Language Shift

Brook Danielle Lillehaugen

In this chapter we examine language shift from Zapotec to Spanish and consider some of the factors influencing this shift—as well as resistance to this shift. This chapter assumes no linguistics knowledge, although you may find it helpful to complete the introductory module  Ticha to learn more about Colonial Zapotec. If you want to learn more about language activism, you might read Twitter and Zapotec Language Activism or Reclaiming our Languages.

Resources in this module: Teaching Summary · Answer Key · Spanish Version

1. Introduction

Language shift is a process in which a community of speakers shifts from speaking some language to speaking a different language, a process which usually takes place over several generations. Communities of speakers of any language could shift to speaking another language, given certain contexts. For examples, immigrant communities in the United States often shift to speaking English over two or three generations. This is true of Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, Mandarin Chinese-speaking immigrant communities, Mixtec-speaking immigrant communities, and many others. Language shift does not have so much to do with the languages themselves, but rather the structural context relating to these languages. e.g. the educational system and dynamics between the people that speak those languages.

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?

This chapter focuses on language shift in Zapotec-speaking communities. Zapotec languages (there are many!) belong to the Otomanguean stock and are indigenous to what is now Oaxaca, Mexico. (As you may recall from the module on Ticha, there are probably over 400,000 speakers of Zapotec languages today.)

Language shift takes place frequently in colonial contexts, and shifts from one language to another may happen at different times in different spaces. For example, in most Zapotec-speaking communities, Spanish language is being used more and more in social contexts. In most Zapotec communities, Zapotec language used to be the only language used for local government. That space, the municipio, was a Zapotec language space. In some towns this is changing, with Spanish language now also being used in local government, and the municipio becoming a bilingual Zapotec-Spanish space, and even in some cases a Spanish language space.

Language shift in Indigenous communities is often a result of threats from deeply embedded discriminatory beliefs and behaviors that deny and devalorize the language, people, and knowledge. Reflecting on language shift may feel personal and traumatic. This makes sense as the conditions that lead to language shift often are violent and traumatic. Be aware of this as you work through this chapter: take breaks as needed and acknowledge the feelings that arise in your body. You may be working through this chapter in a classroom and you might be called upon to share you thoughts: participation can take many forms and we hope you participate in a way that feels right to you, including just being present. It is also true that many Zapotec speakers are actively resisting these linguistic and cultural threats. If you would like some examples of Zapotec resistance you can read Reclaiming our Languages or explore the #UsaTuVoz feed on Twitter.

In this chapter we consider language shift through three examples. First, in §2, we offer a comparison between the number system in Valley Zapotec nearly 500 years ago and today. In §3 we explore the causes of language shift, learning directly from Sr. Filemón Pérez Ruiz, a native Zapotec speaker from San Pablo Macuiltianguis. Finally, in §4, we hear from Maestra María Mercedes Méndez Morales, a native Zapotec speaker from San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, about the impact of language shift in her community.

2. Colonial Valley Zapotec and modern San Lucas Quiaviní numbers

The words used for counting in Valley Zapotec have changed in some significant ways between 1578 and 2020. We’ll look at two major changes here and consider some reasons why these changes might have taken place.

Colonial Valley Zapotec is a form of Valley Zapotec attested in writing during the , approximately 500 years ago. Colonial Valley Zapotec had 2 words for ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘four’, which we can call Set A and Set B, as shown in Table 1.  Set B words were used to count flat things, like tortillas and huipiles. (Do you know what a huipil is? If not, look it up!) Set A was used for everything else. (For more information on how we know what Valley Zapotec looked like 500 years ago, see the module on Ticha. You can also learn more about Zapotec math in the Numbers chapter.)

Table 1. Numbers 1 – 4 in Colonial Valley Zapotec 1578 (based on Cordova 1578)
Set A Set B
tobi 1 chaga 1(B)
topa 2 cato 2(B)
chona 3 cayo 3(B)
tapa 4 taa 4(B)

Today, you can see there are similarities and differences in the numbers 1-4 in one Valley Zapotec language variety, as seen in Table 2. Let’s first look at the column for Set A. The word for ‘one’ starts with a <t> and has a <b> in it. You’ll notice the vowels are a bit different, which is part of normal language change. The word for ‘two’ also starts with a <t> both 500 years ago and now, and you’ll also see a <p> in it. The vowel <o> seems to be the same, though the vowel that was at the end of the word 500 years ago is missing today. Again, this is part of normal language change.

You may also notice that there is a lot more detail in the modern spellings of these words: you’ll see things like accent marks, double vowels, etc. These represent aspects of the pronunciation that probably existed in 1578 as well, though they were not represented in the spelling then.

Table 2. Numbers 1 – 4 in San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec today (based on Munro et al. 1999)
Set A Set B
te’ihby 1 chah 1(B)
tyo’p 2
chòonn 3
tahp 4

Exercise 2.1

Compare the Colonial Valley Zapotec words for ‘three’ and ‘four’ with the modern Valley Zapotec words. What do you notice?
Now let’s look at the Set B words. The word for ‘one (B)’ looks similar to the form 500 years ago, though missing the second syllable. But what about the Set B forms for ‘two’, ‘three’ and ‘four’? They are not used anymore today! Not only that, but chah ‘one (B)’ is only used to count tortillas in San Lucas Quiaviní today. (In some neighboring towns, the word is still used to count other flat things, like huipiles in Tlacochahuaya.)

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!

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?

Let’s keep counting and see what higher numbers are like. We’ll start with ’15’ in Valley Zapotec 500 years ago. Note that 16-19 are all built on 15! 16 means ’15 plus 1′,  17 means ’15 plus 2′, 18 means ’15 plus 3′, and 19 means ’15 plus 4′..  The numbers 16-19 use 15 as a base—they reference 15 in their meaning and are computationally based on 15.

