WHAT THEY LEARNED: May Helena Plumb ’16

The linguistics major began working on her area of study—Colonial Valley Zapotec, a native language of Mexico’s southern region—during a class she took sophomore year.

For May Helena Plumb ’16, the senior thesis experience was truly a capstone of her academic career at Haverford. She began working on her area of study—Colonial Valley Zapotec, a native language of Mexico’s southern region—during her sophomore year when she took Assistant Linguistics Professor Brook Danielle Lillehaugen’s course “Structure of Colonial Valley Zapotec.” The linguistics major and math and Spanish minor continued to work with Lillehaugen (and, later, Swarthmore Linguistics Professor Ted Fernald) for the next two years on the project that became her thesis, even traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico, with her mentor for research and spending last summer as part of the team creating the Ticha Project, which electronically preserves the rare existing texts in that language.

“After presenting my findings at some conferences I submitted a draft paper to a journal,” says Plumb. “I received a ‘Revise and Resubmit’ decision with a long list of reviewer comments, and I used those comments to revise my paper into a thesis.”

That thesis, “Conjunction in Colonial Valley Zapotec,” is a linguistical analysis of the four different words that language has for “and.” “The simple explanation,” says Plumb, “[is that] they are used to separate a long list into smaller subgroups, kind of like the ampersand and comma in ‘Mary & John, and Adam.'”

Plumb, who hopes to return to school to pursue graduate studies in linguistics in the fall of 2017, plans to continue her Colonial Valley Zapotec research this year, and is currently waiting to hear about funding for that project. She also has resubmitted her revised paper to the original journal and is waiting to hear if it will be published.


What did you learn from working on your thesis?

I learned a lot about the revision process in academics, and, in particular, what kinds of things you need to include in a paper to make it publishable. There were a lot of arguments I made that were not clear to my reviewers, or that didn’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

What are the implications for your research? How could this help other researchers or academics, if at all?

While conjunction in Colonial Valley Zapotec is a very niche area of research, my thesis does have some consequences for linguistics. Linguists often study “typology”, which means describing what is possible in the world’s languages. The “typology of conjunction” is all the ways that languages use conjunction; for example, in English you usually have just one conjunction marker in a list (Mary, John, and Adam) while in some languages you have a conjunction marker for each item (this sounds like Mary and John and Adam and). In my thesis, I find that Colonial Valley Zapotec uses conjunction in a way that isn’t documented in any other study I’ve found, which means I’ve proposed an extension of the typology of conjunction.

Additionally, there is very little published on Colonial Valley Zapotec, and there are very few people who study it. In that way, anything I add to the academic literature on the language is important for future researchers.


Photo, by Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, is of Plumb (right) at the Archivo Histórico de Notarias del Estado de Oaxaca with two Zapotec women, Maria Mercedes and her daughter Soledad, consulting a Colonial Valley Zapotec will from the 1600s. “This was the first time these women had seen a legal document written in their language,” says Plumb. 


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.