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2011 Winter Issue 4 (February 4, 2011)

Linguist unwraps phonology of Zapotec language

February 4, 2011
By Julia Larson

On January 27, Christina Esposito, a phonetician and Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Macalaster College, participated in the Carleton Linguistics Colloquium of Series to discuss her specialty in “Unwrapping the Zapotec Voicebox: A Study in Acoustic and Glottographic Phonation.”  Esposito’s research focuses on the Mesoamerican Zapotec language family, specifically Santa Ana del Valle Zapotec, of Quechua. “She brings together experimental approaches with historically under-described languages to provide a new angle,” says Catherine Fortin, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Carleton.

Discovering her passion for linguistics as an undergraduate on a fieldwork trip to Oaxaca to study Zapotec, Esposito encouraged Carleton students to engage in research and explore their field of study, noting that the undergraduate work Carls do now may extend into the rest of their professional lives.

Esposito’s research centers on utilizing technology to distinguish the use of three contrasting phonation types in Zapotec: breathy, modal, and creaky. A contrast in phonation type is a distinction in the way the speaker's vocal cords vibrate. These vibrations lead to contrasting meanings for almost identical words. As Cherlon Ussery, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Carleton, observes: “It's often difficult to situate linguistics in a particular category.” She adds, “This talk illustrates how phoneticians, in particular, sit at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. . . putting findings into theoretical context, making predictions of patterns expected to emerge.”

What is so special about the Zapotec voicebox? Esposito explained that Zapotec has a unique way of distinguishing words because it uses tones and phonation.  In Zapotec, each phonation type can be produced by the vocal folds in two manners, either holding the vocal cords apart for different amounts of time, or by modulating the phonation by the speed of the vocal cords hitting one another.  These techniques allow Zapotec speakers to adjust what word they utter. Esposito explained how there are general findings for phonation in other languages, such as Japanese women known for having more breathy phonation than men. In English, women also contrast with men's phonation, producing especially creaky voicing at the end of utterances.

Esposito's talk demonstrates a new finding: men and women use different techniques to produce these three phonation types. While men rely on the speed of their vocal cords, women utilize the amount of space between them. Thanks to new technology, Esposito was able to measure the different ways to vibrate the vocal cords.  While acoustic data revealed the speed, an electroglottalgraphic machine charted the vocal cord positions.
Putting her work into the context of the field of Zapotec research, Esposito's work also shows how prior studies of sound production have missed an important detail in their methods. While other studies have grouped Zapotec's phonation types into less than the three types shown in Esposito's research, there truly is “a three-way contrast.” Where the word appears in a sentence affects how the native Zapotec speaker uses phonation.  Esposito shows that a variety of sentence positions are necessary to capture men and women's production of all three types, with the contrast between the three phonation types the greatest at the end of a sentence.

Before her talk, Esposito visited the LING 217 Phonetics & Phonology class for hands-on learning. Gathering in the Parish kitchen, students learned the art of static palatography, a method of discovering where our tongue makes contact with the roof of our mouth when speaking.  With a collection of students’ palatal photos, the class compared the same sound between different speakers, as well as two similar sounds produced by the same speaker.  These results revealed dialectal differences in pronunciation along with simply anomalous articulation patterns.
“This represents a special connection for the Carleton College Linguistics Department,” says Professor and Chair of Linguistics, Mike Flynn. Professor Flynn looks forward to establishing “a very healthy and active relationship” with Macalaster College's Linguistics Department, and concludes: “We hope to cooperate and have joint projects in the future.”

The next talk of the Carleton Linguistics Colloquium Series is Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 4:30 p.m., location TBA. Ania Lubowicz, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at University of Southern California, will speak on the “The Phonology of Contrast.” Lubowicz will also be teaching LING317: Topics in Phonology at Carleton this spring as a Visiting Assistant Professor.

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