Chapter One:
Notes on Phonology

1.0 Sounds and Pronunciation

The Tzotzil spoken in Zinacantan (that is, Zinacantec Tzotzil) has more or less the same phonemic system as other dialects of Tzotzil.

a i e o u (nearly the same as the vowels in Spanish)

Stops and Affricates:
p t tz ch k

p' t' tz' ch' k' ` b (occlusive glottalized voiced consonant)

v s x j

m n

Approximants: l (r) y

There are also two hypothetical proto-phonemes that represent different sounds depending upon the context in which they occur:

A (a root vowel, which is pronounced as a or o)
H (a consonant that in other dialects is a voiced pharyngeal or velar, but is pronounced as v, y or j in Zinacantec Tzoztil.)

The symbol (`) represents a glottal stop (which is written as 7 or ? in other orthographies). This symbol contrasts with ('). The symbol (') after a consonant indicates the glottalization of that consonant, which results in a strong explosion of air. (In order to learn to pronounce these sounds it is better to imitate the pronunciation of a native-speaker of Tzotzil.)

The letters b and v contrast. The v is articulated with the lips above the teeth, more or less like the v in English (vine), although in other dialects (including certain words of Zinacantec Tzotzil that occupy an intermediate position) the v appears more like a bilabial fricative or w. The Zinacantec word vinik "man" is equivalent to the Tzeltal word winik. The b, in initial or post-consonant position, is equivalent to the English b--it is a bilabial stop, lightly glottalized, often implosive. In intervocalic position, the b is strongly pre-glottalized. At the end of a syllable or a word, b is reduced to a sound that resembles m. Thus, in the word tzeb "girl" the b sounds like an m and, and the words is pronounced tze`m, but in the phrase li tzebe "the girl" the b sound like the English b, and the phrase is pronouncedli tze`be. In some dialects of Tzotzil, p' becomes b. Thus, the Zinacantec word p'in "water jug" is equivalent to Chamulan word bin.

In reality, all glottalized consonants include three sounds, according to their position, such that the consonant is:

  1. Strongly glottalized when encountered in word-initial or post-consonant position:
    k'in party
    balch'uj to slip

  2. Strongly pre-glottalized when encountered in intervocalic position:

    buch'u who [bu`ch'u] TR> nak'al hidden [na`k'al]

  3. pre-glottalized and lightly articulated when encountered in word-final or pre-consonant position:

    j`elek' thief [j`ele:`k] muk'ta big [mu:`kta]

    (It is necessary to test these words with someone who speaks Tzotzil.) In the third context (in word-final or pre-consonant position), a glottalized consonant produces an apparent prolongation and tension in the preceding vowel.

The x represents a voiceless alveo-palatal fricative (like the sh in short). The k is a velar stop (like the c in can or cable), and k' is its ejective equivalent. The j is a velar fricative, which is somewhat strongly aspirated according to the dialect, although before a glottal stop, the j sounds smoother.

vaxakib eight
kok my leg
Xun John
kevu shade
k'ok' fire
k'ib water jug
Jobel San Cristobal
joj crow
j`ilol curer

The Tzotzil r is never pronounced as the spanish trill rr. The latter occurs only in Spanish loan words with rr:

karo car

The letter r occurs in very few native words, but in loan words it is frequently equivalent to d, r, and rr:

krem boy
roxa rose
ryox God
reva language
roston fifty centavo piece
Romin Domingo (proper noun)

In new or recently derived words, the letters d, f, and g are occasionally found, even when there also exist transformed, more "Tzotzilized" forms.

dyablo/yavlo devil
foko/joko flashlight
gas/kas gas

I also write a few words, all Spanish loan words, with w -a letter that corresponds to the initial u of diphthongs in Spanish words.

bweno "bueno," good
bwelta "vuelta," walk, stroll

Exceptions to this norm are:

Manvel Manuel

In other dialects of Tzotzil, the sound represented here by w is pronounced more like v (like: Chamulan bveno or veno "bueno").

