Dr. Karen Dakin
Indigenous Languages Seminar
Institute of Philological Research, UNAM
July 10, 2013
It is wonderful to have received an invitation to write a prologue for this volume, a rich source of information on the Tepehuana language of Santa María Ocotán, Durango, compiled by four speakers of that language, Cornelio Ramírez Solís, Emiliano Cervantes Solís, Melesio Cervantes Solís and Mariana Cervantes Márquez, who desired to use their deep knowledge to document it in collaboration with linguists Elizabeth R. de Willett and Thomas L. Willett. In this way, the six compilers provided us with a resource of written language that will enable the Tepehuana community to appreciate and continue speaking, writing and enjoying this language, this vast intellectual heritage that enables everyone to understand the world around them from the unique perspective found in the Tepehuan language.
On one hand, the grammar, the dictionary and the appendices in their entirety are valuable tools for those who carry out studies on the indigenous cultures and history of Mexico. On the other hand, the detailed and careful data of the language included help us to better understand the historical relations and the linguistic evolution of the Tepehuans and other Uto-Aztecan groups that have come to populate territories that extend from the Nawate or Pipil peoples in El Salvador, Central America, to the lands of the northern Paiute who live near the border of the United States and Canada. Other readers who discover the book will be those who do not have a specific purpose in their activities, but who have a great curiosity to understand more about their fellow human beings.
The volume begins with an introduction and notes that explain the spelling system, as well as the structure and abbreviations used in the dictionary entries. The first part of the dictionary, which is ordered by the Tepehuan alphabet with translations in Spanish, consists of more than simple lists of words with glosses, since the sentences included to exemplify the words describe the events, interests and wisdom of everyday Tepehuan life. For example, we learn from them that the grandmother grinds corn all night to make the tamales for the mitote, or that the corn dries if the gophers eat the roots.
The second part, ordered by the Spanish alphabet with translations into Tepehuan, although it does not include sentences like the first one, is useful because of the grammatical information it gives for words in Spanish, which includes, among other things, the identification of the class of the word, and more specifically the genre of nouns, or in the case of a verb, if it is transitive, intransitive, etc. With this information accessible, along with the Tepehuan explanation, the person who has an understanding of Spanish can use it to verify what they want to express in their second language.
The first two parts of the dictionary are followed by a structural and quite broad grammatical description of the Tepehuan language. It uses precise terminology to explain the grammar, the concepts and structures important to understand the Tepehuan language, with many examples clearly explained. It highlights the use of emphasis that indicates the importance of considering what the speaker wants to communicate and why, and gives us explanations that focus on the use of language for different communication purposes.
For example, about the use of noun phrases:
“... they are not obligatory like the verbal phrase, but they are presented when the speaker wants to make direct reference to a person, animal or thing.”
Or about the adjectives:
“The relative order of the noun and the adjective depends on the emphasis that the speaker wants to reflect, because usually the element with the greatest emphasis is presented first.”
The appendices are of the small prizes of some dictionaries, and this is the case here, because they include details about the terms of important semantic fields: the kinship, the human body, the numerical system and the actual words that name sounds. Important for the historical and geographical knowledge of the region is the list of place names. The volume closes with a series of tongue twisters that will surely attract the attention of both speakers of all ages and those who want to learn the language.
Apart from all the practical and educational uses that this volume will have, its reading can be added as a hobby. The Tepehuan Dictionary of Santa María Ocotán, Durango, in a particularly interesting way, reflects the complexity of this culture’s world view and the lives of its speakers.