Colomina
Book Title: Díʔzte o zapoteco de San Agustín Loxicha, Oaxaca, México
Book Author: Mikko Benjamin Salminen
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Zapotec, Loxicha
Issue Number: 26.997

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Review's Editors: Helen Aristar-Dry, Malgorzata Cavar, and Sara Couture

INTRODUCTION

Salminen’s short study is the first serious attempt to build a written grammar and syntax of Oaxacan Zapotec variety (Díʔzte). This book is a perfect introduction for undergraduates and graduates to the grammar of this language as well as a perfect approach to the basics of linguistic methodologies and fieldwork (including the collection and analysis of audio files). Additionally, the volume offers advanced students and academics the possibility to compare between Díʔzte and other Oaxaca Zapotec varieties, although the comparative analysis is not shown in the book directly. The book is written in Spanish. However, given the technicality of the linguistic grammar analysis, non-Spanish readers should have no problems in understanding the syntactic and morphological developments included.

Even though I think that the book should have required one or two additional edits before publication, I really applaud Salminen’s agenda in the book. It is obvious that Salminen’s agenda never was to give an exhaustive description of the Oaxacan Zapotec variety’s grammar but to offer an accessible introduction to it. Salminen explicitly states that in the introductory notes, and also clarifies his intention to further research in this direction. Of course, I could not agree more with Salminen’s way in pursuing its goals: by rejecting the idea that words are neutral and mean things by themselves, without attending to the cosmovision that surrounds the speaker. In other words, Salminen agrees with the idea that the meaning of words is necessarily embedded in a culture.

SUMMARY

San Agustín Loxicha’s Díʔzte is a Zapotec variety belonging to the Miahuatec subdivision of the Southern Zapotec branch spoken in the coastal region of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is a tone language with level and contour tones, suprasegmental glottalization and an intricate verb system, which often marks aspect by means of fossilized prefixes or floating tone. The description, cast in the framework of Basic Linguistic Theory (BLT, as described by Dixon 2009, among others), draws frequent comparisons to other Zapotec languages and to Proto-Zapotec reconstructions. The book includes an introductory description of the cultural context within which the language is spoken, among others introducing the belief system featuring a 9/13 day calendar system based on the Mesoamerican ritual calendar, which is still in use in the community to the present day.

“Díʔzte, o zapoteco de San Agustín Loxicha, Oaxaca, México (Esbozo gramatical acompañado de cuatro cuentos tradicionales con análisis morfológico y traducción)” is a grammatical description of San Agustín Loxicha’s Zapotec with four texts including a morpheme analysis and translation as well as links to the corresponding audio files. The description is mostly based on data collected during fieldwork by the author, and was submitted as an MA thesis at Leiden University in 2010. Its publication in Lincom’s Languages of the World/Materials Series reflects the current emphasis on revitalizing endangered languages and documenting and recording them before they are gone.

EVALUATION

Díʔzte is the only one of the fifty-eight different Zapotec varieties spoken in Oaxaca, and belongs to the so-called medular/Sierra Sur Zapotec dialects, one of the five dialectal groups of this Mesoamerican language, specifically to the Miahuatec subdialectal family. It is mainly spoken in the locality of San Agustín Loxicha (Pochutle, Oaxaca, Mexico) by - according to Salminen - around 14,000 persons. Nonetheless, given the low skills shown among the youth and the high level of bilingualism registered in the data, the number of people still fluent in the language is probably lower. One may ask why is it, then, necessary to write a complete book to describe its grammar?

It is important to have it in mind that, even though it is the usual term to refer to this language among academics, Zapotec is the Náhuatl-derived word generally employed to refer to the whole linguistic family but not the word used by the speakers to self-refer. So, by employing the word Díʔzte in this book, Salminen follows the correct intuition that it is preferable to use the appellation that the same speakers use to refer to themselves. Additionally, when constructing and analyzing its grammar and morphological analysis at the end of the book, the author describes not a generalized standard variety of Zapotec but instead the ordinary language variety that the speakers really use in everyday conversations.

