The Mixtecan languages are a group of languages in the Otomanguean family of Mexico, spoken in total by approximately 550,500 people. The Mixtecan family includes the Trique (or Triqui) languages, spoken by about 24,500 people; Cuicatec, spoken by about 15,000 people; and a large group of varieties of the Mixtec language (or language family) proper, spoken by about 511,000 people. (The distinction between "Mixtec language (family)" and "Mixtecan language family" is very important.) Virtually all of the remainder of this article is about the Mixtec language (family).
The name Mixtec is a Nahuatl exonym, from [miʃ] 'cloud' [teka] 'inhabitant of place of'. Speakers of Mixtec use an expression (which varies by dialect) to refer to their own language, and generally this expression means "word of the rain": Tu'un Sávi [tũʔũ saβi] in one variety, for example, and Dà'àn Dávi [δãʔã δaβi] in another.
The traditional range of the Mixtecan languages is the region known as La Mixteca, which is shared by the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero. Because of migration from this region, mostly as a result of extreme poverty, the Mixtecan languages have expanded to Mexico's main urban areas, particularly the State of México and the Federal District, to certain agricultural areas such as the San Quintín valley in Baja California and parts of Morelos and Sonora, and even into the United States.
The simple presentation of the phonemes of Mixtec is complicated by the significant internal diversity to this language or family of languages. Furthermore, different analyses of the phonology have given quite different results; the phonology of these languages is deceptively simple-looking and much more interesting than it first appears to be. The list below presents some of the most common consonants and vowels shared by the different Mixtec languages (excluding sounds only found in loanwords).
|Consonants of the Mixtec languages|
|Approximant||w [β]||l||j [ʒ]|
|1Most commonly actually a nasalized palatal approximant.|
|Vowels of the Mixtec languages|
|Plus nasalization and glottalization|
Not all varieties of Mixtec have the sibilant /s/. Some do not have the interdental fricative /δ/. Some do not have the velar fricative /x/. A few have the affricate /ts/. By some analyses, the sounds /m/ and /w/ [β] are allophones conditioned by nasalization (see below), as are /n/ and /nd/, and /ɲ/ and /j/ [ʒ].
One of the most particular features of Mixtec is its use of tones, a characteristic it shares with all other Otomanguean languages. Despite its importance in the language, the tonal analyses of Mixtec have been many and quite different one from another. Some varieties of Mixtec display complex tone sandhi. (Another Mixtecan language, Trique, has one of the most complex tonal systems in the world, with one variety, Chicahuaxtla Trique, having at least ten tones and, according to some observers, as many as 16.)
It is commonly claimed that Mixtec distinguishes three different tones: high, middle, and low. Tones may be used lexically; for example:
In some varieties of Mixtec, tone is also used grammatically since the vowels or whole syllables with which they were associated historically have been lost.
In the practical writing systems the representation of tone has been somewhat varied. It does not have a high functional load generally, although in some languages tone is all that indicates different aspects and distinguishes affirmative from negative verbs.
The nasalisation of vowels and consonants in Mixtec is an interesting phenomenon that has had various analyses. All of the analyses agree that nasalization is contrastive and that it is somewhat restricted. In most varieties, it is clear that nasalization is limited to the right edge of a morpheme (such as a noun or verb root), and spreads leftward until it is blocked by an obstruent (plosive, affricate or fricative in the list of Mixtec consonants). A somewhat more abstract analysis of the Mixtec facts claims that the spreading of nasalization is responsible for the surface "contrast" between two kinds of bilabials (/m/ and /β/, with and without the influence of nasalization, respectively), between two kinds of palatals (/ʒ/ and nasalized /j/ --- often less accurately (but more easily) transcribed as /ɲ/ --- with and without nasalization, respectively), and even two kinds of coronals (/n/ and /nd/, with and without nasalization, respectively). Nasalized vowels which are contiguous to the nasalized variants are less strongly nasalized than in other contexts. This situation is known to have been characteristic of Mixtec for at least the last 500 years since the earliest colonial documentation of the language shows the same distribution of consonants.
