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Designing and teaching a practical orthography of Nigromante Zapotec

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Title: Designing and teaching a practical orthography of Nigromante Zapotec
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: We discuss two challenges of developing and teaching a practical orthography of an under-documented language. These challenges are language-specific, but have practical applications to the develop- ment of other orthographies. We describe how we worked with speakers to develop orthographic conventions regarding suprasegmental vowel features, and how we dealt with the language’s consid- erable inter-town phonological variation and the resulting orthographic variation. Our observations come from an orthography workshop we presented to native speakers of Nigromante Zapotec (Oto- Manguean, Mexico) in July-August 2014.

Tone and laryngealization are both contrastive features on NMZ vowels, and must be written to distinguish minimal pairs. For example, g ́aP ‘basket’, g`aP ‘phlegm’, g`a ‘nine’, ga ‘Chinantec (eth- nicity)’, and g ́a ‘where’ would be undistinguishable if suprasegmental features weren’t written in the practical orthography. After teaching speakers to write the consonant and vowel inventory of NMZ, we discussed tone and laryngealization. To introduce these concepts, we asked workshop par- ticipants to identify minimal pairs for suprasegmental features. Based on these examples, speakers came to the same conclusion as the linguists- that tone must be annotated on some NMZ words. At the same time, a practical orthography should use as few diacritics as possible. NMZ speakers and linguists worked together to decide how various minimal pairs for tone should be written.

NMZ is one dialect of Cojonos Zapotec, and there is considerable phonological variation between each Cojonos Zapotec town. One difference is that NMZ has less consonant phonemes than other varieties. Novels written in Yojovi Zapotec, for example, utilize characters representing phonemes that NMZ speakers do not have. This means that literate NMZ speakers need to have a working knowledge of dialectal sound correspondences. NMZ /ù/ regularly corresponds to Yojovi Zapotec /S/ (written and , respectively) and Yojovi Zapotec /ts/, corresponds to NMZ /tS/. We introduced the phonemes and as orthographically and phonetically different from /ù/ and /tS/, but belonging to the phonological categories /ù/ and /tS/. Speakers of NMZ do not utilize or in their writing, but can understand them when they appear in writing from other towns.

Our experiences have practical applications to other languages. Many endangered or under- documented languages have phonemes that a traditional Latin alphabetic script cannot easily accommodate. To make a Latin alphabet fit NMZ, we had to use our training as linguists to make informed decisions regarding orthography, incorporating native speakers’ needs and opinions.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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