Episode 41: Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo on Zapotec Language Documentation & Revitalization

URL: https://lingfieldnotes.podbean.com/e/ep-41-ambrocio-gutierrez-lorenzo-on-zapotec-language-documentation-revitalization/

[Intro music]

Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo. Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo earned his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2021. He is a documentary and descriptive linguist whose research focuses on the syntax and semantics of the Zapotec (Otomanguean) languages of southern Mexico. He has also worked on adjacent areas of phonology and morphology and has broad interest across all the linguistic subfields, including discourse analysis and historical linguistics. Ambrocio promotes work on the Indigenous languages by native speakers and members of heritage communities. He himself is a native speaker of Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec and has collaborated with other Zapotec and non-Zapotec colleagues to develop academic and revitalization materials.

This interview, I really enjoyed doing this interview. Ambrocio was such a pleasure to talk with. He’s done a lot of work with different varieties of Zapotec, which I find really interesting, so he’s done a lot of cross-linguistic studies, and some of the insights that he had to share about working with different communities where, even though they’re very close, they might speak very differently, and how different language attitudes and language ideologies, I found really interesting and found his insights on language status and language ideologies and language attitudes really insightful.


MTB: How are you?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: I’m doing good. How are you, Martha?

MTB: I’m good, yeah. It’s really nice to meet you.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Oh, nice meeting you too, and thank you for inviting me to your show.

MTB: Of course, yeah, for sure. So to start off, Ambrocio, can you tell me, how did you first become interested in linguistics?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: When I was a child, I mean, I was bilingual — Zapotec or Dizhsa, and Spanish — and I liked to do some translations between the two languages, especially with songs or any phrase that I would listen in one language I would try to do this translation, right, how would it sound in the other languages. And I was very interested in in how verbs work in that in Dizhsa we have a, now I can say like it is a more aspect-prominent language, and we form the progressive just by attaching one prefix to a stem, in comparison with Spanish, where we have this to be verb plus the –ando –iendo endings. And to me, it was like, “Huh. I mean, why?” was like my starting question, why we have these two different patterns for creating the same meaning. I mean, I didn’t ask with these words, but I kind of got into thinking about these two different forms of the languages.

And then I did my undergrad in Mexico, and in Mexico we kind of focus on one specific area since we started our undergrad studies, and mine was in teaching, teaching foreign languages. And, I mean, it was mainly teaching English as a second language, but during this time I got fascinated also by English, the sounds, and all the grammar. And what brought me to working on my own language and also on Indigenous languages was a colloquium I went just before I finished my undergrad in 2011, I believe I went to this colloquium for Otomanguean languages in the city of Oaxaca, which is organized by Rosemary Beam de Azcona, and I borrowed some money to go to this conference, and I was… I don’t know…something called me, just by listening how the study of language was approached, you know. It was… Although I was already studying languages, to me, was, I don’t know, the perspective I got from hearing about how we categorize sounds that are possible for human languages through the IPA. It was something completely new to me, and I don’t know why I got so interested in this. So I could say that from that point I started to focus on learning more about this, and through that process I went through a masters in CIESAS, which is the center… I mean, in Spanish, it’s Centro de Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social. I don’t know in which step you become a linguist, right, in which step you can say, “Oh, now I’m a linguist,” but this idea of learning about languages, of studying and analyzing and understanding what’s the system behind the language is something that called my attention since my childhood.

MTB: Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s a really nice story. I was wondering if you could give us an example for the progressive. Like you were saying in Spanish it has like the –ando, –endo suffix, so like…

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah.

MTB: … ‘working’ like ‘I’m working’ is trabajando, right?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, and in Spanish you need this… I mean, probably I started to think about this because the way we learn grammar, Spanish grammar, in school is like very repetitive and… And I don’t know. I mean, I’m just going to talk a little bit about, I’m from Teotitlán del Valle. And it’s a community when, during my childhood, most of kids were bilingual Zapotec and Spanish, but their grasp on Spanish was less than their grasp on Zapotec. So what I am trying to say is that I don’t know if this is the way Spanish grammar was approached, but I believe that because we had this other language as a background, kind of the teacher went through and say, “Okay, so yo estoy trabajando,” right? In Spanish, it’s ‘I am working.’ Or Yo estoy comiendo.

