Nahuatl Digest, Vol 284, Issue 3

Campbell, R. Joe campbel at
Sun Jan 27 04:08:43 UTC 2013

John, ome Michaels, and all,

   Sometime during my first semester of graduate school, my
professor was discussing an issue of linguistics and he abruptly
interrupted his discourse and opened his eyes wide and looked at
us.  Of course, we already knew his lecturing rhythm -- after
the pause, he was going to tell us "One of the Big Truths".
   Henry Kahane had studied with some of the most important
philologists of Europe.  In the late '30s he fled Hitler and
ended up at the University of Illinois, teaching both philology
and American Structuralism.
   He was ready to tell us the First of his Rules about
analyzing a language with input from a native speaker:
"Zee native speaker is never wrong."  --The native speaker is
the source of data for the linguist who seeks to describe his
   And then Kahane smiled and said, "And zee second Rule is that
you must never trust the zee native speaker as a linguist...
that is, he is not trained in analysis, but he is the ultimate
source of the data."

   So when I started learning Nahuatl in Tepoztlan in the Summer
of 1962, it would never have occurred to me to ask don Juanito
if the sequence "oten" ('it filled up') was one word or two
("oten" or "o ten").  I assumed that the logical structure of
the language would soon reveal the answer and it soon did.
It turned out that all nouns, verbs, and other major word
classes, have penultimate stress, and since in the sequence
[o..t..e..n..], the [o] is stressed and the [e] is without
stress, it must be one word, not two.  How else could I account
for a stressless word ("ten")?  The same logic leads one to
assume that "nocal" is one word, not two.

   Back to the two Rules -- a little reflection leads you to the
conclusion that ideal linguist is the Native Speaker who has
learned the logic of linguistic analysis!


Quoting John Sullivan <idiez at>:

> But Michael, that's what agglutinating languages do. Native speakers
> during the entire Colonial Period wrote the possessor attached to the
> noun. The fact that many native speakers today write it as a separate
> element is due to the influence of Spanish; i.e., mi casa = no chan.
> Or "Yo te veo", "ni mitz itta". I have never seen an older document
> in which the possessor is separated from the noun. Except, perhaps,
> when the scribe's quill ran out of ink.
> John

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