The glottalization of vowels (heard as a glottal stop after the vowel, and analyzed as such in early analyses) is a distinctive and interesting contrastive feature of Mixtec languages, as it is of other Otomanguean languages.
The Mixtecs, like many other Mesoamerican peoples, developed their own writing system, and their codices that have survived are one of the best sources for knowledge about the pre-Hispanic culture of the Oaxacan region prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. With the defeat of the lordship of Tututepec in 1522, the Mixtecs were brought under Spanish colonial rule, and many of their relics were destroyed. However, some codices were saved from destruction, and are today mostly held by European collections, including the Codex Zouche-Nuttall and the Codex Vindobonensis; one exception is the Codex Colombino, kept by the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The missionaries who brought the Roman Catholic religion to the Mixtecs set about learning their language and produced several grammars of the Mixtec language, similar in style to Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática Castellana. They also began work on transcribing the Mixtec langages into the Latin alphabet. In recent decades small changes in the alphabetic representation of Mixtec have been put into practice by the Academy of the Mixtec Language. Areas of particular interest include the following:
The alphabet adopted by the Academy of the Mixtec Language and later by the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), contains the following letters (indicated below with their corresponding phonemes).
|Alphabet of the Mixtecan Languages (ndusu tu'un sávi)|
|a||a||andívi||sky||Similar to the English a in father|
|ch||ʧ||chitia||banana||Like Spanish ch in chocolate|
|d||δ||de||he||Somewhat like English th in then|
|e||e||ve'e||home||Like Spanish e in este|
|g||ɡ||ga̱||more||Like Spanish g in gato|
|i||i||ita̱||flower||Like English i in machine|
|ɨ||ɨ||kɨni||pig||A sound made by placing the tongue as if to produce a u and the lips as if to produce an i|
|j||x||ji̱'in||shall drop||Like the j in Mexican Spanish|
|k||k||kúmi||four||Hard c, like English cool|
|l||l||luu||beautiful||Like Spanish l in letra|
|m||m||ña'ma̱||shall confess||Like Englishm in mother|
|n||n||kuná'ín||shall cease||Like English n in no|
|nd||nd||ita ndeyu̱||orchid||Pronounced similar to an n followed by a slight non-nasal d-like transition to the oral vowel.|
|ng||ŋ||súngo̱o||to settle||Like English ng in eating|
|ñ||ɲ||ñuuyivi||world||Similar to Spanish ñ in caña, but typically without letting the tongue actually touch the hard palate.|
|o||o||chiso||sister-in-law||Similar to English o in toe|
|p||p||pi'lu||piece||Similar to English p in pin|
|r||ɾ||ru'u||I||Is sometimes trilled.|
|s||s||sá'a||cunningness||Like English s in sit|
|t||t||tájí||shall send||Like English t in tin|
|ts||ʦ||tsi'ina||puppy-dog||Like ț in Romanian|
|u||u||Nuuyoo||Mexico||Like English u in tune|
|v||β||vilu||cat||Similar to Spanish v in lava|
|x||ʃ||yuxé'é||door||Like the initial sound in English shop or French chocolat|
|y||ʒ||yuchi||dust||Like Englishge in beige|
|'||ʔ||ndá'a||hand||When a vowel is glottalized it is pronounced as if it ends in a glottal stop. It is not uncommon for a glottalized vowel to have an identical but non-glottalized vowel after it.|
One of the main obstacles in establishing an alphabet for the Mixtec language is its status as a vernacular tongue. The social domain of the language is eminently domestic, since federal law requires that all dealings with the state be conducted in Spanish, even though the country's autochthonous languages enjoy the status of "national languages". Few printed materials in Mixtec exist and, up to a few years ago, written literature in the language was practically non-existent. There is little exposure of Mixtec in the media, other than on the CDI's indigenous radio system – XETLA and XEJAM in Oaxaca; XEZV-AM in Guerrero; and XEQIN-AM in Baja California – and a bilingual radio station based in the USA in Los Angeles, California, where a significant Mixtec community can be found.
