Zapotec mapped onto Spanish

by on October 5, 2019

I. Translate to validate

It is 1741 in New Spain, in the pueblo of Santo Domingo del Valle, to be exact, in what will eventually become the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Don Pedro de Zarate finishes translating a bill of sale, an official record of individuals exchanging land and money. In doing so, he legitimizes a legal act and galvanizes it for the future. In effect: “Yes, this property was and is owned by Zapotec people.” Signed, sealed, and put away for the potential resolution of future disputes.

There’s a discomfort in the need for translation. Zapotec speakers wrote the bill of sale, and it pertains to their Zapotec-speaking community. The written variety of Zapotec, now called Colonial Valley Zapotec, may have functioned as a lingua franca, or a standardized language used in communication between linguistically diverse communities (Smith Stark 2003). But Zarate knows that not all of the town’s land disputes will be resolved in Zapotec. Translating a Colonial Valley Zapotec document into Spanish is a necessity if that document is to be used as evidence in a court case (Farriss 2018).

Oaxaca’s current linguistic landscape would look strikingly different to Zarate, but it probably would not shock him. Spanish has, of course, become ubiquitous in Mexico. Zapotec languages are spoken throughout Oaxaca by 441,183 speakers, but they are classified as endangered (Simons and Fennig 2018).

Translating Colonial Valley Zapotec documents into Spanish falls within the scope of Zarate’s oversight as cacique, or regional indigenous leader, and in that job a transfer of power and autonomy is implicit. While Spanish elites were in charge of large territories, they were also vastly outnumbered, so the strategy of granting colonial towns a local leader became a common one for furthering colonial expansion (Deagan 2003).

New Spain (the Spanish empire extending from modern day North America to Central America) was almost two centuries old in 1741. Zarate had already translated several legal manuscripts in his lifetime. Today, we’re lucky to still have access to many of these texts—some of which can be viewed online at the Ticha Project). A linguistic analysis of Zarate’s Spanish translations confirms the historically sound hypothesis that as a cacique, he was also a fluent speaker of both Zapotec and Spanish.

Zapotec-Spanish bilingualism, as it came about in towns like Santo Domingo del Valle, is first visible among the religious and political elites who had reason to use Spanish professionally. In this piece, we will first review the linguistic evidence in Zarate’s work that identifies him as bilingual.

This evidence includes variation, that is, alternation between multiple grammatical forms in a text. The linguistic innovation evident in Zarate’s work fits with certain features of the modern Oaxacan Spanish dialect, and I hypothesize that these features exist due to Zapotec language influence on the development of this dialect.

II. Second language acquisition

There are several markers of Zapotec influence in Zarate’s works that we can analyze as linguistic variation. Let’s break down the following examples to identify Zarate’s use of Spanish as Zapotec-influenced.

1) Agreement

In Spanish, nouns are marked for number and gender. Determiners and adjectives used with nouns must agree with or match the number and gender of the noun. In Zarate’s Spanish texts, though, we often find a surprising lack of agreement (marked with a #):


a) Attested:  #Un pedaso de tierra comprada suyo            SDE746
Expected Spanish:  Un pedazo de tierra comprada suya
    English translation:  ‘one piece of land bought (which is) theirs’


b) Attested:  *Assi son los lindero         SDE736
Grammatical Spanish:  Así  son los linderos
    English translation:    ‘this is the way the boundaries are’                            

Why would Zarate, a professional Spanish translator, not always follow the expected patterns of number and gender agreement in noun phrases? Consider this: in Zapotec, number agreement is not required. A number preceding a noun is one way to pluralize something, but in the form of the noun itself does not change (Munro and Sonnenschein 2007, Cordova 1578).

As for gender agreement, there are no pronouns in Zapotec that distinguish between masculine and feminine classes as Spanish does (Operstein 2003), and, more importantly, nouns are not marked for gender as they are in Spanish or German. English does not have gender-marked nouns, either. So, similarly to Zarate, English speakers learning Spanish or German often find gender agreement tricky to remember!

It isn’t the case that Zarate never uses the expected Spanish forms that show number and gender agreement in his translations: sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. The influence of Zapotec as his first language explains why. His Spanish grammar shows interference from Zapotec grammar—a language that does not utilize number and gender agreement in noun phrases. This variation in how number and gender agreement is realized in his Spanish is a window into his linguistic identity as a bilingual speaker.

Next, we will look at more variation… this time, variation that constitutes an innovation and has repercussions for the future development of Spanish spoken in Oaxaca.

III. Variation as innovation

An innovation is a “novel linguistic creation,” purposefully or inadvertently generated in speech or writing (Paradowski & Jonak 2012). The following variation constitutes innovation because while its structure has no previous model in Spanish, it occurs as a useful turn of phrase in several Zapotec translators’ manuscripts, including but not limited to Zarate’s. Thus it was something that was used in Zapotec, and made its way into Spanish through Zapotec-Spanish bilinguals.