Some roots contain the hypothetical letter A, a vowel which exhibit an alternation between a and o. The most common situation is the following: a noun or adjective has o, but the derived forms from the same root have a:

chob cornfield
-chabaj to cultivate corn (intransitive verb)
pom incense
-pamta to cense (transitive verb)

In these cases, we can postulate the hypothetical roots chAb and pAm. Verbal roots with A sometimes produce derived numeral classifiers (see section 7.4) with o, but verbs with a.

-jov slice, cut, half(numeral classifier)
-jav to split (transitive verb)

Here we also postulate a root jAv, which produces the forms that now occur through regular processes. (In many cases, but not all, the corresponding words in Tzeltal have an a, without a change in the vowel:

Tzotzil Tzeltal Gloss
k'ok' k'ahk' "fire" (noun)
k'ak'- k'ahk' "burn" (t.v.)
k'ak'al k'ahk'al "day" (day)

The two languages have developed different patterns, based upon common past forms.)

On the other hand, the sound represented by the letter H now exists in other dialects of Tzotzil. This sound represents a development of the proto-consonant *H, which in Zinacantec Tzotzil becomes v before o and u; j before a; and y before i or e. Compare:

Zinacantn Huistan (and parts of Chamula) Gloss
vo'on Ho'on I
vo' Ho' water
vo'ob Ho'ob five
yech Hech like that
ja' Ha' emphatic particle
yi' Hi' sand
vun Hun paper

These words come from pre-existing proto-forms with *H. Zinacantec Tzotzil retains reflexes of this phonetic inheritance. For example, a possessed form of vo'ob "five" would be, according to regular processes, svo'obal "the fifth." This form co-exists with another, I>yo'obal, where the combination of the possessive prefix plus the initial H becomes y. The same process can be seen in the word I>vo', from the proto form HA`. A derived form, with the suffix I>-Vl (vowel + l) shows the vowel change, and the initial consonant is completely dropped:

vo` water
y-a`al his water

There is also an inchoative verb that is formed with the suffix -ub:

ja`ub to get wet

Some words in Zinacantec Tzotzil are exceptions, and the H becomes y before u; these words also show traces of the lost I>H. For example, there are two verbal roots in yu-, which are descendents of proto-forms with *Hu.

yu`- be able (intransitive verb= *Hu`-)
yul- to arive here (= *Hul-)

(Compare Tzeltal hu`- "finish" and Chamulan vul- "arrive here"). With the tense marker "non-past" in the third person, ch-, the initial y of the two verbs is lost:

(i)yu` He was able to. chu` He is going to be able.
(i)yul He arrived. chul He is going to arrive.

On the other hand, the "true" y in other verbs is not lost:

(i)yal He descended.
chyal He is going to descend.
(i)yuk'e He cleaned himself.
chyuk'e He is going to clean himself.

One must take into consideration these phonetic complexities when learning another dialect of Tzotzil, because this phonetic variation is concentrated precisely in modern words that contain letters like H, p', and w (the last one in loan words).

1.1 Root Forms

The most common form of a Tzotzil root is CVC (C=consonant, V=vowel). Almost all Tzotzil words can be analyzed as a root of this form together with certain affixes. The following words consist of simple roots:

pim thick
t'ul rabbit
si` firewood
puy snail
sotz' bat
vaj tortilla
pop mat
nat long, deep
k'ok' fire
`ep many, much
`ol heavy
`ich chile
`us midge/buffalo gnat

One can see that there are no roots with an initial vowel (although the glottal stop (`) is lost in combination with certain prefixes). There are also monosyllabic roots, of the form CV. Aside from the particles, these roots appear to be derived from proto-forms with a word-final *H.

xa already (temporal particle)
to still
xi thus, so
te there (demonstrative and temporal particle)
mi if, whether (interrogative particle)

However, certain forms are exceptions to the rule. For example:

Tzotzil Tzeltal Gloss
ch'a ch'ah bitter
`u `uh moon
ch'o ch'oh mouse
na nah house
vo hah fly
chi- chih- say

