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Documentation of Zacatepec Chatino language

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Language Zacatepec Chatino
Depositor Stéphanie Villard
Affiliation University of Texas at Austin
Location Mexico
Collection ID 0256
Grant ID IGS0128
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Zacatepec Chatino is a highly conservative language part of the Zapotecan language family, spoken by an estimated 1,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico.

This collection consists of transcribed and analyzed texts in Zacatepec Chatino, including documentation of naturally occurring narrative, dialogue, ritual speech and cultural knowledge. The texts will be the basis of a descriptive grammar, a tri-lingual dictionary and will be shared with the community in printed booklets, CDs, and through archival means. Native speakers will be trained in language documentation methods.


Group represented

Zacatepec Chatino (Eastern Chatino)


Language information

Zacatepec Chatino is a highly endangered Eastern Chatino variety. It is only spoken by about 300 people above fourty years of age in San Marcos Zacatepec, a community of about one thousand members, located in the Southern Sierra Madre of Oaxaca, Mexico.


Special characteristics

Verb paradigms and verb database


Collection contents

Recordings, pictures, transcriptions/translations, verb database (S file)


Collection history

Genetic Affiliation and Geographic location
Chatino is a shallow language family that is coordinate with Zapotec in the Zapotecan language family of the Otomanguean language stock. It is spoken in the Southern Sierra Madre mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Chatino consists of three main varieties, Zenzontepec (ZEN), Tataltepec de Valdez (TAT), and Eastern Chatino (Boas, 1913; Woodbury, 2008). Zacatepec belongs to the Eastern Chatino variety. Current documentation of Zacatepec, San Juan Quiahije, Yaitepec, Tataltepec and Teotepec Chatino indicate that within Eastern Chatino, there is significant diversity with regard to phonological structure including tone and penultimate syllable loss (E. Cruz & Woodbury 2006, Pride & Pride 1997, Rasch 2002, Villard 2008). So even within this set, intelligibility varies, especially between the innovative varieties and the conservative ZAC.

ZAC Chatino is ONLY spoken in a very small geographic area corresponding to the village of San Marcos Zacatepec. It is located in the lowlands of the Southern Sierra Madre, at about 820 meters above sea level, 30 minutes from the Pacific coast in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico (Lat:16° 8’35.41″N ~ Long: 97°21’16.22″W). It has a population of approximately 1000 people (according to the 2005 census – INEGI-Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Geografía).

Language Endangerment
Economic activities in San Marcos Zacatepec include growing coffee and corn mainly at a subsistence farming scale. Many village men and women work as laborers in near-by towns like Rio Grande, Puerto Escondido and Juquila. Furthermore, the village has been experiencing mass migration by the younger generation of men, and recently even by young women, to Mexican cities and the US.

In the last forty years, it has developed important commercial ties with non-Chatino communities thanks to improved access to the coast through a very accessible and direct road.

Zacatepec Chatino finds itself in an extremely precarious situation as the number of speakers is dwindling quickly. It is only spoken by the elder population, so out of the one thousand village inhabitants, maybe one third are chatino speakers, leaving the language with a very worrying approximate 300 native speakers. All Chatino speakers are bilingual in Chatino and Spanish, and no monolingual Chatino speakers are left. The middle-aged population has some notion of Chatino and could be considered passive speakers, but the youth is Spanish monolingual as it is the language of media and of instruction in the schools.

A Comprehensive Documentation
This project produced a collection of recorded, transcribed, analyzed and archived Zacatepec Chatino (ZAC) texts including: narrative, dialogue, ritual speech, oral history; and description of cultural practices such as farming, cooking, building, political economy, work practice and toponymic information.

Community Oriented documentation
ZAC native speaker, Margarita González Hernández and Anatolio Soriano Cortés, were trained in text collecting by Stéphanie Villard. They were taught how to use a digital recorder (ZoomH2) which was left with them in Villard’s absence so that they could collect texts from various members of the community.,/p>

Comparative Chatino and Zapotecan Linguistics
ZAC is underdocumented and conservative, so it is vital to understanding comparative Chatino and Zapotecan linguistics. Some parallels to Zapotec have been found that had only been previously documented in a very divergent Chatino variety (Zenzontepec Chatino; Campbell, E.). Studying ZAC sheds light on the morphology of other Chatino varieties which have been obscured by a process of penultimate syllable loss. Also, work on the ZAC intricate tonal system contributes to a greater understanding of tone languages typologically as the tone languages of Meso-America differ considerably from Asia and Africa.

Previous Research on Zacatepec Chatino
Previous work on Zacatepec Chatino was non-existent–aside from a few lexical citations in the Pride’s dictionary before 2005, when E. Cruz, H. Cruz, and A. Woodbury began recording texts and wordlists. In the summer of 2006, Stéphanie Villard visited San Marcos Zacatepec for the first time , joined the CLDP and continued the documentation work Woodbury and Cruz, H had initiated.

