Post by Caroline

Katie and I have finally arrived in Oaxaca, after an exciting weekend in la Ciudad de México. I'm living with a wonderful host family in San Agustín de las Juntas. They are Zapotec speakers from Yalálag in Sierra del Norte, and they speak Yalálag Zapotec frequently at home, code-switching between Spanish and idioma -- and pausing to explain to me why, exactly, they're all laughing.

Tonight my host sisters, Ana and Sandy, gave me an exhaustive lesson in Zapotec vocabulary. We were talking about names for parts of the body. I had learned that "face" was rawa (in the accepted orthography for Yalálag Zapotec) and "neck" was yena by the time we moved on to arms (taka) and hands. 

"What's this?" I said to Ana, pointing to my palm.

"Rao taka," she said. "My hand's face." She pointed to her wrist. "This is yen taka," she continued. "My arm's neck."

For a moment, I was taken aback. I had never thought of my wrist as being in any way parallel to a neck, or my palm to a face -- but as I repeated the words back to Ana I realized that they are, in some fundamental way, the same. The words she was teaching me captured underlying symmetries in the human body -- in my own body -- that I had never thought to notice.

And this, I think, is why we learn new languages, and talk to people about their languages. New words force us to view the world a little differently. Words like rao taka in Zapotec, or the Tofa word chulan for snake, which translates literally to "earth-fish", or the Saxon banhus (body -- lit. "bone house"), open up our perceptions of reality. They force us to forge mental connections, to see patterns, to recognize that our perspectives are limited. I may have only memorized a handful of words, but Zapotec is teaching me to look at my palms and see faces.
 


Comments

Alex Mannix
07/11/2013 11:28am

That's so cool! It's interesting that in Tofa the words for fish and snake are related because in Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec "bell" is snake and "bell nis" is fish.

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