Isthmus Zapotec

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Isthmus Zapotec
Juchitán Zapotec
RegionOaxaca, Mexico
Native speakers
(85,000 cited 1990 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3zai
ELPIsthmus Zapotec

Isthmus Zapotec, also known as Juchitán Zapotec (native name diidxazá;[2] Spanish: Zapoteco del Istmo), is a Zapotecan language spoken in Tehuantepec and Juchitán de Zaragoza, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. According to the census of 1990 it has about 85,000 native speakers, however this number is rapidly decreasing, as speakers shift to Spanish.[3]

Guevea de Humboldt Zapotec, a different language, is sometimes referred to as "Northern Isthmus Zapotec."[4]

Location of Isthums Zapotec (blue) on the Southern Coast [5]

Since the Ley General de Derechos Lingüísticos de los Pueblos Indígenas was passed in 2003 Isthmus Zapotec, along with all other indigenous languages of Mexico, was officially recognised by the Mexican State.


The consonants of Isthmus Zapotec are shown below. There are two types of consonants: strong and weak. Strong and weak consonants are called Fortis and Lenis. Fortis voiceless consonants that are represented by double letter for example: nn symbolizes the fortis of /n/. Fortis consonants are also longer than lenis consonants.[6]


The consonants for Isthmus Zapotec are as follows:

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ɲ ⟨ñ⟩
voiceless p ⟨p⟩ t ⟨t⟩ ⟨ch⟩ k ⟨c⟩[a]
voiced b ⟨b⟩ d ⟨d⟩ ⟨dx⟩ g ⟨g⟩[b]
Fricative voiceless s ⟨s⟩ ʃ ⟨xh⟩[c]
voiced z ⟨z⟩ ʒ ⟨x⟩
Lateral l ⟨l⟩
Rhotic trill r ⟨r̠⟩
tap ɾ ⟨r⟩
Glide j ⟨y⟩ w ⟨hu⟩
  1. ^ When a /k/ sound occurs before "e" or "i", it is spelled ⟨qu⟩.
  2. ^ When a /g/ sound occurs before "e" or "i", it is spelled ⟨gu⟩. Also, the sound /gw/ is written ⟨gü⟩.
  3. ^ Except before another consonant when it is written as ⟨x⟩.

This sound "bŕ" occurs very rarely for a bilabial trill [ʙ]. It occurs in words like "berenbŕ".

A couple consonant sounds may also be geminated (ex.; /l/ ~ /lː/, /n/ ~ /nː/).


Isthmus Zapotec has five vowels (a, e, i, o, u). These occur in the three phonation types of stressed syllables: model, checked, and laryngealized.

Checked vowels sound as if they end in glottal stop; for example words such as in English "what, light take, put." The glottal stop is a vowel feature. Checked vowels can also be a slightly laryngealized during a glottal closure.

Laryngealized vowels are longer and pronounced with a creaky voice. Sometimes they are pronounced with a clear pronunciation of the vowel after a soft glottal stop. There are not breathy vowels in Zapotec.[7]

Front Back
Close model i u
Mid model e o
Open model a


The verb structure for the Isthmus Zapotec is as follows: ASPECT (THEME) (CAUSATIVE) ROOT VOWEL. The verbs of Isthmus Zapotec usually contain around seven aspects. Research conducted by Stephen A. Marlett and Velma B. Pickett suggests “that for some verbs the completive and potential aspect prefixes are added at an earlier stratum than for most verbs”.[8] In Isthmus Zapotec, the four main causative prefixes are added /k-/, /si-/, /z-/, and /Ø-/ and at times, two of them can be found in a verb. E.g. /si-k-/. The prefix /u-/ allows for the addition of the word “make” into the word “quiet” as in u-si-ganî, meaning “make quiet”.[8] The Isthmus Zapotec refer to themselves by using the first person inclusive pronoun.[9]

Simple (monomorphemic) verb stem plus particle
Isthmus Zapotec English
-eʔeda come
neé and or with
-eʔeda-neé bring
b-eʔeda-neé-bé (nií) he brought (it)
ru-uni-neé-bé (ní naʔa) he does (it) with (me)
Simple verb stem plus noun stem
Isthmus Zapotec English
-naaba ask
diʔidžaʔ word
-naaba-diʔidžaʔ ask a question
gu-naaba-diʔidža (hnyoʔoúʔ) ask your mother