Table 3. Numbers 15 – 19 in Colonial Valley Zapotec (based on Cordova 1578)
chino 15
chino-bi-tobi 16 (15+1)
chino-bi-topa 17 (15+2)
chino-bi-chona 18 (15+3)
chino-bi-tapa 19 (15+4)

Now look at the number 30, in Table 4. It is composed of calle ‘20’, bi ‘plus’, and chij ‘10’.  This number now uses a base 20!  There is a special word for 40, then the number 50 is built from 40: ’40 plus 10′.  This, too, shows a base 20 system! Do you see how?

Table 4. Numbers 20, 30, 40, 50 in Colonial Valley Zapotec (based on Cordova 1578)
calle 20
calle-bi-chij 30 (20+10)
toua 40
toua-bi-chij 50 (40+10)

Let’s compare these numbers with the numbers spoken today in San Lucas Quiaviní, shown in Table 5. First of all, there are two sets of numbers, but these are quite different than Set A and Set B we saw at the beginning of this chapter. Here the two sets of numbers are used depending on the age of the speaker: older speakers tend to use the set on the left and younger speakers tend to use the set on the right. Note, too, that the set on the right are borrowed from Spanish—they aren’t the exact words for the numbers in Spanish, but the are adapted from the Spanish words into Zapotec. You’ll notice many other changes including that the bi ‘plus’ has changed to ahb.

Table 5. Numbers in San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec today (based on Munro et al. 1999; Munro & Sonnenschein 2007: 3)
Primarily used by speakers over 50 Primarily used by speakers under 50
tsèèi’ny 15 qui’nseh 15 (from Spanish 15)
tsèi’ny ahbteeby 16 (15+1) diesiseiz 16 (from Sp. 10 + 6)
tsèi’ny ahbtyo’p 17 (15+2) diesisye’t 17 (from Sp. 10 + 7)
tsèi’ny ahbchòonn 18 (15+3) diesyo’ch 18 (from Sp. 10 + 8)
tsèi’ny ahbta’p 19 (15+4) diesinweeb 19 (from Sp. 10 + 9)
gàally 20 be’enny 20 (from Sp. 20)
gàally ahbtsêë’ 30 (20+10) tre’enny 30 (from Sp. 3[x10])
tyùùa’ 40 cware’nn 40 (from Sp. 4[x10])
tyùa’ ahbtsêë’ 50 (40+10) sinncwe’nn 50 (from Sp. 5[x10])

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?

Most languages borrow words from other languages. For example, it is common to borrow names for items at the same time that the item is introduced into the lives of the speakers. English has borrowed words for many food items, such as tacosushi, and gumbo that come from other languages. Can you think of more borrowed words in the languages you know? It is less common for languages to borrow terms for words that already exist in the language, but not unheard of, especially in multilingual populations.

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?

Exercise 2.6 How does it work in your language?

Look back at Table 5. Do you use some numbers borrowed from Spanish? Do other people in your community? Are there Zapotec numbers in this chapter that you were surprised to learn about?

Exercise 2.7 How does it work in your language?

Nearly all languages in the world borrow words from other languages. (a) Can you think of other words borrowed into Zapotec from other languages? (b) Can you think of any words borrowed into Spanish or English from Zapotec?

Exercise 2.8 How does it work in your language?

As mentioned above, borrowing words from other languages is common. This happens all over the world and isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s also true that sometimes people prefer to create a new Zapotec word rather than borrow a Spanish word for an item or a concept. How do you say ‘television’ in Zapotec?  Does that look like a Spanish borrowing? It might be interesting to think how you might make up a Zapotec word for ‘television’ or perhaps other items or concepts- talk about it with some other people.

3. Causes of language shift

Now listen to this interview with Sr. Filemón Pérez Ruiz as he talks about what is happening with Zapotec in San Pablo Macuiltianguis, Oaxaca.[1] You can watch it on YouTube at:

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!)

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.

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.)

4. Impact of language shift—and resistance!

Listen to this interview with Maestra María Mercedes Méndez Morales as she tells us what is happening with Zapotec in her community, San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya. (It can be viewed on YouTube at: As far as we know, the youngest speaker of Zapotec in this town is approximately 40 years old.


Exercise 4.1

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

Exercise 4.2

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

Exercise 4.3

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

Exercise 4.4

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!)

Exercise 4.4 How does it work in your language?

What kinds of resistance to language shift are happening in your community? Interview someone who is involved with resistance to language shift in your community. Why do they do this work? What is the most difficult part of this job? What is giving them hope?

Exercise 4.5 How does it work in your language?

What type of language shift resistance work would you like to see in your community? What can be some of the obstacles?


Cordova, Fray Juan de. 1578. Arte en lengua zapoteca. Mexico: En casa de Pedro Balli. Facsimile on, courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Munro, Pamela and Felipe H. Lopez, with Olivia V. Méndez, Rodridgo Garcia, and Michael R. Galant. 1999. Di’csyonaary x:tèe’n dìi’zh sah sann Lu’uc; San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec dictionary, 2 vols. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Munro, Pamela and Aaron Huey Sonnenschein. 2007. Four Zapotec Number Systems. Bernard Comrie Festschrift: ms.

  1. The video interviews in this chapter were created with funding from the NSF REU Site grant (PI Harrison, Building Digital Tools to Support Endangered Languages and Preserve Environmental Knowledge in Mexico, Micronesia, and Navajo Nation, Award #1461056). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.


Caseidyneën Saën - Learning Together Copyright © by Brook Danielle Lillehaugen. All Rights Reserved.

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