According to The Ethnologue, the world's largest catalogue of languages and dialects, the Nahuatl language of Tabasco is extinct - it no longer has any living speakers. [UPDATE: As of today 2/22/2015, two days after I posted this blog, Ethnologue has updated their listing of Tabasco Nahuatl, no longer categorizing it as extinct, and noting a population of 30.]
|The Maya ruins of Comalcalco.|
Twenty minutes from where Nawat is still spoken.
Maya and Nawat has long coexisted in Tabasco, and also Ayapa Zoque
is spoken within a ten minute drive.
Fermin's neighbor in fact speaks Chontal Maya.
So the Tabasco Nahuatl language is not extinct. It does have native speakers, although there are very few of them, and the language is in imminent risk of disappearing unless someone assists Fermín and the community. His efforts to revive his language are hampered by the fact that he has to work, cultivating cacao, black pepper and fish to sustain his family, and that he receives little or no remuneration for his work.
I visited Fermin in the summer of 2014, and the rest of this blog post is dedicated to giving a brief sketch of Tabasco Nawat, and to argue that this is an imminently interesting and important variety of Nawat that really deserves support and recognition. And if you read all the way to the end, you will get a chance to listen to what the language sounds like and read a small sample text of Fermin telling about how to make cacao.
Nahua people have a long history in the south-east of Mexico. It probably arrived in Tabasco sometime before 800 AD, as Nahua speakers migrated south from Central Mexico along the gulf coast, through Chiapas, and Guatemala and into Central America. At the time of the Spanish invasion, Nahuan languages were spoken all along the gulf coast of Veracruz and into Tabasco, where the language coexisted with Mixe-Zoquean and Mayan languages. The municipality of Comalcalco, Tabasco is the location of an important classical period Mayan archaeological site, also named Comalcalco, which was probably built by the Chontal maya people who still inhabit the area. The Ayapa Zoque language, which has become famous because of a media hyped story about two of its last fluent speakers, is spoken less than fifteen minutes from Fermín's house by car. Tabasco has always been an important area in Mesoamerica – it was here that the Olmec culture flourished in the pre-classic period, and in the classic and post-classic periods it was an important site of trade, because of the abundance of Cacao and other tropical luxury goods. Comalcalco is itself a Nahuatl name, meaning “In the house of comales”, the comal being the round ceramic griddle used by many Mesoamericans for baking tortillas on.
The small family of Nahuan languages has two main branches: The Western branch includes most of the dialects spoken in the Center of Mexico and on the Pacfific coast in Michoacan and in Durango, and historically in Jalisco, Zacatecas and Colima. The Eastern branch includes the Huastecan dialects spoken in north-eastern Mexico, and the dialects of central Puebla, and Southern Veracruz, as well as the Pipil Nawat language spoken in El Salvador – and many varieties that are no longer spoken such as those of Chiapas and Guatemala. The Tabasco variety belongs to the Eastern branch. Some of the characteristics of the Eastern branch is that they use the pronouns neha/naha ”I”, teha/taha “you” and yeha/yaha “he/she”. They also do not use the word “ahmo” as the only negation word, and most Eastern varieties do not use ahmo at all (Pharao Hansen 2014). And they are also characterized by having the vowel /i/ in a number of words where Western Nahuan has /e/ (Canger & Dakin 1985), and by only using the plural morpheme -meh or -met and not the of the morpheme -tin which is used in most Western varieties. Tabasco Nawat, along with the Nahuan languages of Central Puebla, Southern Veracruz, and the Pipil Nawat language of El Salvador also do not use the tl-sound which is such a famous characteristic of the so-called Classical Nahuatl language and most of the Nahuan languages spoken in the Center of Mexico, but instead have changed all their previous tl's to t. That is why I write Tabasco Nawat and not
This is not a feature shared by all the Eastern varieties, as for
example Huastecan Nahuatl still has the /tl/ sound.
In terms of phonology, apart from the lack of /tl/ another interesting feature is that Tabasco Nawat has five vowel qualities /i, e, a, o, u/. Most other Nahuan languages have only four vowel qualities, as they do not have the vowel /u/ or if they have /u/ then they don't have o. But Tabasco Nawat has both. This is because it has not changed all its o's to /u/, but only some of them following a rule that I have not yet been able to fully work out. It seems that particularly long /o:/'s have become /u/. The language has not changed its final stop consonants /t/ and /k/ to glottal stops as has happened in the nearby Nahuan languages of southern Veracruz, and it has /h/ where “Classical Nahuatl” has the saltillo. It also voices the velar stop /k/ to /g/ both between vowels and even frequently at the beginning of words. Tabasco Nawat also has the sound /f/ corresponding to the consonant cluster /hw/ in other dialects. For example the word “feather” which in some other dialects is /ihwitl/ in Tabasco Nawat is /ifit/ (this is not uncommon in other varieties either, and is found both in Morelos and Zongolica).