In Isthmus Zapotec, the verb stems can be single morphemes or they can also be compounds of two morphemes.[7] There are three compound stems, the first two are highlighted by the above two charts. In the first chart, -eʔeda translates to 'come' and nee translates to 'and or with' with morphemes added in the beginning and at the end of the word, altering its overall meaning. They are simple (monomorphemic) verb stem plus particle.[7] In the second chart, -naabatranslates to 'ask' while diʔidžaʔ translates to 'word' which are simple verb stem plus noun stem. The third compound is a simple verb stem plus noun stem where -aaka and -unni are the verb stem. The verb stem -aaka translates to 'happen or come to pass' while -unni translates to 'do'. Any Spanish infinitive is theoretically a second component in the compound.[7] Spanish words are also incorporated with Isthmus Zapotec morphemes such as r-aaka-retratar-beé meaning 'he gets his picture taken' where the Spanish word retratar has Isthmus Zapotec morphemes at the beginning and at the end. The charts below are the classes of morphemes in Isthmus Zapotec:

Classes of Morphemes in Isthmus Zapotec[edit]

Various Types of Aspect in Isthmus Zapotec[7]
Isthmus Zapotec Name Forms
{si-} causative
{na-} stative
{gu-} potential
{wa-} perfective
{zu-} incompletive
{bi-} completive; singular imperative
{ru-} habitual
{nu-} unreal
{ku-} continuative
{na-} movement
{tše-} movement-intention, present
{ze-} movement-intention, future
{ye-} movement-intention, completive
{zé-} movement-intention, incompletive
{la-} plural imperative
{ké-} negative
{kádi-} negative
{-di} negative
{-sii} as soon as
{-šaʔataʔ} too much
{-ru} still, yet
{-gaa} meanwhile
{-peʔ} emphasizer
{-ka} right away
{-ža} reverser
{-saʔa} reciprocal
Subjects in Isthmus Zapotec[7]
Isthmus Zapotec Name Forms
{-ka} plural of subject
{-éʔ} first person singular
{-luʔ} second person singular
{-beé} third person singular, humans
{-meé} third person singular, animals
{-nií} third person singular, inanimate
{-ʔ} third person singular, known subject
{-nuú} first person plural inclusive
{-duú} first person plural exclusive
{-tuú} second person plural

An example for the morpheme {-ka}, attaching it to an Isthmus Zapotec word will make the word plural. The Isthmus Zapotec word zigi (chin) when {-ka} is added as a prefix will become kazigi (chins). Zike (shoulder) will become kazike (shoulders) and diaga (ear) will become kadiaga (ears).

Word Interrogation in Isthmus Zapotec[7]
Isthmus Zapotec Name Forms
{-lá} yes-or-no questions
{-yaʔ} questions other than yes-or-no
{nyeʔe-} yes-or-no questions; occurs only with -lá

Yes/no question particles In Isthmus Zapotec are not mandatory, however, the question particle [lá?] is required in these form of questions.[10]

Tense-Aspect-Mood (TAM) Prefixes[5]
Prefix TAM
ri-, ru- Habitual
bi-, gu- Completive
ca-, cu- Progressive
za-, zu- Irrealis
ni-, nu-, ñ- Potential
hua- Perfect
na- Stative

Demonstratives in Isthmus Zapotec [3]
ri’ proximal (objects near the speaker)
ca mesioproximal (objects near the addressee)
rica’ mesiodistal (objects away but near from both speaker and addressee)
que distal (objects far away from both speaker and addressee)

Pronominal System in Isthmus Zapotec[10]
Categorization Dependent Form Independent Form
1st person singular -a’ naa
2nd person singular -lu’ lii
1st person plural inclusive -nu laa-nu
1st person plural exclusive -du laa-du
2nd person plural -tu aa-tu

Syllable structure[edit]

Isthmus Zapotec has mainly open syllables.


Isthmus Zapotec has a hierarchical level that is composed of six structural levels: discourse level, utterance level, sentence level, clause level, phrase level, and word level. Each levels contains different components that differentiates one another and their complexity.

