Mechanical grammar

r. joe campbell campbel at
Fri Jan 10 23:25:01 UTC 2003

On Fri, 10 Jan 2003, Ricardo J. Salvador wrote:
> .... and decided to pursue a little project I'd thought about for
> some time. I programmed a mechanical conjugator of Yatzachi el Bajo
> zapotec on the basis of Inez Butler's grammar of the language. I
> enlisted a couple of my poor cousins in the project and when we
> finished the little contraption it could handle person, tense and
> number. The regularity of the language, and Butler's thoroughness and
> attention to detail, made most of this work go smoothly, and of course
> I learned more than I could have imagined from the exercise.


   When I read your account about generating regular Zapotec
words, I literally cackled with glee.  I thought at first that
my comments might not be of general enough interest for the list,
but then I realized that they were related to a current theme of
the list -- how does one go about beginning to learn Nahuatl?
I know I'm taking a chance on my fuzzy memory in trying to recall
Arthur Anderson's comment in his introduction to his edition of
Clavijero's _Reglas de la lengua mexicana con un vocabulario_ to
the effect that most people hadn't learned Nahuatl in organized
classes.  They learned it by "bootstrapping".
   Actually, my entry was a bit easier than the one that many
people face -- limited learning resources and not enough time to
devote to study.  I went to Tepoztlan in 1962 with a group of
anthropologists led by Ken Hale.  We had six weeks with nothing
to do except dedicate our waking moments to learning Nahuatl.
And we didn't have any reference materials (no dictionary and no
grammar) since the point of our activity was to learn how to
induce the shape of the language from the data that surrounded
   I can't say that I *learned* the language and when Indiana
asked me in the mid-1960s if I would teach a Nahuatl course if
the need arose (they were applying for federal money under the
NDEA program (National Defense Education Act)), I said yes, on
the condition that it be in collaboration with a native speaker.
The need didn't arise until 1970 when someone applied for NDEA
money to begin his study of Nahuatl.  IU told me to find an
appropriate speaker during the summer and make arrangements for
their spending the 1970-71 academic year in Bloomington.
   I located a very talented young woman from Hueyapan, Morelos,
whom I'll call "Elvira".  She spent two semesters here, giving
wonderful help in class and tons of information in private
sessions with me.
   When the University didn't see fit to renew her contract for
the following year, I was faced with dropping the course or with
teaching it by myself.  Since I thought the key to reasonable
early progress was the aquisition of a clear image of the one
dimensional intransitive verb matrix (ni-, ti-, --, ti--h, am--h,
--h) and the two dimensional transitive verb matrix (the subject
prefixes intersecting with the object prefixes (nech-, mitz-,
c/qui-, tech-, amech-, quim-), I needed a large set of exercise
items.  Was I going to laboriously write all these out in the
present, future, and preterit?  ...Maybe on purple ditto masters?
No, even then, I already believed in the credo of the guys in the
computer center:  find a way to let the computer give you the
most results, while maximizing your own laziness.
   So I punched a large set of verb stems on those 80 column
cards and wrote a program to generate all the possible verb forms
in three tenses (maybe I included a fourth one, but my memory is
imperfect there).  Since the course was about Hueyapan Nahuatl
(*not* "classical", partly because it would have been very
difficult to get native speech on tape), certain "irregularities"
had to be built into the program: 1) /k/ --> [g] intervocally ("I
return" 'ninogopa', but "I return you" 'nimitzkopa'); 2) /w/ --> [v]
intervocally ("I laugh" 'nivetzka', but "he laughs" 'wetzka');
3) /w/ --> nothing [after /o/] ("he falls" 'huetzi', but "he fell"
'oetz').  That resulted in more than four thousand practice items
and I did the then natural thing: I had the computer spit out
each of these verb forms on a crisp, new computer card, so that I
could shuffle them and make exercises all through the first
semester.  (There was no hard disk and no floppies...)

   Now my cackle has subsided into a chuckle, but I am still
enjoying the shared experience, even the situation later when
I was speaking to people from Hueyapan in Nahuatl (partly
because I became influenced by "classical" Nahuatl) and made a
non-Hueyapan verb like 'ninokopa', they removed my embarrassment
at the error by saying, "No, no, esta' bien, asi' hablan en Santa

 (Cencah Xochichil)

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