Punctuation or Intonation Morphemes in Otomangean Languages

Cheryl A. Black
SIL International and University of North Dakota

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[Editor's note: Due to the font limitations of HTML, an umlaut (diaresis) will be used to represent a macron (overbar).]

1 The Setting

Victor Borge hilariously illustrated the importance of punctuation markers for spoken language by giving them audible pronunciation. In normal spoken English, the hearer depends on the intonation patterns of the speaker to determine both the punctuation markings and the mood of the sentence.

The Otomangean languages, spoken in southern Mexico, are tonal languages with no separate intonation patterns to distinguish punctuation or mood. Instead, a set of initial or final morphemes are used. Data from three of these languages are presented in the next section, followed by a discussion of possible analyses and the theoretical problems raised in section 3.

2 The Data

Illustrative data from languages representing three branches of the Otomangean language family are given here: Lachixío Zapotec, Alacatlatlazala Mixtec, and Copala Trique. All three have basic VSO word order. In each case, the punctuation marking follows the Spanish system and the particle being illustrated is in bold type.1

2.1 Lachixío Zapotec

Taken from Persons, Black, and Persons 2000.

  • ra3 at the end of a clause signifies an exclamation.

    (1)–¿Xibichia cua'ane?–nilla.¡Chenuaca eliñixadañira!
     whatday place-3I S-say-3Rwhen isfiestaRincon !
     '–What day will it happen?– he said.–When the fiesta of Rincon begins!–'

  • For a very strong exclamation, ri2i3 is used in clause-final position.

    (2)¡Neí'ca'le rii!
     that's.right2SG !!
     'O! You're right!'

  • la is used at the end of a question expecting a 'yes' or 'no' answer.

    (3)¿Niarquilálu la?
     S-sayheart more-2SG?
     'Would you like more?'

  • A yes/no question simply requiring verification uses a at the beginning.

    (4)¿Ari'ilubeya' xiuri'ixeyua?
     ?H-do-2SG knowwhatC-do uncle-1SG
     'Do you know what my uncle made?'

  • If the speaker is unsure, xie' is placed at the beginning of the sentence.

    (5)–¿Xie'laaca nulu'uyalálunu cha'lálustucu?–ninchu luniyu.
     DOUBTno P-beandthere C-goalready-2SG andP-go already-2SGanother-one S-say-3F faceman
     '–You didn't just go there and now you're going to go again?– she said to the man.'

  • When the speaker expects a negative answer, ri' is placed at the end. For example, an adult might say (6) to their child, expecting a negative response, such as 'No, don't go!'.

     H-go-1SG nowEXPECTS.NEG
     'I'm going now, is that all right with you?'

    2.2 Alacatlatlazala Mixtec

    Data provided by Lynn Anderson, p.c.

  • án is used to begin all yes/no questions.

    (7)Ánkisa va'arasíni yó'o?
     ?C-do good3Mhat this/here
     'Did he make this hat?'

  • ni' is used infrequently at the end of sentences to indicate doubt.

    (8)koto kixaara, ni'.
     HORT P-look1INC ifP-arrive 3MDOUBT
     'Let's see if he comes or not (but I doubt it).'

  • ra means the speaker is insistent or urgently wants a response.

     mothermother URGENT
     'Mother, mother, come NOW!'

  • che indicates hearsay.

    (10)Kondoonainka kivi,che.
     P-stay 3PLotherday HEARSAY
     'They'll stay another day, they say (or someone says).'

  • nikúu is contrafactual, used with both positive and negative main clauses.

    (11)Kónirano'ora koni,nikúu.
     CON-want 3MP-go-home 3Myesterday CF
     'He wanted to go home yesterday, but he didn't.'

  • kánva'a, which may be more like an interjection, indicates amazement.

    (12)Yukukúu takaa,kánva'a!?
     whoCON-be man-thatAMAZE
     'Who in the world is that man?'

    2.3 Copala Trique

    Copala Trique has many such punctuation or mood markers, all of which occur in final position. Some are exemplified here, taken from Hollenbach (1995).

  • a32 is used at the end of a declarative sentence, functioning like a period.

    (13)Ca'anj32 Migueé4a32.
     C-goMichael .
     'Michael went.'

  • á4 indicates persuasion and is used in answer to a question expressing doubt and also in imperatives.

    (14)Ca'anj32 Migueé4á4.
     C-goMichael !!
     'Yes, Michael did go.'

  • ei32 is one of the markers for expressing emphasis.

    (15)Ca'anj32 Migueé4ei32.
     C-goMichael !
     'Yes, Michael did go.'

  • rä'2 indicates hearsay.

    (16)Ca'anj32 Migueé4rä'2.
     C-goMichael " "
     'Michael went, they say.'

  • ma'3 is used in negative sentences in conjunction with the normal negative adverbials ne3 or 2.

    (17)Ne3ca'mü2 Migueé4ma'3.
     noC-speak Michael
     'Michael did not speak.'

  • For yes/no questions, ná'3 occurs in final position.