On the other hand, compare:

ch'aj ch'aj lazy

The final H has left its stamp in derived forms of certain Tzotzil words. Thus, the word no "thread" has the hypothetical form *naH.

no thread
najomaj- to thread (intransitive verb)
najebal gourd dish into which the spindle is put (literally: "place for spinning")
-navu spin (transitive verb)
-navul the thread of ___ (possessed noun)

There is also another hypothetical root of the form *siH that can be seen in:

jsijom person that softens wool
-sivu soften (wool, to prepare it for spinning)

Here, through non-productive rules, the *H becomes v or j, or it is dropped completely in word-final position.

There are also bisyllabic roots, mostly nouns and adjectives. The typical form of such a root is CVCVC. With adjectival roots the formula is more restricted: the same vowel appears in both syllables.

bik'it small
chopol bad
ko`ol same
poko` used, old
`atz'am salt
bikil intestines
ch'ivit market
chamu` Chamula
k'evuj song, chant
me`on orphan
`elan- to be (intransitive verb)
-`a`iy feel, hear (transitive verb)

A few bisyllabic roots do not conform to this pattern. There are roots of the form CV(C)VC, in which the intermediary consonant disappears in a few dialects; also, certain apparently non-compound roots show the form CVC-CVC.

ta(y)iv crushed ice, frost(Tzeltal: tahiv)
xu(v)it worm
cha(v)uk thunder and lightning
ma(y)il pumpkin
`ajnil wife
`ixtol toy, ring
bankil older brother (of a man)
xibnel older brother (of a woman)

Roots with consonants clusters do not exist, except in the roots mentioned above, and in the following:

`antz woman
krem (v. kelem "rooster") boy
`abt- (Tzeltal: `abat "servant") work

Finally, there are a few bisyllabic roots with final syllables that end with vowels, of the form CVCV or CVC-CV:

`ama flute
batz'i (Tzeltal: bats'il) truly
-mala wait
vo`ne long ago
bak'ni (variation: bak'in) early, when

These phonetic notes will help students look up a root in the dictionary (or in the vocabulary included in this grammar). The consonant clusters that begin words almost always consist of a prefix together with a root, and roots are alphabetized according to their initial consonant. Thus, sna "his house" can be analyzed as the prefix s- together with the root na "house." And the word chtal "he comes" is analyzable as the prefix ch- with the root tal- "to come" (intransitive verb). Similarly, words with three syllables or more, almost always consist of a monosyllabic or bisyllabic root with affixes. The word `ixtalal, for example, is in the dictionary under the root `ixtol "toy, ring" (therefore as a form of the hypothetical root `ixtAl). After eliminating prefixes and suffixes in the word jvabajom "musician," and taking into account the possibility of a change in the vowels between a and o (engendered by the hypothetical vowel A), the root vob emerges (= vAb) "string instrument," from which the word jvabajom is derived.

1.2 Stress and Intonation

The primary accent of a word in Tzotzil falls on the first syllable of the root; there is also an even stronger accent that accompanies the last syllable of a phrase or sentence (it can consists of a single word, pronounced in isolation, or of words uttered in the same breath). For example, see the following phrases (which can be heard as a .WAV file):

Tzotzil Gloss
jvabajom musician
li jvabajome the musician
Chtal li jvabajome. The musician is coming.
Chtal xa li jvabajom `une. Well, the musician is coming
`Ali jvabajome, chtal xa. The musician, he's coming already.

Here the symbol / represent word, and the symbol // represents phrasal accent, which is even more emphatic. It is clear that particles are not accented unless they are in final position.

1.3 Examples for Pronunciation

I will give a few representative words in order to demonstrate the language's contrasting phonemes.