MTB: ‘I am eating.’

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: ‘I am eating,’ and in Zapotec if I say, ‘I am eating,’ it’s káy-āwá.

MTB: What’s the suffix?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, so the prefix for this progressive is , and the =a we hear at the end is the first person.

MTB: Okay. Okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: I mean, since then, I’m like, I just hear one word, and…

MTB: Yeah.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: … Spanish has all this long thing. Right? Yo estoy comiendo. And I mean, any verbs, so estoy trabajando is ká-yūnyá zṵyn.

MTB: Okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: So we have this ‘doing’ plus ‘work’ in Dizhsa.

MTB: So the stem is ‘work’ and you add the ‘doing’ suffix, or is it backwards?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: No, the stem is ‘doing,’ and I had the noun ‘work.’

MTB: Okay. That’s interesting. So for people who aren’t familiar with Zapotec languages, can you give us some language context? I think it is not just one language, right? It is a language family. Can you tell us more about that and like where, who, what?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah. Well, I’m going to start by saying that in the language, Zapotec is Dizhsa. Yeah? So I would like to promote its use as how the speakers recognize their language.

MTB: The Indigenous name.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah.

MTB: Can you teach me how to say it? [‘diʃa]?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: [diʒ’sa].

MTB: [‘diʃa]. With a… I should have asked you for the IPA. [laughs] So is that the name of the whole Zapotec language family ,or is it the specific variety of your community?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, I’m going to come back to the main question.

MTB: Okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: And because Zapotec is a group of languages in which there are various dialects and various degrees of intelligibility among each dialect. And Beam de Azcona, who has been working on the classification of Zapotec languages, considers there are 24 dialectal continuums of Zapotec. I, as… I don’t even know how to, from which perspective I should speak sometimes. Like as a native speaker, I would say that each community may be considered a variety. I mean, in Oaxaca, there are like 500 small communities and probably there are more than 100 whose native language is Zapotec. And so I think it depends even how you define language here in how you say this, but there are various classifications. Sometimes they are based on the geographical distribution of the speakers. So when I started to read about this, there were some authors who would say that we have Northern Zapotec, Central or Valle Zapotec, Southern Zapotec, and Isthmus Zapotec. But as I said, this is like more how the speakers of these languages are distributed geographically, but if we talk about dialectal continuums, as I said, we may say that we have 24 dialects, and if we want to be very specific, each community that speaks Zapotec speaks its own variety of Zapotec. And you were asking about the name of the language, because in my variety it’s Dizhsa. The language I speak is Dizhsa, but of course, when I get with other Zapotec speakers of the other communities, for example, in Southern Zapotec, they would say they speak Ditse.

MTB: Okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: I’m just trying to go with what I hear from them. Right? And from Isthmus is Didxaza.

MTB: Okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: But as you see, there is a little bit of variation according to the pronunciation or the phonology but it’s the name of the language. So in Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec, the name is Dizhsa.

MTB: I guess there’s varying levels of mutual intelligibility. Like you said, it’s a continuum. But would you say it’s very, like every village like when you walk to the next village, you immediately notice a difference or is there like clusters? Like, what is your experience?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, I’ll say that you notice the difference even with the nearest community, and I don’t know if it has to do with identity. I don’t know if it’s something social that is conditioned in this that we differentiate and that we recognize that it’s not the language we speak, because I have the experience with my mother when sometimes I would say a word that’s in the other community and then she would go automatically say, “It’s not from here.” Right? It’s from some other village, it may be from this or this other village, but she knows that it’s not from our community, the words I am uttering just because I am imitating the other village.

MTB: Okay. That’s interesting. So would you say that there’s not a lot of language mixing, like people tend to stay within their own variety when they speak, like, or is it maybe generational thing, like younger people like yourself are more open to using other varieties, linguistics or like, you know, markers but then your mother’s generation is like, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s not correct”?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, I think it has to do with, goes beyond to generation, but it has to do with the dynamics within a community. And I am saying this because last summer or this past summer, I started working with two new communities, San Miguel Del Valle and San Bartolomé Quialana. And this is an experience from San Miguel. I was able to have a conversation with the people I was working with, but also I noticed that they would adequate their speech to me. Right? It was slow. They were trying to be more with the sounds more closer to my variety, and I am saying this because Teotitlán has a little bit of higher standard status from these other two languages.

