Modern Nahuatl vowel length (was: Tecuaque)

R. Joe Campbell campbel at
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is obsolete in that dialect) is accurate.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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