    (18)Ca'anj32 Migueé4ná'3.
     C-goMichael ?
     'Did Michael go?'

  • Content questions have a fronted wh-word and 2 final.

    (19)Däj1vaa32 yatzíj52.
     howexist clothes?
     'How are the clothes?'

  • Finally, ro'3 acts like a comma, occurring after themes and between comparatives.

    (20)Tanuu3 ro'3,ca'anj32 so'3Ya3cuëe2 a32.
     soldier, C-go3 Oaxaca.
     'As for the soldier, he went to Oaxaca.'

    3 The Analytical Issues

    The analysis of these punctuation morphemes is unclear. The initial assumption would be that they are heads, such as C0. This works well for the case of the initial markers, but not for the final ones, since these languages are strictly VSO with all heads initial. The hypothesis that they are simply adjoined to the clause is problematic because at least some of the markers may occur in embedded clauses which are selected by a higher predicate.

    So are these morphemes (other than perhaps the initial yes/no question marker) part of the syntax at all? There is quite a body of literature on the relationship between prosodic structure and syntactic structure: for examples see Selkirk (1978, 1984, 1986), Nespor and Vogel (1986), Hayes (1989), and the articles in Inkelas and Zec (1990). Selkirk (1986) proposes an edge-based theory for mapping S-structure into prosodic structure which allows reference to an edge of an X'-constituent. This is extended by Hale and Selkirk (1987) for Papago to include reference to the government relation, and by Aissen (1992), following their lead, for the Mayan languages. Aissen (1992:57) claims that the algorithm for determining Intonational Phrase boundaries in Tzotzil maps the right edge of an ungoverned Xmax to the right edge of an Intonational Phrase. This algorithm correctly predicts the distribution of the Tzotzil clitics un and e.

    A similar algorithm for determining Intonational Phrase boundaries may be correct for the Otomangean languages. But the big difference is that (with the exception of the ro' 3 in Copala Trique which acts like a comma) the punctuation morphemes do not simply attach to the end of any Intonational Phrase, but only to certain types of phrases. For the most part, it is these morphemes themselves which signal the type of phrase involved, much like intonation does in English. Cases like ma' 3 and gä 2 in Copala Trique, which only occur on negative-marked phrases and content questions, respectively, make it clear that it is crucial to know what type of phrase an Intonational Phrase is. Neither the edge-based theory (Selkirk 1986) nor the relation-based theory for mapping syntactic structure to prosodic structure (Selkirk 1984, Nespor and Vogel 1986, Hayes 1989) has any mechanism for obtaining this information. Hyman (1990) suggests that features such as [+wh], [+imp] and [+neg] must be marked on the Intonational Phrase if the syntactic phrase is so marked. This could be achieved by passing head features from the syntactic phrase to the Intonational Phrase.

    A remaining issue raised by the majority of the markers here (and which also pertains to 'normal' intonation/punctuation in other languages) is what the interface is between the phonology (PF) and the semantics (LF). The basic model of the grammar in the Principles and Parameters framework maps S-structure to PF and LF:

    If these 'morphemes' only really exist at PF, then how are they interpreted?


    Aissen, Judith. 1992. 'Topic and focus in Mayan.' Language 68:43–80.

    Hale, Kenneth, and Elisabeth Selkirk. 1987. 'Government and tonal phrasing in Papago.' Phonology Yearbook 4:151–183.

    Hayes, Bruce. 1989. 'The Prosodic Hierarchy in meter.' Phonetics and Phonology, Volume 1: Rhythm and Meter. New York: Academic Press.

    Hollenbach, Elena E. 1995. Gramática popular del Trique, versión preliminar, Tucson: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

    Hyman, Larry M. 1990. 'Boundary Tonology and the Prosodic Hierarchy' in Inkelas and Zec: 109–125.

    Inkelas, Sharon, and Draga Zec, eds. 1990. The Phonology-Syntax Connection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Nespor, Marina, and Irene Vogel. 1986. Prosodic Phonology. Dordrecht: Foris.

    Persons, David D., Cheryl A. Black, and Jan A. Persons. 2000. La Gramática del Zapoteco de Lachixío, versión preliminar, Tucson: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C.

    Selkirk, Elisabeth O. 1978. 'On prosodic structure and its relation to syntactic structure' in T. Fretheim, ed. Nordis Prosody II. Trondheim: TAPIR.

    Selkirk, Elisabeth O. 1984. Phonology and Syntax: the relation between sound and structure. Chicago: MIT Press.

    Selkirk, Elisabeth. 1986. 'On derived domains in sentence phonology.' Phonology Yearbook 3:371–405.


    1 Abbreviations used include: Pronouns: 1INC 'first person inclusive'; 1SG 'first person singular'; 2SG 'second person singular; 3 'third person'; 3F 'third person feminine'; 3I 'third person inanimate'; 3M 'third person masculine'; 3PL 'third person plural'; 3R 'third person respectful'; Aspect markers: C 'completive'; CON 'continuative'; H 'habitual'; P 'potential'; S 'stative'; Other: CF 'contrafactual'; HORT 'hortative'. [Back]