MTB: Oh, okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: But when they talk to each other, I wasn’t able to follow.

MTB: Oh, interesting.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Whether it was the rhythm, the speed I don’t know. There was something there that of course I got the idea, but not as in Teotitlán, like if I were listening the variety I speak.

MTB: Oh, this is really interesting. I’ve like never really thought about all of these different variables. Can you tell us a bit about your main research interests? So you mentioned that you initially were interested in verbs. Is that like what you’re still working on, in syntax — are you doing something else now?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, my main interest, I always say that it’s the morphosyntax of the language, and it includes the semantics. I mean, this is my main research history. I think what is changing is the approach I take to doing my analysis. Like now I’m completely looking at discourse, and so yes, my main interest is to do a detailed description of the morphosyntax of the language.

MTB: And you’re doing like cross-dialectal variation study, or… Because you said you were working with two new groups, so are you trying to study it more comprehensively or like deep dive in one variety?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: At this point I’d say it’s a more comparative analysis. I want to see what’s varying. I strongly believe that the syntax of the languages are the same. What varies more is the phonology. I mean, with closer varieties. Because the farther we go, the more difference we find, so maybe the farther we can also see syntactic differences, but yeah, my objective is to describe and document these subtle differences among these three varieties. The three of them are considered Central Zapotec varieties.

MTB: Oh, that’s interesting. And what is a general day like for you when you’re collecting data? Do you have a routine or is every day different?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Well, I do have a routine, but also this routine is, would you say in English it’s subject to change?

MTB: Yeah. Subject to change.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, in the sense that I adapt to the people I’m working with. Specifically in my village, which I have been working in my village for eight to ten years and working there, it’s — as I said, I adapt to the people I’m working with, and they want to meet in late afternoons or even at nights and weekends, because it’s like their free time.

MTB: Yeah. Sure.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: So that’s where I go to their houses and we discuss about the language, and I sometimes elicit them. I don’t really like elicitation, but I like to have a conversation with them and I record these conversations and through the conversation, I start asking about the specific aspects of the language. I do this in Zapotec, so it’s like an interaction in Zapotec, and my database is an interaction in Zapotec.

MTB: Yeah.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: So yeah, I adapt to them and if I go in the afternoon, I make sure my electronics, my camera, my recorder, is charged in the morning, and I may make some notes about what I’m discussing and what I found, how I’m going to approach that topic without being a like a direct elicitation on how you say this in this language (no, I don’t like these things).

MTB: Me too.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Do you have any favorite equipment like your video camera or your… Do you use the Zoom, Zoom H4N.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: No, I have an old video camera, and I know I’m… Don’t want to publicize it…

MTB: Okay. [laughs]

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: … publicize it, but I have a Canon…

MTB: Oh, okay.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: …in which the audio is very good, so even though I don’t connect an audio recorder to it or I don’t have an extra audio recorder, the audio it records, it’s very clear to me when I do my transcriptions, and I don’t have to have two files and do this.

MTB: Yeah.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: So I really like this camera.

MTB: No, that’s good. It does it all. That is actually so annoying to me because nothing is ever starting at the exact same time, so I’ll have the video camera going and then I’ll have the audio recording going, and then usually I have these recording watches that speakers also wear. So I’ll have all these different files, but they’re all starting at different points and it just becomes like really chaotic, and I have to be super organized to know what is happening where.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah. Yeah. No, I totally understand that, and I mean, I do have the audio recorder as a backup, but sometimes I don’t need to use it because I mainly work with texts, and I’m not very specific about the phonetics of the language. I mean, it’s a very interesting area, but it’s not one of my priorities.

MTB: Yeah. No, I totally relate to that. I think people who work in phonetics would maybe be horrified by how I do things, but it’s like, if I can understand it and the audio quality is good enough, then it’s good enough for me.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah. Good.