Interestingly Tabasco Nawat also has a morphophonological process that turns /w/ into /n/ whenever it appears at the end of a word. For example the past tense of the verb /chowa/ “to do” is [ogichin] “he did it” (also note that the vowel varies, the /w/ having colored the /i/ to [o], but since the n does not color the preceding vowel the past form retains the vowel /i/. This strongly suggests that the rule turning /w#/ to /n#/ is old, or at least older than the change of /i/ to /o/). And when nouns take the possessive suffix that is /w/ in most other dialects here it is /-n/, for example “my wife” is /no-soa-n/, and “my name” is /no-tu:ga-n/. This morpho-phonological rule is shared with the dialects of Morelos and (some of) the dialects of the Zongolica region in Veracruz. It is kind of weird that this would be shared between these two areas, that are otherwise both linguistically and geographically quite far removed, and changing /w/ to /n/ is not so common in the languages of the world that one would expect it to appear independently (changes such as the voicing of [k] to [g] and the fusion of [hw] to [f] are much more common changes, and very likely to occur independently of each other in different varieties).
But the really interesting differences between Tabasco Nawat and other varieties are in the grammar of the language – both in the areas of morphology and syntax.
One really interesting aspect, is how plural subjects are marked. In most Nahuan languages plural subjects are marked on verbs using a suffix /-h/ or /Ɂ/. But this is not the case in Tabasco Nawat. Here plural subject is unmarked for the third person, but marked with -lo for the first person, e.g. ti-k-pia-lo "we are guarding it", but ti-k-pia "you are guarding it".
The language also doesnt have a future tense with the suffix -s as in most other varieties, rather future is constructed with the suffix -tiin which in other varieties means "to be going to do X". Negation is expressed with the word até. And the progressive present is expressed periphrastically with the verb nemi which is also used as a general copula.
Below are some examples of phrases in Tabasco Nawat demonstrating most of these interesting features:
chinechtemoli in nokwach porkeh nimopatatiin
find me my clothes because I am going to change
niyah nitamatiin chinechtemoli notegun iwan se morral
I am going fishing find me my fishing rod and a morral
nehpa nemi one tagat yun nigittak yalla
there is the man I saw yesterday
one tagat yun wallahka yahkiya
the man who came has already left
nigan nemi takwali yun mokwatiin
here is the food that were going to eat
iwa:n one tagat yun yahkiya mokwepatiin
the man who has left will come back
ka niga tigochitigiweh
where will we sleep?
Nigan gan tigochiskiah
this is where we were going to sleep
onehpa gan mottak one taagat
this is where we saw that man
nigan gan tigochkeh yallah
this is where we slept yesterday
yallah tichuugakkeh iwan ami nemilo welia
yesterday we cried, but today we are well
até tun kichin
he didnt do anything
we're taking care of it
iiyomexti nemi chuuga
the two of them are crying
geeski yahwan nemiya?
how many people were there?
How Cacao is Made
|A Cacao pod rotting on the tree: |
Fermin and many other Cacao producers
are plagued by pests, such as disease and squirrels.
Bueno pues nah nechittago nin noknin nigan nugal, ge wallah pan dinamarca iiwan negi tahtani tunu tikmati pan noaltepet pal nologar. Iiwan pos ne ginegi ma nigili lo que gen motuga gagawat, gen mochowa producir, gen mowaatza, iiwan cuando nemi, genon mochowa.
Well, I, this friend has come to see me here in my house, he comes from Denmark and wants to ask what we know here in my community, in my place. And well he wants me to tell him how we plant cacao and how it is made to produce, and how it is dried and when it is there how we do with it.
Bueno pues gagawat cuando motuuga, primero motuuga kwawit, kwachipili wan tzopankilit iwan ya despues de ume o eyi xiwit cuando wefeya kwawit, motuuga gagawat, gagawat cuando peewa taagi de eyi xiwit nawi xiwit peewa xuchowi iwan ya despues giisa ixuchigagawat op unpewa giisa imasorka iwan opun peewa tagit ya despues gichowa itaagilo.
Well then, cacao, when it is planted, first the tree is planted, the kwachipili and tzopankilit, and then after two or three years when the tree grows, the cacao is planted. Then when the cacao begins giving fruit at three or four years it starts flowering and then afterwards the cacao bloom comes out, and the cob starts coming out and it begins to give fruit, and then it makes its fruit.
Bueno gagawat despues de seligagawat wehkaawa eyi meztli cuando wehweiya despues yoksi, despues de yoksi motegi, motegit gagawat cuando yoksika, despues motapana iiwan luego mowaatza, mowaatza pan toonatin, iiwan luego ya de wahki pos monaamaga.
Well, the cacao, then the tender cacao lasts three months and when it grows then it ripens, after it is ripe it is cut, the cacao is cut when it has ripened, then it is cracked open and then it dries, it dries in the sun, and then after it is dry, well it is sold.
Mowaatza an despues monaamaga, despues de monaamaga, despues gigoowa, tataxtawilia a veces. A wehka teemagaya miyak gagawat, ahorita ne ain tiempo ke nemi, nemi enfermedad pal [onemoliasis]. An ya despues giiski motohtzin
It is dried and then it is sold, after it is sold, they buy it, sometimes they pay it. Long ago it gave a lot of cacao, but now in these times that are here, there is disease [?]. And then afterwards the squirrel came out.
Motohtzin gigwa gagawat, gigwa seligagawat, despues yoksi entero […] produccion de gagawat porke tami gigwa, iiwan aparte de aparte de enfermedad tamik migi, iiwan gigwa motohtzin, yiga yo gagawat até nemi, ate teemaga: Ume plaga nemi de enfermedad pal gogolisti iiwan aparte pal motohtzin gitamiya.