Modern Nahuatl vowel length (was: Tecuaque)
R. Joe Campbell
campbel at indiana.edu
Sat Sep 2 16:48:04 UTC 2006
I think that your first suggestion (that the lexeme /toka/ "to follow"
is obsolete in that dialect) is accurate. It is an example of a given
vocabulary item being replaced by another. An example that we can infer
from "classical" (just meaning earlier stage) Nahuatl is the general use
of "tzontecomatl", 'head', for earlier "cuaitl". Apparently, "cuaitl" was
replaced by the metaphorical (possibly humorous) "tzontecomatl"
('hair-pot') as an independent vocabulary item, but "cuaitl" survives
abundantly in compounds. In the speech of Hueyapan, Morelos, I believe
that "mayana", 'be hungry', is nearly replaced by "apizmiqui"; a native
speaker friend of mine told me repeatedly in 1970 that only "old" people
still used "mayana".
Although the loss of the vowel length distinction would probably
encourage the abandonment of some vocabulary items, it would not
necessarily force it; homophony is not fatal.
On the issue of vowel length in modern Nahuatl, we could benefit from
the experience of all those people who have had contact with the various
dialects. From talking to friends of mine and from my own experience,
I believe that the vowel length distinction is getting lost in some
dialects (and in some cases, being replaced by a quality distinction).
In Teteltzinco, Morelos, older "tepe:meh" is "tepiemeh"; in Hueyapan,
/a:/ is maintained as a low vowel, while /a/ is raised *towards* schwa,
while the distinction between /o:/ and /o/ is handled by expanding the
buccal cavity and shrinking it (respectively).
Obviously, whether a given dialect is reported to lack the distinction
in vowel length depends to some degree to the stannic content in the
fieldworker's ear. In other words, most of us tend to have a "tin ear" to
some degree when we try to perceive phonological contrasts that don't
exist in our native language.
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