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A brief introduction to Tlacochahuaya Zapotec

San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya is located in the Tlacolula Valley in Oaxaca, Mexico. Tlacochahuaya is about 18 kilometers east of Oaxaca City, a 40-minute drive from the city’s historical center, and has around 2,300 inhabitants. Like most towns in the area, there are three parts of Tlacochahuaya’s name. San Jerónimo (Saint Jerome) is the patron saint of the town. Tlacochahuaya is the town’s Nahuatl name, and the official name used by the state. And of course, Tlacochahuaya also has a Zapotec name: Zunni ro’o. Incidentally, the word Zapotec also comes from Nahuatl. In Tlacochahuaya, they call Zapotec people Bënza, and the language is Dizhsa.

Click a word to hear it's pronunciation:
Bënza Nahuatl Oaxaca San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya Tlacolula Zunni r'o
map of the Tlacolula Valley
Map of the Tlacolula Valley; San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya is marked in blue in the middle of the map.

The word Zapotec does not refer to a single language, but to a language family containing dozens of individual languages. The Zapotec language family has a high level of dialect variation; in the Tlacolula Valley, every town speakers a slightly distinct variety of Zapotec. This forms what linguists call a “dialect chain”, where any two towns next to each other will be quite similar, but towns on opposite ends of the chain will speak very differently. In this context, the difference between a “language” and a “dialect” is hard to define. Tlacochahuaya Zapotec is certainly its own variety within the Valley, but for example it has many similarities to the Zapotec spoken in San Lucas Quiaviní (near Tlacolula, which is marked in orange on the map above).

Tlacochahuaya Zapotec grammar is something I’ll expand upon in other posts (click here for all posts about Zapotec), but here are some basic facts:

  • Zapotec languages have Verb-Subject-Object word order. That means that while in English we say Tomorrow, Juan will harvest corn, in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec you say "Tomorrow, will harvest Juan corn".
    zhí í-ndá’á Jwany gell
    tomorrow future-harvest Juan corn
    adverb verb subject object
    'Tomorrow, Juan will harvest corn'
  • Zapotec languages are tonal. This means that the pitch of a word can change what it means. So far, I've been able to identify four tones in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec: 1. low, as in zhi'i 'nose'; 2. high, as in zhí'í 'cold, flu'; 3. rising, as in zhǐly 'sheep'; and 4. falling, as in zhîly 'cotton'. (Click the words to hear recordings on the Talking Dictionary.)
  • While English uses the passive construction to say things like The money was counted and The plate was cleaned, Zapotec tends to have stand-alone intranstive verbs for these (-gab 'get counted, -ye 'get cleaned').
  • Tlacochahuaya Zapotec has six basic vowels: [i e a o u ɨ]. You can listen to these vowels using the phonetic alphabet guide here.
  • In Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, when it’s raining while the sun is shining (a sun shower), you say that a deer is being born, kayal bzhëny.

In Tlacochahuaya, the youngest (fluent) speaker of Zapotec is in his early 40s. Because children are no longer learning the language — and because of the socioeconomic and cultural pressure of Spanish — linguists consider Tlacochahuaya Zapotec to be highly endangered. There are some towns in the Tlacolula Valley where Zapotec is still spoken by children, but this is very rare, partly because of discrimination against indigenous languages in schools. However, activists in Tlacochahuaya have started language workshops for both adults and children, which are generously supported by the local government.

Want to learn more? Follow this blog! And here are some other resources about Zapotec and Tlacochahuaya:

  • You can hear more Tlacochahuaya Zapotec words on the Talking Dictionary.
  • Dizhsa Nabani is a beautiful documentary about language and daily life in Tlacochahuaya.
  • In this interview, Janet Chávez Santiago speaks about her personal experience facing discrimination in school for speaking Zapotec the neighboring town of Teotitlán del Valle (video in Spanish, with subtitles in English).
  • Tlacochahuaya’s church is home to a beautiful historic organ. There's a video in Spanish here.