These words can be heard as a .WAV file.

vo fly
te there
me desiderative particle
li the
ti the (remote)
xi said
chi henequen fiber (Spanish, "agave")


These words can be heard as a .WA V file.

vo` water
te` tree
me` mother
li` here
ti` mouth, edge
xi` to be afraid
chi` sweet

bak bone
jbix staff
`abol suffering
sbel its contents

vak- six
jvix my older sister
`avol corn planting
svel cut, trimmed

`ub singing quail
chab wax
ich'ab he finished
ch'ub church patio
lub He got tired.
jtob twenty

`um mouthful
cham He died.
ich'am He received it.
ch'um type of squash
lum earth, ground
jtom one handful

laj It finished.
kajal mounted
toj pine

la` Come here!
la hearsay particle
kakal stuck, caught
ka`al my water
tok cloud
to still


tzib fern
chi henequen fiber (fr. Spanish, "agave")
chib two
chich' He receives it.
chuch squirrel
kok deaf, my leg
nopol nearby
sukob stopper


tz'ib writing
ch'i he grew
ch'ib type of palm
ch'ich' blood
chuch' drink
ch'uch' plant (canna edulis)
k'ok it broke
kok' my tongue
k'ok' fire
nop'ol glowing, flashing
suk'ob water for rinsing

p' (Zinacantec dialect)
ip'aj It fell.
jp'el a word
p'in pot
p'ol to multiply

ibaj It was locked up.
jbel My contents.
bin- pot-bellied
bol brother-in-law, idiot

C-` (consonant plus glottal stop)

ch-`av Its planted or seeded.
ch-`il It looks.
ch-`ok He cries.
ch-`uch'e He drinks.
ch-`ul It evaporates.
chak-`ulan purple (for example, a flower)
kuch-`e with a foot coming out of the mouth
lot-`ok web-fingered
j-`ilol curer
kup-`ik'ij to drown

C' (glottal consonant)

ch'av to scream angrily
-ch'il to fry
ch'ok wart
ch'uch'(e) plant species (Canna)
ch'ul sacred, holy
chak'ulan to give continually
kuch'(e) I drank.
lot'ol lying, sitting, standing together

In these last examples, the hyphen before the glottal stop is written to make clear the correct pronunciation -the glottal stop follows the non-glottalized consonant, either the result of the use of a prefix, or in a compound word. If one does not confuse the glottal stop (`) with the apostrophe (') that indicates glottalization of a consonant, it is unnecessary to write the dash. In this case, words like ch`ul "it evaporates" and ch'ul "holy" will not be confused. These are problems with orthography with little analytical importance. A few students of Tzotzil prefer to use only one symbol (usually (')) for both glottal stops and consonant glottalization, in which case it would be preferable to use the hyphen to indicate the glottal stop that follows a consonant, although for those people that already speak the language, there is little possibility of confusion.

Not being standardized, the orthography produces other similar problems, which every student will resolve differently. For example, the division of a sentence into separate words is somewhat arbitrary; some particles (for example, -e, which ends phrases, or -a`a "indeed") do not have an initial glottal stop, and always unite with the previous words in the phrase. In my case, I write these words separately, but with the intial glottal stop. Other words, in Zinacantec Tzotzil, also begin with a vowel without a glottal stop: i (contraction of li "definite article"), and words with the prefix i- (completive aspect) and a- (second person). All other words are written with an initial glottal stop or with another initial consonant. Similarly, when the process of adding an affix produces double fricative consonants, these reduce to only one consonant: thus when I write xx, ss, or jj in order to make clear the grammatical structure of the phrase, these letters should be pronounced as x, s, or j. Other double consonants are pronounced twice, like chch or tztz, in verbal construction or in words with the same two consonants appearing in conjoining syllables. I will give a few examples:

li tzebe the girl li tzebe
ja` a`a indeed ja`a`a
ta ana in your house taana
nom ibat He went far away. nomibat
`oy `on There is avocado. `oy `on
ta xxi` He is scared. ta xi`
ta ssut He is returning. ta sut
jjamtik Let's open it! jamtik
chchan He learns it. ch-chan
tztzak He grabs it. tz-tzak
ixcha`-`al He returned to say. (two glottal stops together)
vak-koj six grades (with two k's together, not *vakoj)

Contrast vuk-koj "six grades" with svukoj sba "It puffed up."


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