A blog about linguistics and the beauty of language. Updates Tuesdays and Thursdays. What's a wug? Look here.

What does a linguist do (in Oaxaca)?

Today I'm in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Tomorrow I head to San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, about 20 km east of the city, where I'll spend the next month learning about Tlacochahuaya Zapotec. Since I'm here, I thought I'd answer the question posed to me by every rideshare driver: "You're a linguist? But, um, what do you do?"

When linguists study language, they're seeking to understand (a) what constraints there are on how languages work, and (b) how any particular language fits into those constraints. Some linguists study how a speakers of a language produce and perceive sounds (phonetics), while others study how you order words in a sentence (syntax). Some linguists study how language shapes and interacts with identity (sociolinguistics), while others compare related languages to figure out what their ancestor language looked like thousands of years ago (historical linguistics). And of course, you can study the linguistics of any language! Mandarin, English, Portuguese, Xhosa, or any of the other nearly 7,000 thousand languages are available. By looking at different languages from around the world, we can build a better understanding of how the human ability for language works.

map of the Tlacolula Valley
Map of the Tlacolula Valley. I spend most of my time in San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, marked in blue in the middle of the map.

For the past several years, my research has focused on a language called Valley Zapotec. This language is spoken in the Tlacolula Valley, which stretches between Oaxaca City and Tlacolula de Matamoros. But while I call Valley Zapotec a “language”, in reality, every town in the Valley speaks a distinct variety. The language vitality also varies from town to town. In San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, where I have worked the most, children no longer speak the language, and the youngest fluent speaker is in his 40s.

So while I’m in Tlacochahuaya, what will I actually be doing? In order to study Tlacochahuaya Zapotec grammar, I need to record examples of people using the language. This can be as simple as asking people to translate sentences, but it’s also important to collect examples of “natural” language. I frequently ask people to tell me stories in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, or to describe activities and customs (for example, I have recordings of people telling me about how to plant garlic and about All Saints’ Day celebrations). I then go through the recording sentence by sentence with one of my teachers to translate it into Spanish or English. By comparing data across many recordings, I can identify larger patterns in the language’s grammar that I would never be able to see in individual sentences. This summer, I’m particularly interested in studying verb tenses — I’ll write about that some time!

[Disclaimer: this is what I do. Linguists do all sorts of things, and even other linguists focusing on language documentation will have different priorities and methods than I do. But in general, this is how linguistic fieldwork happens.]