Discourse Level → Utterance Level → Sentence Level → Clause Level → Phrase Level → Word Level

- It is displaying in order of highest complexity to lowest complexity.

Discourse Level[edit]

  • Discourse level is the highest level of complexity in Isthmus Zapotec that covers a broad range levels from utterance to verbal to conversation unit.
  • There are still limitations of discourse level as to whether there should be another level between discourse level and utterance level.
  • The discourse level comes in two forms, monologue and conversation.
  • Monologue form includes similar properties of utterance level to the point they are overlapping one another.
  • Conversation form has two subclasses, dependent and independent clauses. Independent clause is more common than dependent clause, it has utterances or non-verbal units as its opening and closing in most cases.

Utterance Level[edit]

  • Utterance level consists of two class, dependent and independent. Dependent utterance has three subdivisions, conversation utterance opener is used in initial human interaction. conversation utterance sequence is used in ongoing speech (listen and respond), and conversation utterance closer is used in closing the conversation. Independent utterance types include poetry, letters, instructions, etc.
  1. Utterance opener: Hello, how are you doing today?
  2. Utterance sequence: I'm doing great, thanks for asking.
  3. Utterance closer: Bye, see you later.

Sentence Level[edit]

  • Sentence level is composed of grammatical units that can be a complete statement, dependent and independent classes are its major category. Dependent sentence is the subsequent statement of a previous sentence while independent sentence is not. Dependent has two clauses and each with different composition.
  1. Clause sentence: multiple clauses and in occasional cases of tagmeme, a smallest functional element unit in language.
  2. Non-clause sentence: incomplete clauses or fragments.
  • Independent level includes two different classes as well, clause and non-clause sentence.
  1. Clause sentence: contains only clauses
  2. Non-clause sentence: A phrase or word that forms independent clause but less prevalent, only vocatives and limited informational sentences.

Clause Level[edit]

  • A clause is similar to a sentence, it can include another clause within the clause and phrases. The clause is part of predicate in which belongs to a sentence containing an action about the subject. Clause level contains two categories, dependent and independent.
  1. Dependent clauses takes slots in sentences, clauses, or phrases. For example, the sentence "when she gets here, tell me," has two dependent markers, one is when (time slot) and the other is the comma. There could also be location slot just like in the sentence she's driving to the dentist.
  2. Independent clauses takes only takes places in obligatory slots that can be clause or phrase at the same time.

Phrase Level[edit]

  • Phrase level mainly contains few words that function as units and dependent phrases even when phrase level is primarily independent. For example, "how much money does he have?", how much money is the independent clause, and the reply (a number) is the dependent phrase including the tagmeme.
  • Phrases are mostly composed of words or filled with other clauses and phrases.

Word Level[edit]

  • Word level is the most common level among the hierarchical structure, mainly composed of phonemes, affixes, suffixes, and other grammatical units. Two categories of word level is its ability to become a sentence by its own, dependent and independent.

Independent words can be separated and count as a complete sentence by its own and at least reply to a question that is specific to an object, location, etc. For example, "what do you call this building?" or "which store did you go to?".

Dependent words have two forms, enclitic and proclitic. Separating them will not form a complete sentence or response but they fill in more slots than independent words.[11]


This poem Bidxi was written by Victor Terán and translated into English by David Shook[12]
Original Isthmus Zapotec Bridge Translation English Translation
Bidxi Toad Frog

Cachesa, cachesa

ti bidxi' ludoo

ti bidxi' ruaangola

ti bidxi' nambó'

Latá', lataguuya'

lataguuya oh,

ti bidxi' luyaandi

cachese ludoo.

Jumps, that it jumps

a toad on the cord

thick-lipped toad  

pot-bellied toad  

Come, come, come to see

come, come, come to see

a toad with bug-eyes

that jumps in a straight line

Jump! Jump!

Frog skip the rope

Wide-mouth frog

Pot-bellied frog

Come, come and see

Come and see - look

Bug-eyed frog

Jump skip the rope

Further reading[edit]

  • Pickett, Velma B. and Villalobos, María Villalobos and Marlett, Stephen A. (2010). "Isthmus (Juchitán) Zapotec". Illustrations of the IPA. Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 40 (3): 365–372. doi:10.1017/S0025100310000174{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link), with supplementary sound recordings.