MTB: Yeah. So can you speak a bit to any challenges or advantages you’ve experienced as someone working within their own community and working with their own language?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Challenges? None. I mean, when I started, I tried to do, as I said, some… I’m just going to call this direct elicitation, like this translation thing. I wanted to have another language that somebody else could maybe more accessible to, such as Spanish, and I started doing some elicitation through Spanish, and I first, and also some very, I don’t know, structured elicitation.

MTB: Like, “How do you say ‘dog’? How do you say ‘cat’?” That kind of thing?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, and also, “Is this sentence grammatical?” but of course I knew it was ungrammatical. I made it on purpose and then the speaker, who knows I’m a native speaker would look at me like, “Are you all right? You know we cannot say something like this, right? Why are you asking me about this if you already know?” This is like a situation… I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge. It just makes me reconsider my approach to gather data or to gather texts.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s funny.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, and my challenges are more with technology. I mean, not with the people I work with or anything. Like we just talk about this audio recording, matching things with the camera, it’s not something I do.

MTB: Yeah. Are there any challenges that are specific to the field site? Like do you have a problem accessing anything you need or charging anything you need, or do you feel like it’s more about just like your comfort with the technology?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: No, I think in Oaxaca and in the Valley of Oaxaca, I don’t have any challenges as you mentioned.

MTB: It’s pretty straightforward.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah. Let’s say that technology works very well, and if I need something I can have access to it in the city, we are 40 minutes away from the big city. And something I’d like to mention is that sometimes I feel a little bit… I don’t know, may not be a challenge, but a situation I face is that some people may prefer outsiders to be working…

MTB: Oh, really?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: …on the language. Like in general, some people may have this perception that what comes from outside, it has a higher status. I don’t know. Sometimes I try to process how people perceive my work, but yeah, as I said, may not be a challenge but it’s… Sometimes I think about this.

MTB: Yeah. I’ve heard that from other people as well. One of my colleagues, Madoka Hammine, who works in Ishigaki, she works on a Ryukyu variety, and it’s the language of her family, and she’s noticed a similar thing that you just described where if she brings outsider linguists with her, that local people are very happy to work with the outsider linguists, but for her, they sometimes feel like, “Oh, like you shouldn’t be working on this,” or, “It’s not good for you to be working on this. You should be doing something else,” and yeah. I’m not really sure if it’s the same thing as what you described, but for Madoka — and I hope I’m not misrepresenting what she said in her interview, but it’s something like they devalue the language and they want her to be doing something that they perceive as higher status, especially after all of the education and everything she has acquired from outside. They feel like, “Oh, like, this isn’t a good thing for you, and we want you to do something that will make you more successful.” But when it’s an outsider it’s like adding value or like, “Oh, like, someone from the outside wants to work on our language. Like, that’s so great.” I wonder if it’s like a similar thing or maybe it’s something totally different.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: No, I think it’s a little bit different because I don’t think that people perceive it as something that it’s undervalued. It is just that in my own community when I started working, I’m like, “Who should I ask if they want to meet with me and have conversation about our culture, about the language?” And I went to knock at their doors because, although it’s a small village, you kind of need to build a relation before you start doing your work. And I went and I asked some people. A few of them, they would say to me like, “No, we don’t know much about the language,” or, “You should go and ask this other person.” They would make up something for not working with me.

MTB: An excuse.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: But then I heard that they work with some outsiders in exactly the same work I do. Right? So then I ask, “Hm. I mean, what were the words? What convinced them?” Because I mean, I talked to them in our language, to be as clear as possible what we were going to do, what I want the data for. So that’s where I asked myself, “Why? Like, is this because they are outsiders, they see them as they are doing, I don’t know, a better kind of work?” I don’t know. Just some questions I ask myself when I face this kind of rejection in my own community.

MTB: Yeah. That’s really interesting. Thank you for sharing about that. So thank you so much, Ambrocio. Where can people find you if they want to read more about your work or learn more about what you’re doing? Can they find you online somewhere?

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Yeah, so I’m in Academia, and also I’m on ResearchGate, and they can read about my work there.

MTB: Perfect.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: I’m also preparing a page through the university I’m working now, so there will be some information there coming soon.

MTB: Awesome. Great, and I’ll link all of that in the show notes so people can find you there.

Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo: Thank you.

MTB: Thank you.