In 2007, Villard started working on ZAC Chatino under the auspices of an ELDP (SOAS) Major grant (MDP0153) to Woodbury (Data archived at the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) and the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) under the Chatino Language Documentation Project). 2007-2010.

This collection is the product of fieldwork financed by ELDP but under an individual Grant (IGS 0128) to Villard from 2010-2013.

A study of the Zacatepec tonal system was published in 2008 (Villard 2008) which established most of the sandhi patterns but failed (along with previous studies) to distinguish low vs. null tones as such. A study of Zacatepec tonal system was published in 2008 (Villard 2008), a grammatical sketch of the language was written in 2009 (Villard 2009) and a verb classification and aspectual morphology study is to appear in 2010 (Villard 2010).

Stéphanie Villard’s work so far has provided valuable information about the Chatino Language in general, and more precisely about Eastern Chatino varieties as it unveils very interesting similarities to others in the group (in its intricate tonal system for example), but also to divergent ZEN Chatino, which belongs to a different branch of Chatino (as in its aspectual morphology).

A list of published and unpublished works by researchers working on Chatino languages can be found at:

Impact of the Program in General Within the Scientific Community
Prior to 2006, Zacatepec Chatino was an undocumented language. The thorough documentation itself of this moribund language will probably represent the biggest impact of the program over the longest range.

In-depth analyses of the phonology (including tones), morphology and syntax of the language, may also have long range impact. Adequate grammatical analyses play an important part in the quality of the material curated (especially transcription). The better the quality of the material curated, the more likely it is that philologists or formal linguists can embark on their own analysis of materials, regardless of whether the specific details of the analysis are superseded or not.

Today, ZAC corpus is among the largest corpora of natural discourse collected by native speakers in Mesomerica, and it has the potential to fuel an indefinite number of scholarly studies in linguistics and related fields in the future.

This language was virtually unknown to the scientific community before 2006, but it has attracted special interest, even within its own language family, because of its unique typological characteristics. Its phonology presents a complex tonal system with a large inventory of phonemic tonal sequences as well as intricate sandhi patterns, which have been the focus of various papers and presentations. Furthermore, contrary to most other Chatino varieties, zac conserves all non-final syllables of its roots. The latter makes it the centerpiece of the Chatino language puzzle as its transparent morphology tells the story of the evolution of more innovative Chatino varieties: beyond simply revealing lost segments, it provides polymoraic structures that host clear sequences of tones that are not discernable in the simpler, monosyllabic/monomoraic varieties.

Documentation methods
The community is interested in preserving the rapidly disappearing collection of traditional narratives. Since June, 2009, Margarita González Hernandez has been visiting the homes of speakers known for their abilities in verbal art. She is always in search of elders who reputedly tell stories in a “pure, old, and beautiful style”. Documenting these people’s oratory will not only ensure preserving an endangered way of speaking but also lead to elucidating what it is about its linguistic structure that is so highly appreciated.

Farming – traditional building practices and food preparation
The Zacatepec area is rich in coffee, beans, fruits and coconut plantations. Descriptions and dialogues of traditional practices of planting, maintaining, harvesting, and storing these crops were collected. Food preparation, such as tortilla and tamale making has also been documented, capturing some of the daily practice of women in the documentation, an area so far lacking. Furthermore, the abundance of palm trees in the vicinity makes Zacatepec one of the rare Chatino communities still building beautiful traditional palm houses. Nowadays, this work is done by young men and conducted in Spanish, but many older men in the village are very knowledgeable of the Chatino jargon and techniques related to this traditional building process.

Traditional political system
San Marcos Zacatepec is an agencia of the Municipio of Juquila, which is part of the District of Juquila, which is a district of the State of Oaxaca. Unfortunately, the community of ZAC is politically divided. Unlike most other Chatino communities that enjoy some kind of autonomy under the ‘usos y costumbres’ political system, ZAC is mainly governed by the Agencia Municipal. There exists an ‘Agencia del Pueblo’ that falls under ‘the usos y costumbres’ system but it has little governing power. Chatino political structure is complex, multi-leveled, and involves standards of community service (Greenberg, 1981; Hernández-Díaz, 1992) in a typical Mesoamerican cargo system (Dewalt, 1985). As a result of language shift, all traditional political practices in the ‘Agencia del Pueblo’ are conducted in Spanish. So ceremonial speech with high verbal art which is typical of Chatino political oratory (as found in Quiahije Chatino (Cruz, 2009)) is still vivid in some elder’s memories but completely unknown to the youth. Descriptions of the organization and traditions of community service and possibly examples of traditional political oratory will be recorded.

