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Prof, students help ancient culture live on

November 3, 2005

Photo of students Nathan Tucker, Charlie Kaupp, Jean Garascia and Donna Fenton in Oaxaca, MexicoEnglish Associate Professor Troi Carleton is determined to save Zapotec, a language indigenous to Mexico -- and to do it before it is lost to new generations transformed by technology and social change. "When a language dies, its culture dies, too," Carleton said.

This summer Carleton took eight students to Oaxaca, Mexico, where 23 dialects of Zapotec are spoken. The Zapotecs called Mexico their home for thousands of years before Spain colonized Mexico and made Spanish -- a completely foreign tongue -- the country's official language.

"What makes me terribly sad is the thought of it [Zapotec] dying without it being written down anywhere. Once it disappears, there's no record it ever existed," said Carleton, who has been teaching in the linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages programs at SFSU since 1996.

This was the second year Carleton's students worked on preserving the Zapotec language, which is being overwhelmed by Spanish. The field experience provides a rare opportunity for students with little to no experience in field linguistics and language documentation.

"Dr. Carleton's efforts in this project have put all of us way ahead of the curve," said Jason Fraser, a graduate student who participated this summer. "She is doing her students a great service."

The students, who must take preparatory linguistics classes and speak Spanish to participate in the ongoing project, focused on Zapotec Teotitlan Del Valle, a dialect from a small town named Teotitlan in the Oaxaca valley. Joining Teotitlan officials, community elders and local university students, they worked toward three goals: developing a Spanish/Zapotec dictionary, a grammar accessible to all Zapotec community members and an archive of oral history for the town museum.

Carleton wanted to integrate SFSU students in a first-hand, language preservation project, but the Oaxaca mountain communities were poor, dangerous and could not sustain a group of students for the three weeks needed for research. She turned to Teotitlan, a wealthier town known for its textile production and successful international market for rugs. The people of Teotitlan are eager to preserve their language and culture and welcome SFSU into to their community, Carleton said.

"They are extremely hard-working, amazing people," said Charlie Kaupp, a graduate student who has been a part of the Zapotec preservation project since it started. "They wake up early ... and they work well into the evening. But even with all this work, they still find time for family and friends to have a Coronita."

Carleton began the Zapotec preservation project after working for seven years to help preserve Chatino, another Zapotec dialogue. She produced the first Chatino/Spanish/English dictionary and published several articles on grammatical- and discourse-related issues in Chatino. Earlier in her career, she worked in Malawi, Africa.

Carleton will continue to bring students each summer to gather more language and cultural information and to contribute to the Teotitlan museum, which includes sections on the town's history, individual stories, cultural practices, and traditional storytelling, myths and legends. The archive is owned by both Teotitlan and Carleton.

Carleton's students, who are already preparing for next year's trip, are working on developing a Spanish/Zapotec dictionary of at least 5,000 words.

-- Student Writer Lisa Rau with Matt Itelson
Photo: courtesy of Jason Fraser


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Last modified November 3, 2005 by University Communications