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Early research on Tlacochahuaya Zapotec pronouns

Disclaimer: This is preliminary research

Hello! Like many things I post on this blog, this research is in very early stages. This means that I may have simplified some more complicated details. It also means I might just be wrong! So please take this information as an early hypothesis, not a solid fact. If you'd like to find out my up-to-date opinions on the topic, feel free to email me.

One of the first things you learn when studying a language are the pronouns — the it’s and they’s and we’s of a language. We use pronouns like variables, so that we can refer to different people and objects without using their full names. Some of the pronouns of English are shown below. For the purpose of this table, I chosen the pronouns that I use most frequently/naturally.

(Some of the) English pronouns
singular plural
1st person I we
2nd person you you/y'all
3rd person, feminine she they
3rd person, masculine he they
3rd person, neutral/agender they they
3rd person, inanimate/nonhuman it it

There are many other pronouns in English: some dialects of English have youse as a 2nd person plural, for example, and there are additional agender pronouns, like zie. Furthermore, some of the pronouns in this list have other uses, such as the so-called “royal we”, which is singular, not plural. While I’ve called it the “3rd person, inanimate/nonhuman” form, we commonly give gendered animate pronouns to inanimate objects, like when we call boats she.

The pronoun system I’ve given for English is just one way of dividing up individuals into groups. But different languages have different sets of pronouns! Many languages have a distinction between formal and informal 2nd person pronouns, like Spanish Usted vs. . So how does this play out in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec? Here’s the pronouns of the language as I currently understand them:

Tlacochahuaya Zapotec pronouns (spelling simplified)
singular plural
1st person nare donn
2nd person, informal liu lat
2nd person, formal gibyu yubtë
3rd person, informal lány ladeny
3rd person, formal lab ladep
3rd person, reverent lany ladény
3rd person, masculine? lazh: ladezh:
3rd person, infant laby ladeby
3rd person, animal lam ladem
3rd person, inanimate niñ deniñ

Tlacochahuaya Zapotec has quite a few more pronouns than English does! In particular, they make many more distinctions in the third person. One pattern you might notice here is that all the third person plural pronouns include <de>. In fact, de on it’s own is just a plural marker! So for example, geht means ‘tortilla’ and de geht means ‘tortillas’.

For comparison, let’s look at pronouns from San Lucas Quiaviní, another Zapotec-speaking town, just a few kilometers away from Tlacochahuaya. You’ll notice they look pretty different, even though the languages are so closely related!

San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec pronouns (based on Munro & Lopez's 1999 dictionary; spelling simplified)
singular plural
1st person na dannonn
2nd person, informal liu lad
2nd person, formal yu yuad
3rd person, informal, nearby lang larëng
3rd person, informal, far away lai lariny
3rd person, respectful lazh: larazh:
3rd person, reverent lainy lariny
3rd person, animal lamm larëmm

One key difference is that where Tlacochahuaya Zapotec has <de>, San Lucas Quiaviní has <r> or <rë>. Also, San Lucas Quiaviní has slightly different pronoun categories. For example, in this language, they distinguish between “nearby” and “far away” in the 3rd person informal. You might also notice that the San Lucas Quiaviní “respectful” pronoun, lazh:, looks a lot like the Tlacochahuaya “masculine” pronoun, lazh:. The Tlacochahuaya version has been described to me as being only for men, but it could be it’s used more generally in practice — that’s something I’ll need to find out! Also, just like we often use human pronouns for boats in English, it’s likely that people can use Tlacochahuaya Zapotec pronouns outside of their “typical” categories. That’s something I’m on the lookout for when I’m translating Zapotec stories.

Want to learn more? You might have noticed that lots of people are talking about pronouns.