2) Quantifier for dual

Take a look at this Spanish sentence from the 1741 bill of sale (its English translation is provided below).

c) Don Sebastian de Gusman  los dos con su hijo lixitimo.     SDE741dT[1] 1 Line 10
Don Sebastian de Gusman  the two with his son legitimate.
‘Don Sebastian de Gusman the two with his legitimate son [appeared in court]’

How many people appeared in court? “The two with” suggests a calculation of 2 + 1. In English and Spanish syntactic rules, with/con can introduce a prepositional phrase to modify the entities participating in verb phrases or belonging to nominal phrases. Therefore, the word with/con leads me to believe that something is being added. However, only two parties are indicated: Don Sebastian de Gusman and his legitimate son. Looking at the original Zapotec text can provide a better idea of what this means.

d) Don Sebastian de Gusman quiropa      xinijgananij      SDE741d[2] 1 Line 11
Don Sebastian de Gusman qui-ropa    xinij-gana=nij
Don Sebastian de Gusman irr-two      child-male=3rd person

Now, translating the above into English will just get us into the same trouble as before, but we can see more clearly that the key is quiropa. In Colonial Valley Zapotec qui- is a prefix that usually attaches to verbs. It marks the “irrealis”—something that is not (yet) realized. However, if you attach qui- to a number, you can get a definite quantifier, or a word that signals a specific quantity. (Cite Sonnenschein and Munro). Many and two are both quantifiers in English, and the two is a definite quantifier. Adding qui- to the word that means ‘four’ gets you the definite quantifier ‘the four’, etc.

Because it indicates a group of two, we can call quiropa a dual. Zarate’s translations include several examples of los dos con in the Spanish that were translations of quiropa constructions in Zapotec. In fact, the con in the Spanish translation appears optional, as you can see in example e.

e) Xuana de la Cruz quiropaa xyninij Pedro de Silva       SDE736[3]; P. 1 Line 15
Juana de la Cruz los dos su hijo Pedro de Silva                  SDE736T4; P. 1 Line 23
    ‘Juana de la Cruz, the two [with] her son Pedro de Silva’
=2 people: Juana de la Cruz and her son Pedro de Silva

f) rotao quia atini quile Don Antonio de Zelis quiropa lachelani Christina    SDE7265; P. 1 Line 11
venden realmente la compra, Don Ant.o e Zelis, los dos con su muger           SDE726T6; P. 2 Line 11
   ‘(they) really sell the purchase, Don Antonio Zelis, the two with his woman’
   = 2 people: Don Antonio de Zelis and his wife Christina.              

Variation can lead to language change

In Oaxacan Spanish, the los dos con construction can still be used today to express a dual:

g) Fuimos al cine con Juan.
We went to the movies with Juan.

This sentence can have two potential interpretations:

i) We went to the movies with Juan. (3+ people)
ii) We went to the movies, Juan and I. (2 people)

The interpretation that you access when reading the sentence is determined by your lexicon, or mental word inventory, and how it connects to the syntactic rules of your native language. I have informally posed this interpretative question to some native speakers of Spanish while sharing this research in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Oaxaca; their intuitions are not the same. Some people can access both meanings, and some people can access only the first.

Without having conducted a formal study, I can’t be certain yet, but it seems that those who can access both interpretations are actually speakers of a Zapotec influenced Spanish variety. As this los dos con phrase became common in the local dialect, more speakers would have grown accustomed to its role as a dual and incorporated it into their structural understanding of the language. A long term impact may be that, today, adding con to a sentence modifies the subject by specifying or naming one of the parties included, not necessarily by adding anything.

Bilingual Zapotec-Spanish speakers like Don Pedro de Zarate mapped quiropa onto Spanish and developed something novel, an innovation, that really took hold in the Spanish of the region.

The manuscripts of Colonial Zapotec that I studied are available online at the Ticha Project. To hear the Zapotec languages spoken, check out the Online Talking Dictionary. To see Zapotec language in use, watch the documentary web series Dizhsa Nabani.

Further reading on Zapotec influencing Spanish

Beam de Azcona, Rosemary G. In preparation. “El sustrato zapoteco en el español de la Sierra Sur”


[1] This document can be consulted on Ticha at:

[2] This document can be consulted on Ticha at:

[3] This document can be consulted on Ticha at:

[4] This document can be consulted on Ticha at:

[5] This document can be consulted on Ticha at:

[6] This document can be consulted on Ticha at:


Deagan, Kathleen. 2003. Colonial Origins and Colonial Transformations in Spanish America. Historical Archaeology 37, no. 4: 3-13.

Farriss, Nancy. 2018. Tongues of Fire: Language and Evangelization in Colonial Mexico. Oxford University Press.

Munro, Pamela and Aaron Huey Sonnenschein. 2007. Four Zapotec Number Systems. ms: UCLA.

Operstein, Natalie. 2003. Personal Pronouns in Zapotec and Zapotecan. International Journal of American Linguistics 69, no. 2: 154-185.

Simons, Gary F. and Charles D Fennig (eds.). 2018. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-first edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International.

Smith Stark, Thomas. 2003. La ortografía del zapoteco en el Vocabulario de fray Juan de Córdova. In Escritura zapoteca: 2,500 años de historia, editado por María de los Angeles Romero Frizzi, 173-239. Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

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