Answer Key: Language Shift

Eloise Kadlecek and Shoshana Promer

This sample answer key corresponds to the Language Shift chapter. Keep in mind, in most cases, there may be more than one way to answer a question.

Exercise 1.1

My great-grandfather came to the United States as an immigrant from Norway, speaking only Norwegian. My grandfather was bilingual in Norwegian and English. My father only knows a few words in Norwegian, like ‘thank you’. I grew up monolingual in English and took Norwegian in college.

Has there been language shift in your family? Was this language shift something that took place just in your family or in a larger community? What factors may have contributed to the shift?


Exercise 2.1

Compare the Colonial Valley Zapotec words for ‘three’ and ‘four’ with the modern Valley Zapotec words. What do you notice?

The modern words have the same the beginning consonants as the colonial forms, though they are missing the final vowels present in the colonial forms. The Set B words for ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘four’ seem to have been lost in modern Valley Zapotec.

In linguistics classrooms, especially, it may be useful to reflect on how and if spelling changes indicate pronunciation shifts.


Exercise 2.2

Work on your own or in small groups. (a) What kinds of changes have taken place in the Set B numbers? Try to put into words all the differences you notice. (b) Why might these changes have taken place?  You might have different ideas for different changes!

Students should focus on the structural changes in Valley Zapotec number systems with the loss of most Set B numbers. The shift from chaha to chaga indicates a spelling change. Possible hypotheses for what happened to Set B numbers include:

  • Modern Valley Zapotec may use other grammatical tools to describe counting flat things.
  • Spanish language and cultural dominance may be at play since Spanish does not have an equivalent counting system.

Exercise 2.3 How does it work in your language?

What are the words for the numbers 1-4 in your language? Does your language have more than one way to say ‘one’? Are there other words that look like “Set A” and “Set B” numbers? How do your numbers compare with the San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec numbers in Table 2?

Answers will vary. Encourage students to initiate discussions of shifts in their own Zapotec languages. What do they know and what can they learn by asking older speakers in their community?


Exercise 2.4

How do the numbers on the left in Table 5 compare to the Colonial Valley Zapotec numbers in Tables 3 and 4? Do they show the use of the same bases?

The base 15 and base 20 systems are retained in modern Valley Zapotec from Colonial Valley Zapotec despite spelling and possible pronunciation changes. Students can break down the numbers from the left of Table 5 to identify their original forms.

One example is 30 (callebichij and gàally ahbtsêë):


Exercise 2.5

The set of borrowed Spanish numbers in Zapotec not only introduce new words into Zapotec, they also change the structure of the number system. Explain how. What might the impact of that be?

Students should identify that the borrowed Spanish numbers use a base ten system which does not match with Valley Zapotec words used by older speakers. This structural difference may complicate mutual understanding between younger and older Valley Zapotec speakers. Additionally, the shift to a Spanish language base 10 system may make Colonial Valley Zapotec numerical sources such as calendars and land records difficult to understand for younger speakers.


Exercise 3.1

What factors does Sr. Filemón identify in language shift from Zapotec to Spanish in his community? (Listen again if you need to!)

Answers include educational discrimination against Zapotec, a lack of language protections and rights from the Mexican federal government, migration to the U.S. Many in Zapotec communities have also internalized the “second-class” stigma of Zapotec speakers which pushes young people to only learn Spanish.


Exercise 3.2: How does it work in your language?

How does it work in your language? What’s happening with Zapotec in your community? Reflect on your experience and consider interviewing someone from your pueblo.

Answers will vary depending on students’ communities. The following resources can help instructors interested in developing their own ability to talk about ongoing work against language loss.

  • Grenoble, Lenore A, and Lindsay J. Whaley. Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.
  • Harrison, K D. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Kramer, Seth, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy S. Newberger, Gregory D. S. Anderson, and K.D. Harrison. The Linguists. Garrison, N.Y: Ironbound Films, 2009.
  • Nettle, Daniel, and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Further readings may be found in the following Oxford Research Encyclopedia entry:

  • Pine, Aidan, and Mark Turin. “Language Revitalization.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. March 29, 2017. Oxford University Press.


Exercise 3.3

Short research project: compare the context in Macuiltianguis as presented to us by Sr. Filemón with another community undergoing language shift. What similarities and differences do you see in factors contributing to language shift? (If you need help getting started, try looking up Irish or Basque.)

Although students should not use Wikipedia as a primary research tool, the entry on language shift ( provides many examples that they can further investigate.


Exercise 4.1

What languages do you hear the Maestra speak in the video?

Spanish and Zapotec.


Exercise 4.2

How does she describe what is happening with Zapotec, especially in relation to Spanish?

Students should include in their answers that Zapotec is losing speakers to Spanish, especially among young people. The language is a in a fragile state.


Exercise 4.2

What are some things she mentions that may be lost from language shift?

Answers include connections to Zapotec cultural traditions like food and medical practices. Language preservation is a part of cultural preservation.


Exercise 4.3

Do some research—what are some individuals and communities doing to resist language shift? (If you’re having a hard time finding an example, check out the web series Dizhsa Nabani created in San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya!)

Instructors can direct students to the following popular magazine article to familiarize themselves with a number of language revitalization projects that may interest them.

Other important examples include:

  • El Centro Myaamia at Miami University, Ohio which partners with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to promote language and cultural preservation
  • ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, Hawaiian language schools for young children
  • First Languages Australia, a digital hub for learning about Indigenous language revitalization efforts in Australia


Caseidyneën Saën - Learning Together Copyright © by Eloise Kadlecek and Shoshana Promer. All Rights Reserved.

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