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Sochiapam Chinantec
(ISO code cso)
San Pedro Sochiapam

The Chinantec language spoken in San Pedro Sochiapam (or Sochiapan) is also spoken in the towns of Retumbadero, San Juan Zautla, Santiago Quetzalapa, and San Juan Zapotitlán; which are located in the Cuicatlán district, in the region known as the Chinantla (home to all the Chinantec languages) in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

Map: Chinantec region
Map of the language area

Latest census figures (local, 2005) indicate a total population across the five towns of about 6500.

San Pedro Sochiapam is situated in a cloud forest at a medial elevation of 4000 feet (1200 m). It is an amalgamation of two towns—about 120 years ago most of the inhabitants of the large town of Santa Ana de Tecomaltepec (about ½ hour walk away) died in an epidemic; the town was abandoned and the survivors went to live in the smaller town of San Pedro. There are two boroughs in this town: San Pedro and Santa Ana, reflecting the historical amalgamation. Slight dialect differences still exist between them.

Cloud Forest
Cloud forest
Coffee drying above the clouds
Coffee drying above the cloud level

Many speakers of Sochiapam Chinantec are strongly interested in literacy in their own language. Spanish is never heard on the streets or in town meetings except as a concession to visitors. Only a few elderly women still make the beautiful dresses which are woven on a pre-Columbian back-strap loom; sadly it is a dying art as the young women haven’t learned it.

weaving on a backstrap loom
Woman weaving on a backstrap loom

Linguistic aspects of Sochiapam Chinantec

Sochiapam Chinantec has seven tones and two types of syllable stress, so there is the possibility of 14 tone-stress contrasts on any monosyllabic word. The consonant-vowel combination of ta, for example, has the following meanings.

¹ is used to mark high tone, ² = mid tone, ³ = low tone, double numbers such as ¹³ indicate a tone glide from one level to the other. Ballistic syllable stress (intense and short) is indicated by accent on the nuclear vowel, controlled syllable stress (low-intensity and long) is unmarked.

ta¹ ‘will we arrive?’ tá¹ ‘complete (adjective)’
ta² ‘we arrive (habitually)’ tá² ‘recently’
ta³ ‘foot’ tá³ ‘weaving (noun)’
ta¹³ ‘let’s fight’ tá¹³ ‘I will chop’
ta²³ ‘we fight (habitually)’ tá²³ ‘I chop (habitually)’
ta²¹ ‘work (noun)’ tá²¹ ‘will she weave?’
ta³² ‘ladder’ tá³² ‘she will weave’

Listen to the controlled syllables, in the order given above.
      WAV (778 MB),  mp3 (142 KB),  RealMedia (37 KB).

Listen to the ballistic syllables, in the order given above.
      WAV (659 MB),  mp3 (120 KB),  RealMedia (32 KB).

Listen to the controlled syllables followed by the corresponding ballistic syllables, in the order given above.
      WAV (1.4 MB),  mp3 (258 KB),  RealMedia (69 KB).

The following cases, from among those listed above, show that changing tones can effect meaning adjustments to a single lexical stem:

‘weave’ ‘chop’ ta ‘arrive’ ta ‘fight’
tá²¹ ‘will she weave?’ tá¹³ ‘I will chop’ ta¹ ‘will we arrive?’ ta¹³ ‘let’s fight’
tá³² ‘she will weave’ tá²³ ‘I chop (habitually)’ ta² ‘we arrive (habitually)’ ta²³ ‘we fight (habitually)’
tá³ ‘weaving (noun)’      

Whistle speech, based on 31 etic tone-stress distinctions, is used by men to communicate complex messages with minimal ambiguity. Women understand the speech but do not use it. (Hear a whistled conversation.)

Only prefixes occur, whether inflectional or derivational.

Intransitive verbs agree with their subject as to animacy, and transitive verbs agree with their object, giving an ergative pattern.

Verbs are marked —by change in tone, stress, or vowels, or a combination of these— for person of subject, and for status as direct and inverse. (Direct forms are those in which 1st or 2nd person subjects act on 3rd person objects, or a 3rd person acts on another 3rd without switch-reference. Indirect forms are used for either 1st or 2nd person acting on the other, 3rd acting on 1st or 2nd, or 3rd acting on 3rd with switch-reference.)

Verbs are inflected by tone-stress changes and sometimes vowel changes for person and for present and future tenses. Verbs are also inflected in combination with a prefix for past tense, aspect, mood, motion and voice.

Typologically, Sochiapam Chinantec is principally a VSO language; however, the order VOS is not uncommon in clauses where the verb is inflected for inverse cross-referencing.

There are two ways of forming passives, one of which can be used to express impersonal passives. There is also an antipassive construction.

Instead of an honorific system, there is a “de-honorific system”: A variety of first and second-person pronouns enables the speaker to express her/his attitude to self and/or the addressee. In addition, there is a “fourth-person” pronoun used for keeping track of two third-person participants in discourse.

--David Foris and Wilfrido Flores
The voice on the recordings is that
of Marcelino Flores Mariscal.

Sochiapam town hall
Sochiapam town hall
Publications by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and its members
Publications about Sochiapam Chinantec

Foris, Christine. 1978. “Verbs of motion in Sochiapan Chinantec.” Anthropological Linguistics 20: 353-58.

Foris, David Paul. 2000. A grammar of Sochiapam Chinantec: studies in Chinantec languages 6. SIL International and The University of Texas at Arlington Publications in Linguistics, 135. Dallas: SIL International and The University of Texas at Arlington. xiii, 407 p. (available for purchase)

Foris, David. 1993. Sochiapan Chinantec grammar. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Auckland, New Zealand.) [available through UMI Dissertation Services; published version (2000) available through the SIL Academic Bookstore (email: or see link below.]

Foris, David. 1980. “The Sochiapan Chinantec noun phrase.” SIL Mexico Workpapers 3: 47-76.

Foris, David. 1973. “Sochiapan Chinantec syllable structure.” International Journal of American Linguistics 39: 232-35.