Note on Orthographic
and Linguistic Conventions
An argument I make in this book is that one of the revival movements dis-
cussed, the Day of the Dead Song Contest, has broad popular appeal in part
because it embraces orthographic heterodoxy. In contradistinction to many
other movements promoting vernacular literacy, this project promotes the
idea that people should be allowed to write their languages using whatever
alphabetic conventions suited them best. This move implicitly disentangles
two aspects of vernacular writing that are often treated as coextensive: ortho-
graphic standardization and orthographic consistency. Taking my cue from
the song contest’s approach to writing Mazatec, I stress internal consistency
in how I write the language while insisting that the orthographic conventions
I have chosen are necessarily arbitrary and not inherently superior to others.
Those I use in this book are based largely on the standard orthographic con-
ventions of Latin American Spanish. (See tables Note.1 and Note.2 for the
alphabet used in this book.) These conventions are also based on those widely
used by indigenous writers—though, as I describe in this book, there is no
universally accepted alphabet for writing Mazatec and native writers’ orthog-
raphies often conflict.
The symbols in parentheses represent sounds that occur only in Spanish
loan words commonly used in Mazatec speech. The symbol x is used here as
it is often used in indigenous Mesoamerican languages: to refer to the sound
that in English would be represented by sh. When an x appears before a vowel,
its pronunciation is very retroflexed and sounds almost like xr (or shr in Eng-
lish); before a consonant, the retroflexion is more subtle. The symbol č indi-
cates the retroflexed form of ch;
the retroflexion causes it to sound somewhat
like chr, a sound Mazatec speakers refer to as “almost whistled.” The symbol j
represents a sound like h in English—softer than the sound represented by
a Spanish j. The symbol ñ is used, as in Spanish, to refer to the sound that in
English might be represented by ny.
Mazatec has four vowels, all of which are voiced. Each also exists in nasal-
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