Salminen introduces his methodology as a “holistic approach” (12). Following the idea that language is not an isolated autonomous unit, Salminen understands language as a non-detachable system symbiotically embedded in the culture. Consequently, when a speaker employs her language, she is not only describing the way things are, but also expressing the whole worldview and history of the community that speaks that language. For this reason, Salminen claims that language should never be studied only from an aseptic formal approach, but also from a perspective that always brings attention to the fact that speakers communicate much more than what the literal meaning of the words. In agreement with this idea, Salminen states that we, as scholars interested in the real significance of meaning, must account for language from a more context-sensitive methodology/theory.

Salminen’s own choice is to approach language employing the theoretical framework of Basic Linguistic Theory (as developed by Dixon (2009) and Payne (1997), among others), which allows a more adequate description of the sociocultural structures and patterns within the analyzed community and language (15). The main idea is to describe the grammar of each language in its own terms, without conceptually assessing it by using other languages’ structure and patterns.

Employing this theoretical frame, Salminen reconstructs Díʔzte’s grammar (20-82). As expected, because of its word order (it has a Verb-Subject-Object language form order), Díʔzte is rich in monosyllabic roots (22-24). Consequently, the verb is conjugated using prefixes, as well as employing prefixes for aspect and mode (24-28). Díʔzte shows derivational prefixes, usually fossilized, as well as person markers (such as possessives) and/or modifiers in post-clitic or free positions. Even though the grammar offered is partial, the book does a good job providing the essentials to start to work with Díʔzte. Interestingly, the book includes a description of the variety within the phonological system, as well as an audio file analysis (83-94). Since the centrality of the concept of phoneme, Salminen seems to correctly identify the phonemes of Díʔzte, and also the phonological rules that could be employed as a tool for reconstructing its whole phonological system. Salminen also proves BLT as a successful methodology to analyze sentence composition and verb construction. Unfortunately, the author says nothing about the processes of collecting and analysis of data.

The book also includes the transcription from the audio records, the morphological analysis, and the translation (to Spanish) of four short stories from the Oaxacan Zapotec Díʔzte tradition (95-122). They are short texts collected from the people’s oral tradition that allow Salminen to exemplify the grammar exposed in the previous sections of the book and, actually, to connect the language with the culture of its speakers. The texts narrate the Día de los Muertos festivity in San Agustín Loxicha, the story of Los tres flojos, and the fables of ‘El tlacuache y el coyote’ and ‘El conejo y el coyote,’ respectively, and show not only the specific particularities of Díʔzte’s grammar previously described in comparison to other Zapotec varieties (even though the comparison is never explicit) but also the influence of the San Agustín Loxicha’s people cosmovision in its own language.

Every scholar interested in Mesoamerican grammar and morpho-syntax should read this book. Nonetheless, I also leave you with two final warnings. First, since the author’s mother tongue is not Spanish, sometimes the argument is very hard to follow. It is not a question of grammatical purity, it is a question of clarity. Second, as pointed out before, even though the book offers a variety of data, the reader probably will miss some important and necessary analyses. For instance, an explicit comparison between the Díʔzte and other Zapotec varieties is missing, or an analysis of certain processes of grammaticalization that are actually happening in the Díʔzte variety because of its contact with Spanish given the high level of bilingualism between the speakers.

REFERENCES

Dixon, R. M. W. (2009). Basic Linguistic Theory (3 Volumes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Payne, Thomas (1997). Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Juan J. Colomina-Almiñana received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of La Laguna (Tenerife, Spain) in 2009. He is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Mexican American and Latino/a Studies at UT-Austin. His books include Los problemas de las teorías representacionales de la conciencia (Tenerife: Universidad de La Laguna, 2010) and Implicaciones de la teoría de los actos de habla (Madrid: EAE, 2011), and he has coedited (with V. Raga) La filosofía de Richard Rorty (Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2010.)
He has also published more than fifty articles in several collected books and international journals. His research areas of interest focus on the boundaries between Semantics and Pragmatics, Philosophy of Language, Linguistic Anthropology, Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness, Philosophy of Science, and Logic. In 2012, he received the Young Researcher Award from the Spanish Society of Logic. He is a member of the Research Group for Logic, Language, Epistemology, Mind, and Action (LEMA) at the University of La Laguna in Spain, whose main project is “Points of View and Temporal Structures” (FII2011-24549).