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Studying Tlacochahuaya Zapotec "tense"

A little note about verb classes

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.

The current focus of my research is “tense” in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec. That’s what I’ll be writing my Qualifying Paper about next fall, and it’s the primary focus of my fieldwork this summer.

I put “tense” in quotes because what we colloquially call “tense”, linguists break down into three smaller categories: tense, aspect, and mood (abbreviated together as TAM; click the words to get pop-up definitions). These three categories are often very intertwined — it’s almost impossible to talk about one without the other two. So what I’m actually researching right now is TAM in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec.

In English, TAM can be marked with a suffix on the verb, as in I dance vs. I danced, where -d marks the past tense. We also use auxiliary verbs, like the will in I will dance. In Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, TAM is primarily indicated by a prefix on the verb, instead of a suffix. For example, ‘Juan talks’ is rni Jwan with r- at the beginning, while ‘Juan talked’ is bni Jwan with a b-. Each form has the same verb root, ni, but with a different prefix. You can never use ni on it’s own in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, it needs to have one of the TAM prefixes on it.

In other Zapotec languages, verbs are divided into groups based on which TAM prefixes they use. These groups are called verb classes. We have something similar in English: some irregular verbs fall into patterns, like sleep/slept, weep/wept, keep/kept. Based on related languages, I expect Tlacochahuaya Zapotec verbs to be divided into at least four (and possibly up to nine!) classes. Identifying these classes is mostly a matter of learning lots of verbs and looking for patterns in their conjugation. I haven’t been able to clearly describe all of the classes yet, but I have noticed a few patterns. As an example, I’ll just talk about three possible classes I’ve identified. This is a super preliminary and somewhat simplified analysis, so please don’t quote me on it!

For this example, I’m just looking at two of the TAM prefixes, which for now I’ll call “past” and “future”. In the Class 1 verbs, the past form has the prefix b- and the future form has the prefix i-. Easy! These prefixes are used for the verbs ‘ripen’ and ‘grow up’.

Verb Class 1
verb "past" "future"
ga̰ts 'ripen' bga̰ts iga̰ts
ni'is 'grow up' bni'is ini'is

In Class 2, the future still has the prefix i-, but the past form is different. Instead of adding a prefix b- like we did in Class 1, in these verbs we change the k in the verb root to a kw. This class includes the verbs ‘shiver’ and ‘borrow’.

Verb Class 2
verb "past" "future"
kanield 'shiver' kwanield ikanield
kala' 'borrow' kwala' ikala'

Finally, in Class 3, the past form has the prefix b-, but also the g in the verb root becomes a d. On top of that, in the future tense, there’s no i-! Instead, the g of the verb root becomes a k. (Also, the future form has a higher tone than the past form.) In this class, we have the verbs ‘sew’ and ‘plant’.

Verb Class 3
verb "past" "future"
gib 'sew' bdib kib
gix 'plant (a field)' bdix kix

I’ve seen some other patterns in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec verbs, but it would be too much to discuss here. Zapotec verb classes can be very complicated, but that makes them very exciting to study!

Want to learn more? There’s lots to know about verbs…

  • Dr. Jeanette Sakel explains the difference between tense and aspect in this short video.
  • Gabriela Pérez Báez and Terrence Kaufman wrote about verb classes in Juchitán Zapotec. It was published in Anthropological Linguistics here.
  • For more about Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, you can check out the Tlacochahuaya Zapotec Talking Dictionary, or watch clips from Dizhsa Nabani, a documentary about language and daily life in Tlacochahuaya.