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The Ocotlan Zapotec Alphabet

(ISO code zac)
San Antonino girl in the 60's

This page gives a simple explanation of the alphabet used in SIL publications in Ocotlan Zapotec.

Explanation of the alphabet

The majority of the letters of the Ocotlán Zapotec alphabet are pronounced the same as Spanish. The differences are explained below.


Apart from the vowels, a, e, i, o, u, Ocotlán Zapotec has another vowel, which is written ë. The sound of this vowel is different than that of the e, as you can see in the following examples.

nombre (name)
manteca (lard)
mënë gente (people)
benë lodo (mud)

The glottal (') represents a brief cessation of voicing in the pronunciation of some vowels. There are four types of vowels:

Normal: a, e, ë, i, o, u

na yo (I) nasi anteayer (day before yesterday)
ru tos (cough) benë lodo (mud)
ceniza (ash) orë oro (gold)

Terminated with glottal: a', e', ë', i', o', u'

la' Oaxaca me'dë bebé (baby)
lu' pared (wall) ni'ldi nixtamal (soaked corn)
li' tú, usted (you (sg.)) ze'dë më él viene (he comes)

Interrupted with glottal: a'a, e'e, ë'ë, i'i, o'o, u'u

na'a mujer (woman) bu'u carbón (charcoal)
chi'i diez (ten) zë'ë elote (corn on the cob)

Laryngeal vowels are represented with two of the same vowels and the glottal, as in the following examples:

daa' petate (straw mat)
rëë' cántaro (pottery jar)
guëë'gu río (river)

Single vowels which have a written accent are long, that is, pronounced with a greater duration:

dumí dinero (money)
laní fiesta (party)

In Zapotec, each syllable has its own tone, but this is not indicated in the written form. In a relatively few cases, two words are written the same, but pronounced differently, as for example:

guetë abajo (below) gushë humo (smoke)
guetë tortilla gushë viejo (old)

Consonants with sounds which differ from Spanish:

ts tsa rall van ellos (they go) guitsë espina (thorn)
dz dzë día (day) nedzë̱ hoy (today)
sh nashi fruta (fruit) shunë ocho (eight)
dch gadchi siete (seven) dchi'ni trabajo (work)

The letter z contrasts with the letter s: the z is lenis and the s is fortis.

za frijol (bean) sa'a fandango
zini palma (palm; plant) nasi anteayer (yesterday)
nezë camino (road) nisë agua (water)

The letter ll is pronounced as in the following words:

llu temblor (tremor; earthquake)
narallë naranja (orange)
bëzullíbill él se hincó (he kneeled)

A single r is always pronounced softly, except in words borrowed from Spanish, such as ricu, rëy, etc., and in a very few words of Zapotec origin. There is a contrast between word-initial r and rr:

ru'u ra na'a las mujeres salen (the women go out)
rru'u ra na'a las mujeres muelen (the women grind)