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Rosemary G. Beam de Azcona
Zapotecan languages belong to the Otomanguean stock and consist of two major subgroups: Zapotec and Chatino. They are primarily spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, and elsewhere in diaspora, particularly in California but also in other parts of the United States and Mexico. Zapotecan languages are spoken in a contiguous area and although all are related genetically, many languages exist in regional diffusion zones such that new changes spread areally. Similarly, individual Zapotecan “languages” often consist of dialect continua.
Zapotecan languages are tonal and also have contrastive phonation types, such as a contrast between modal (V), checked (VɁ), and rearticulated (VɁV) vowels. Some Valley Zapotec languages also have breathy voice, partially due to contact with Mixe. Vowel nasalization is a prominent feature of Chatino and a marginal feature of some Zapotec languages. Consonants usually fall into two contrastive series in Zapotec, commonly termed “fortis” and “lenis,” though the phonetic realizations of these vary from language to language. The historical loss of unstressed vowels is common in many Zapotecan languages, though there are individual Zapotec and Chatino languages that retain them. A stress shift from the final syllable (retained in Chatino) to the first (usually penultimate) syllable of the root (in Zapotec) makes the languages with vowel loss more dissimilar from each other, since a different syllable survives in Chatino versus Zapotec.
Zapotecan languages are head-initial languages with VSO order and are typically head-marking. Common morphology includes pre-posed TAM markers and post-posed person markers on the verb, and derivational prefixes on nouns. An emergent class of prepositions is developing out of what were historically relational nouns. Stative forms of verbs are more common than true adjectives, while numerals have many verbal properties.
Like other Meso-American languages, Zapotecan languages are currently experiencing both a golden age and a moment of unprecedented peril. There is an ever-increasing number of linguists who are native speakers of these languages, and the community of language activists, including students and educators, is growing stronger in Oaxaca and Mexico at large, and indeed worldwide, including where Zapotecan languages are spoken by immigrants. At the same time, the intense political and socioeconomic pressure on communities to shift to Spanish is greater than ever before, and the number of communities where children speak Zapotecan languages is ever shrinking. Children in communities where children speak Zapotecan languages at home are often chastised for doing so in school, which poses a continual threat. Zapotecan languages historically have been in contact with other Meso-American languages such as Nahuatl, Mixtec, Chontal, Mixe, Huave and Chinantec, among others. Today the vast majority of speakers of Zapotecan languages are at least bilingual in their language and Spanish, and many also speak English and/or other Meso-American languages. Zapotecan languages mostly show lexical borrowings from these other languages, and occasional grammatical borrowings. Regional varieties of Spanish show a Zapotecan substrate with numerous calques and interference on every level of the language from phonetics to pragmatics.