In a rural village between two rivers outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, Ryan Sullivant walked door to door like a salesman, asking neighbors to conjugate verbs.
The village, Tataltepec, is one of few within a small mountainous area between Oaxaca and the Pacific coast where a dwindling population of 50,000 continues to use one of the three Chatino languages today: Zenzontepec, Tataltepec, and all the rest — referred to as “Eastern” Chatino.
“People were a bit suspicious of my work at first because their language had been devalued over the years,” says Sullivant, who began his research as a linguistics doctoral student at UT Austin in 2009. “It’s not so much that a language is dying as it is a language is not being used.”
Spanish is slowly replacing Chatino, especially in formal education settings where Spanish is used for instruction because Chatino has never been written.
Many thought the languages were unwritten because they were unwritable, existing merely as “dialects” with a complicated tonal system. One Eastern variety has as many as 14 tones. (In comparison, Mandarin has four tones and Vietnamese has six.)
“It is the most unusual and exotic tonal system I’ve seen,” says linguistics professor Anthony Woodbury, who oversaw the Chatino Language Documentation Project. “It’s as if everything that had been seen in linguistics was combined. It uses levels, like you hear in many African languages, and contour tones, like you hear in Asian languages.”
Learning, documenting, writing and teaching Chatino became the focus for six UT Austin graduate students beginning in 2002, when Emiliana Cruz, a native speaker of San Juan Quiahije Eastern Chatino, came to UT Austin as an anthropology student associated with the Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America.
Since then, the students have spent every summer living in remote villages and learning from Chatino speakers, documenting interviews and conversations, and capturing and preserving the language. The six students trained the next generation of Chatino speakers, often in villages where only elders spoke the language, by creating classes and workshops for children and adults.
This spring brought an end to the Chatino Language Documentation Project at UT Austin, when the final three students — Ryan Sullivant, Justin McIntosh and Stéphanie Villard — finalized their dissertations. The following are their reflections.
Location: Tataltepec de Valdés; 16.3000° N, 97.5500° W
Language: Tataltepec Chatino
Language status: Endangered, spoken by 540 mostly older persons
“Malā ntyaā?” – Where are you going?
Every day in Tataltepec, I passed people on the road wanting to know where I was going, not because they were nosy, but because that’s just what people say to folks they pass on the road.
Whereas children around the world learn the languages they hear with no problem, the Chatino languages are tough nuts to crack for someone like myself who speaks English and Spanish.
Sentences start with verbs, and each verb has four principal parts that must be memorized. Like lots of Mesoamerican languages, the languages use a base-20 rather than a base-10 system (i.e. “seventy” in French is soixante dix, or “sixty ten”).
Then there are the words themselves. Clusters of three and four consonants are everywhere, and some of the most common sounds are not found in English or Spanish. To top it off, the languages make much use of tonal distinctions. Because tone alone distinguishes many nouns and conjugated verbs, it’s a small wonder I managed to learn to properly answer the question: “Where are you going?”
I’m going to run an errand. Ntyaʔàn ka lkichen.
I’m going to work. Ntyaʔàn ka knyá.
I’m going home. Ntyaʔàn ka tuniʔi.
Tataltepec is a big town by regional standards, with more than 2,000 people and, at last count, three places to check your email. Nevertheless, it is still a rural place. I would walk alongside small pastures with cattle resting in the shade of a large mango tree. In contrast to the many chilly mountaintop villages where Chatino is spoken, Tataltepec lies in hot country in a low valley near the confluence of two rivers.
In addition to the water needed to irrigate the fields during the dry seasons, the river also gives the Chatinos of Tataltepec many different kinds of crustaceans. My bayou-born heart was overjoyed when I saw the different kinds of long-pincer crawfish gracing the chili and tomato broths that I ate with white corn tortillas as big as dinner plates. The Chatinos of Tataltepec are connoisseurs of crawfish and distinguish many different species (nxkweèʔ, tkúʔ, tyunù, saʔya, and at least three kinds of tatyà) that local Spanish calls simply camarón — or shrimp.
The community is quite close-knit. One day my host, an elder who cleared out a space in his shed for me to sleep in, came home with a load of firewood on his donkey. I helped him move the firewood and stack it under the awning of his house, and within days I learned that everyone in the town had heard about it. As an outsider and a guest, I was doubly unlikely to help out with tasks, and word spread fast.
It was around that time that people on the street stopped greeting me in Spanish and started asking me Malā ntyaā?
