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A ‘Small’ Language in Contact with a ‘Big’ One: The Loss of the Alienability Distinction in Tének (Mayan) under Spanish Influence

  • Elwira Sobkowiak (a1) and Marcin Kilarski (a2)


In this paper we discuss changes in possession marking in Tének (also Teenek, Huastec), a Mayan language spoken in Mexico. While traditionally only alienable possession is marked overtly with the suffix -il attached to the possessed noun, the marker of alienable possession is being extended in the speech of young and socially mobile Tének speakers to contexts traditionally lacking overt possession marking. We attribute this extension to changes in social and cultural patterns in Tének communities. Thus, we show that the choice of possession marking in modern Tének is sensitive to both semantic factors and the socio-cultural background of Tének speakers, including such factors as age as well as the degree of social mobility and exposure to Spanish. In addition, we interpret these developments in terms of ongoing simplification in Tének morphology. We thus take a more general view of grammatical categories as shaped not only by internal developments but also changing cultural and social patterns.



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10.The online version of the questionnaire can be found at The form was distributed among Tének native speakers via Tének Facebook groups, instant messaging and email.
11.Here we acknowledge the limitations imposed by relying on earlier accounts as evidence of a ‘traditional pattern’: as pointed out by Danny Law (personal communication), it is an open question to what degree these two admittedly relatively recent sources are representative of an earlier stage in the usage of possession marking in Tének.
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