  1. ^ Isthmus Zapotec at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
  2. ^ Pickett et al. (2007)
  3. ^ a b Bueno Holle, Juan José (2019). Information structure in Isthmus Zapotec narrative and conversation. Language Science Press. p. 1. ISBN 9783961101306.
  4. ^ Guevea de Humboldt Zapotec at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
  5. ^ a b Bueno Holle JJ (2019). Information structure in Isthmus Zapotec narrative and conversation (pdf). Berlin: Language Science Press. doi:10.5281/zenodo.2538324. ISBN 978-3-96110-129-0.
  6. ^ "Zapotec Language - Structure, Writing & Alphabet - MustGo". Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Pickett, Velma (Summer 1955). "Isthmus Zapotec Verb Analysis II". International Journal of American Linguistics. 21 (3): 217–232. doi:10.1086/464336. S2CID 224808004 – via JSTOR.
  8. ^ a b Marlett, Stephen A. &, Pickett, Velma B. (October 1987). "The Syllable Structure and Aspect Morphology of Isthmus Zapotec". International Journal of American Linguistics. 53 (4): 398–422. doi:10.1086/466066. S2CID 144467643 – via JSTOR.
  9. ^ "Isthmus Zapotec". SIL Mexico.
  10. ^ a b Bueno Holle, Juan José (2019-03-22). Information structure in Isthmus Zapotec narrative and conversation. Topics at the Grammar-Discourse Interface. Berlin: Language Science Press. ISBN 9783961101290.
  11. ^ Pickett, Velma Bernice (1960). "The Grammatical Hierarchy of Isthmus Zapotec". Language. 36 (1): 3–101. doi:10.2307/522248. ISSN 0097-8507. JSTOR 522248.
  12. ^ "Frog". Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  • Alfabeto Popular para La Escritura del Zapoteco del Istmo (in Spanish). 1956.
  • Pickett, Velma B. (1988) [1959]. Vocabulario Zapoteco del Istmo (in Spanish).
  • Marlett, Stephen A.; Pickett, Velma B. (1996). "El pronombre inaudible en el zapoteco del Istmo". In Fernández, Zarina Estrada; Esteva, Max Figueroa; Cruz, Gerardo López (eds.). III Encuentro de Lingüística en el Noroeste (in Spanish). Hermosillo, Sonora: Editorial Unison. pp. 119–150.
  • Pickett, Velma B.; Black, Cheryl; Cerqueda, Vincente Marcial (2001) [1998]. Gramática Popular del Zapoteco del Istmo (in Spanish).
  • Pickett, Velma B.; Villalobos Villalobos, María; Marlett, Stephen A. (2008). Stephen A. Marlett. (ed.). "Zapoteco del Istmo (Juchitán)" (PDF). Ilustraciones Fonéticas de Lenguas Amerindias (in Spanish). Lima: SIL International y Universidad Ricardo Palma.
  • Pickett, Velma B.; Villalobos, María Villalobos; Marlett, Stephen A. (December 2010). "Isthmus (Juchitán) Zapotec". Journal of the International Phonetic Association Vol. 40, No. 3.
  • Britton, A. Scott (2003). Zapotec-English/English-Zapotec (Isthmus) Concise Dictionary. ISBN 0-7818-1010-8.
  • Pickett, Velma B. 1959. The grammatical hierarchy of Isthmus Zapotec. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan.
  • Marlett, Stephen A. & Velma B. Pickett. 1996. El pronombre inaudible en el zapoteco del Istmo. In Zarina Estrada Fernández, Max Figueroa Esteva & Gerardo López Cruz (eds.) III Encuentro de Lingüística en el Noroeste, 119–150. Hermosillo, Sonora: Editorial Unison.
  • Marlett, Stephen A. 1987. The syllable structure and aspect morphology of Isthmus Zapotec. International Journal of American Linguistics 53: 398–422.
  • Sicoli, Mark A. 1999. A comparison of Spanish loanwords in two Zapotec languages: Contact-induced language change in Lachixío and Juchitán Zapotec. University of Pittsburgh, M.A. Thesis.
  • De Korne, Haley. 2016. "A treasure" and "a legacy": Individual and communal (re)valuing of Isthmus Zapotec in multilingual Mexico. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 31.1:21-42. Online access

External links[edit]