One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has been disseminating the information regarding social distancing and other health and safety information. It can be difficult to provide this information to everyone even in the lingua franca of an area, and while many areas around the world are providing this information in secondary languages, such as Spanish in the USA, it is still difficult to reach everyone due to potential language barriers.
This month’s language of the month, Zapotec, was inspired by an article I saw recently about what the Mexican state of Oaxaca has in place to reach minority populations in indigenous languages. But first, let’s learn a bit about Zapotec.
What we call Zapotec today is actually a collection of languages with a common ancestor, which most likely derived from the Mayan language. These 60-some languages can be divided into Northern, Southern, Isthmus, and Valley Zapotec. Common features in all the languages are the spelling system, but the basic pronunciations, 5 vowels and 24 consonants, can be as wildly different as French and Spanish and are not necessarily compatible. Interestingly, all of the vowel sounds in a majority of these languages share many similarities with the Latin vowels.
Another unique feature of the Zapotec languages is that they are an inherently tonal language. While English has a small degree of this, such as a rising tone to indicate a question, the tone of a sound can radically alter its meaning. While some Zapotecan languages have as many as 12 tones, the most common tongue, Isthmus, has 4. When written, there are no dialectical marks to indicate tone, but much like Mandarin this is learned orally and through practice. The Omniglot article at the end of this article has examples of the spoken language, be sure to check it out.
Before becoming romanized, the Zapotec language was logophonetic, or different symbols representing different syllables. In fact, in some dialects there were as many as 150 unique logographs. For more information on different writing systems, be sure to check our exhibit Writing Language: Passing It On, which features a section on the Mayan logographs.
So how does a government who speaks Spanish distribute information in Zapotec, especially when a majority of its speakers still live a simple lifestyle, with no computer and in some cases not even a phone, in addition to a relatively low literacy rate? In the state of Oaxaca, information has been translated and is being distributed through loudspeakers and the radio. In some cases family members can provide translation if they also speak Spanish. Many of the Western governments have relied on computers and cell phones to provide information, but for languages with low populations they may want to take a look at Mexican information systems to make sure they can reach as many citizens as possible.