Sunlit Water

December 15, 2008


Filed under: Language,Nature — by teofilo @ 8:25 pm

It’s snowing in the canyon.  This is the first really major snowstorm we’ve had this year, and it brings my mind inevitably to thoughts of dialectology.  The word for “snow” is one of the very few isoglosses distinguishing the eastern and western dialects of Navajo, and it’s the only one I know of that’s from the native vocabulary.  Most of the isoglosses are Spanish loanwords in the eastern dialect that are not present in the western, clearly the result of the much more intense contact eastern Navajos had with the Spanish in New Mexico in colonial times.  The geographical boundary between the dialects runs roughly along the modern border between New Mexico and Arizona, although the main physical boundary is probably the Chuska Mountains.  This boundary corresponds more or less to historical and cultural differences that are in many respects more meaningful than the linguistic ones.  Contact with the Spanish and the Rio Grande Pueblos took the eastern Navajos in one direction culturally, while the western Navajos were more in contact with the Paiutes, Hopis and Havasupais and went in a different direction.  The Canyon de Chelly area, just west of the Chuskas, is in some ways transitional between the two.  James Brooks’s Captives & Cousins has some information on the history here.

But back to snow.  The eastern Navajo word for “snow” is zas, as in the title of this post, while the western Navajo term is yas.  This is a very interesting isogloss, because these terms seem to obviously be etymologically related, and yet there is not a general tendency for eastern z to correspond to western y.  Indeed, although there are a few other isolated examples of this correspondence, both dialects have both phonemes and overwhelmingly use them in the exact same way in the exact same words.  As I mentioned above, most of the other isoglosses distinguishing the two dialects consist of Spanish loanwords in the eastern dialect that don’t exist in the western, which uses native vocabulary for the same meanings.  I don’t know of any grammatical differences between the dialects, although there may be some.  In general, they are very similar, completely mutually intelligible, and they have clearly only been separated for a relatively short time.  There are even some Spanish loanwords, mostly having to do with money and other foreign concepts, that are common to both dialects.

So what explains the “snow” distinction?  I don’t really know, although I suspect it might be representative of an incipient sound change, probably phonetic in origin, that has not yet (and might never) spread through the eastern dialect as a whole.  Language changes constantly, and not all changes are predictable or completely regular.  John Ohala is the linguist most associated with this kind of thinking, and I’m a big fan of his work.  It’s also possible that this is just a fluke, the result of contingent historical circumstances without any particular relevance to broader questions.  Understanding what’s really going on here would require careful, detailed study of the differences between the dialects and whatever regularities and patterns are evident in them.  I don’t know if anyone has done or is doing that research, but I think it would be very interesting.


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