Training of language documenters and language transcribers
Margarita González Hernandez is about 70 years old and has been working with Stéphanie Villard on the documentation of her native language since 2006. She is trained to record natural speech with a ZoomH2. Margarita has collected about 95% of all natural discourse in this collection.

Anatolio Soriano Cortés is about 65 years old, and he has been involved in this project since the summer of 2011. He has recorded some natural discourse text but his main role in the project was to transcribe and translate texts. He was trained to read and write Chatino over the summer of 2011. When Villard was away from the field, he transcribed/translated texts alone, using a CD player to listen to the recordings, and a notebook to transcribe (Anatolio is an older person and is not familiar with computers). Over the course of this project he has transcribed about 8 hours of texts (without tones), of which about 5 hours were reviewed and revised together during Villard’s stay in the field.

María de Jesus Barrada is a passive speaker of Chatino in her mid-twenties who approached Stéphanie Villard during the summer of 2012 to be part of the project. She said that she wanted to learn how to write Chatino to become a language transcriber. At first, Villard had doubts that it would work out because of the fact that she was apparently only a passive speaker. Villard invited María to spend some time with her during the summer of 2012 so that she could teach María how to write Chatino. María finished high school so she is a good Spanish reader and writer. They worked on Chatino orthography and when Villard felt she was ready, they started working on transcriptions. Villard happened to have a lot of recordings with María’s mother’s voice (Matilde Barrada) because she is a prolific storyteller. Villard picked one of her recordings and figured that María would understand her mother’s speech best. They had Matilde present with them and she would repeat at a slower pace each utterance so that María could transcribe the words. Villard and María spent the summer of 2012 working together on transcribing María’s mother’s story, and by the end of Villard’s stay, María was pretty good at transcribing without Villard’s help. It turns out María is a much better speaker of Chatino than she initially advertised. At the end of the summer of 2012, Villard left her 2 hours of her mother’s text to transcribe. For the moment, María transcribes without tones, because Villard would like to wait till she is comfortable with orthography before adding the difficulty of tone transcription. Like Anatolio Soriano Cortés, María started transcribing in notebooks and then moved on to transcribing with Elan.

1. Text collection
The collection of text contains over 170 hours of natural discourse with about 100 speakers, men and women ranging from 40 to 87 years old. This number means that about one-third of the Chatino speakers in the community (about 300 speakers are left) have participated in the documentation of zac Chatino since 2005. The range of genres/topics: conversations, personal narratives, folk tales, traditional political system, culinary practices, and ritual speech. 95% of these recordings were collected by native speakers (mainly Margarita González Hernandez). The participants have expressed the desire to share and preserve their personal narrative. Most recording in this corpus represents a ‘tranche de vie’ (slice of life) and in a way, it is very similar (though at a much smaller scale) to the StoryCorps project in the US.

2. Video collection
About 6 hours of videos of conversations were collected. At first, Villard was not sure whether speakers would be willing to be filmed at all, but it turned out that they did not seem to be bothered at all by the camera. She ended up filming about 6 hours of conversation with different speakers. The setting is always the same: they are sitting on low chairs, not quite facing each other as Villard noticed this is not the preferred position for having a conversation. The angle is wide enough to capture hand gestures, and the sound is captured by both the external microphone of the video camera as well as by an independent digital recorder. The sound captured by the external microphone of the video camera is actually good enough to do transcription with Elan, but Villard also wanted a separate sound file in case she wanted to do some phonological analysis with those files at some point in the future.

3. Transcription and translation

The task of transcribing and translating has been done by 3 people: Anatolio Soriano Cortés, Stéphanie Villard and María de Jesús Barrada.

At this point, mostly unrevised transcriptions are archived in this collection as Villard is still in the process of adding the tone markings and revising orthography of each transcription. Revised transcriptions will be archived as they are edited.

Stéphanie Villard has been doing transcription and translation work also with the help of Margarita González Hernandez. Because of ZAC intricate tonal system, this is a task that has to be done with the help of a native speaker whose task is to re-speak each utterance at a slow pace, and also to repeat each word in isolation first, and then in a specific tonal environment in order to consider the effect of the floating tones and determine the tonal class of the word in question. This process is very slow and tedious at first when a lot of new words are encountered but becomes less so over time when new words are only encountered every so often.

4. ZAC lexicon
As of today, zac Chatino has a lexicon of a little less of 1000 non-verbal words (Flex – Fieldwork Language Explorer – SIL) and a verb database (Excel) counting about 320 simplex and complex verbs conjugated in all four aspects and four persons (1s, 2s, 3s, 1plin, 1plex) amounting to a total of about 6000 recorded verb forms (not all paradigms are complete).


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Villard, Stéphanie. 2014. The Zacatepec Chatino Documentation Project. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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