Location: Santa Lucía Teotepec, 16o08’33.07″ N, 97o12’20.40″ W
Language: Teotepec Eastern Chatino
Language Status: Healthy, spoken as a first-language by people of all ages
Life is busy in Teotepec. People scatter around the urban-like center plaza through the local market, municipal building and church, as others work their land in the countryside. In homes like the Quintas Gifueroa family’s where I rented a room, women prepare tortillas, coffee and other foods for the day’s meals, and children play around the house. But at night, Teotepec becomes quiet, surrounded by the din of the forest.
Teotepec is a rural community tucked in the coniferous forests of the southern-most Sierra Madre Del Sur Mountains. The climate is largely temperate with the rainy season lasting from May through October.
The agricultural community benefits from the rain, raising staples like corn, beans and squash; fruits like bananas, guava and guanabana ‘soursop;’ and animals like cows, chickens and turkeys. Some people raise cash crops, like coffee and sugarcane, to produce a semi-processed sugar known as panela.
I spoke with the Chatino-speaking elders about daily activities and culture, like cultivation and preparation of different foods, contemporary and historical trades, and folk tales and historical narratives. I wanted to understand and document the language as used in everyday contexts: I worked with elder expert speakers to record texts and vocabulary, and I trained about a dozen teenagers to help document their language.
To do this, I had to earn the community’s trust. After my first summer abroad, I returned during winter break to further acquaint myself with the people. During that trip, I met my host family; their son Reginaldo Quintas Figueroa, whom I regularly consulted with; and Chatino speaker Wilebaldo Mendoza, whom I worked with each day.
I connected with the ethos of teaching speakers about the linguistics of their language. I wanted to engage young speakers in the documentation of their language to counter the language attrition occurring in their community. Going beyond simply training speakers to write, engaging them in the documentation process has been a way to involve community youth in a meaningful linguistic exercise that requires the interaction across generations. It created a valuable loop of knowledge for community youth that is acquired less and less through traditional means.
The opportunity to live in Teotepec, learn about the Chatino culture and connect with the community to document and describe their language has been life changing; but not just for me.
Two of the youths I worked with, Reginaldo Quintas Figueroa and Hugo Reyes Velasco, are pursuing higher degrees. In June of 2015, Reginaldo finished his first year in the applied linguistics program at the Autonomous University of Nayarit in Tepic, Mexico. He continues to assist language documentation initiatives for the Huichol language of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock. Hugo became an expert in the transcription and translation of the oral text interviews we collected. He was recently accepted to the Business Administration program at the Institute of Technology in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Location: San Marcos Zacatepec
Language: Zacatepec Eastern Chatino
Language Status: Severely endangered, spoken by 300 elderly persons
Listen: The Three Hunters story told by Matilde Barrada
I first visited San Marcos Zacatepec in the summer of 2006 in search of a field site to conduct linguistic documentation research of an endangered language. Little did I know back then that Zacatepec was going to become my second home and some of its people, my adoptive family.
San Marcos Zacatepec is a small community of about 1,000 inhabitants in the lowlands of the Sierra Madre in Oaxaca, Mexico. During that first trip, I noticed right away that it was a very open and welcoming community to visiting foreigners — although there aren’t many of them. Even at first, people easily welcomed me into their homes and were very curious about me.
By the end of the visit, San Marcos Zacatepec seemed to be the perfect place for me to start a documentation project and spend the next eight years of my life. I shared this endeavor with my daughter, who was an infant when it all started, but has accompanied me on all of my trips since she was born.
The community welcomed us with open arms. She is now seven years old and has spent all her summers and other vacations running around in the amazing scenery of Zacatepec, playing with local kids, learning about another culture and speaking another language, including some Chatino.
The vast majority of community members are of Chatino ethnicity but only about 300 Zacatepec Chatino speakers remain.
Zacatepec Chatino is a highly endangered language, spoken primarily by elders. Spanish is spoken in all households and all public domains. But amidst the village, pockets of a thriving body of Chatino speakers remain, particularly when the elders gather.
A stroll along the village’s main street during the quiet time of the afternoon’s meal revealed that Zacatepec Chatino was still present. If I listened closely, I could hear the animated conversations in Chatino through every open door. It could also be heard in the municipality building during a busy afternoon, where many of the village’s elders gathered to discuss political matters.
I worked with the elders to assemble a large collection of recordings and studied the process of language loss. I wanted to help young speakers revive the language.
Many community members have participated in this documentation project since 2006: some as storytellers and others as linguistic consultants, translators and transcribers. All of the data collected over the years is archived at the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America and the Endangered Languages Archive.
Many of Zacatepec’s youth have a family member’s voice preserved among these recordings, but anyone can access it and listen to those disappearing voices. I think that’s one of the most valuable aspects of this project.
As for me, sharing this incredible and unforgettable experience with my daughter has been invaluable. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to share this endeavor with her and hopefully she will remember this period of her life and our Zacatepec family fondly.