At the same time, the fragmentation of the Mixtec language and its varieties means that texts published in one variety may be utterly incomprehensible to speakers of another. In addition, most speakers are unaware of the official orthography adopted by the SEP and the Mixtec Academy, and some even doubt that their language can lend itself to a written form.
|Personal pronouns in Atatláhuca Mixtec|
|First person exclusive||Formal||sa̱ñá||ná||I (form.)|
|Second person||Formal||ní'ín||ní||you (form.)|
|First person inclusive||yó'ó||yó||we (incl.)|
Personal pronouns are richly represented in Mixtec.
It is common to find a first person inclusive form that is interpreted as meaning to include the hearer as well as the speaker.
First and second person pronouns have both independent forms and dependent (enclitic) forms. The dependent forms are used when the pronoun follows a verb (as subject) and when it follows a noun (as possessor). The independent forms are used elsewhere (although there are some variations on this rule).
Mixtec has two interrogatives, which are na vé ([²na ³ve]= "what/which"?) and nasaa ([²na.²saa]= "how much/many?"). The tone of these does not change according to the tense, person, or tone of the surrounding phrase.
|Verb conjugation in Mixtec|
Mixtec verbs have no infinitive form. The basic form of the Mixtec verb is the future tense, and many conjugated future verb forms are also used for the present tense. To obtain the present of an irregular verb, the tone is modified in accordance with set of complicated prosodic rules. Another class of irregular verbs beginning with [k] mutate that sound to either [xe] or [xi] in the present tense. To form the preterite (past) tense, the particle ni- ([²ni]) is added. That particle causes a shift in the tone of the following verb and, while the particle itself may be omitted in informal speech, the tonal modification invariably takes place.
Mixtec lacks an imperfect, pluperfect, and all the compound tenses found in other languages. In addition, Mixtec verb conjugations do not have indicators of person or number (resembling, in this, English more than Spanish). A selection of Mixtec sentences exemplifying the three verbal tenses appears below:
Causative verbs are verb forms modified by a prefix indicating that the action is performed by the agent of the phrase. Mixtec causative verbs are indicated by the prefix s-. Like other Mixtec particles, the causative prefix leads to a shift in the orthography and pronunciation of the related verb. When the verb to which the prefix is added begins with [ⁿd], that phoneme is transformed into a [t]. Verbs beginning with [j] shift to [i]. There is no difference in future and present causitive verbs, but the past tense is invariably indicated by adding the particle ni-.
|Normal verb: tɨ̱v|
It shall decompose, decomposes"
|Causative verb: stɨ̱v|
"He shall damage it, he damages it"
|Irregular causative: nd > t shift|
|Normal verb: ndo'o-ña|
She shall suffer, she suffer
|Causative verb: stó'o-ña|
"She shall cause to suffer, she causes to suffer"
|Irregular causative: y > i shift|
|Normal verb: yu̱'ú-t|
"The animal shall fear, the animal fears"
|Causative verb: siú'ú-t|
"The animal shall cause fear, the animal causes fear"
The prefix na- indicates that the action of the related verb is being performed for a second occasion. This means that there is a repetition of the action, made by the subject of the sentence or another unidentified agent.
The pronunciation of some irregular verbs changes in the repetitive form. For example, certain verbs beginning with [k] take [ⁿd] o [n] the instead of na- particle. In addition, there are some verbs that never appear without this prefix: in other words, it is part of their structure.
|Regular repetitive verb|
| Normal verb: Ki̱ku-ña sa'ma|
"She shall sew the clothes"
|Repetitive verb: Naki̱ku-ña sa'ma|
"She shall repair the clothes"
|Regular repetitive verb: k > nd shift|
|Normal verb: Kaa-de|
"He shall rise"
|Verbo causativo: Ndaa-de|
"He shall rise again"
Copulative verbs ("linking verbs") establish links between two nouns, a noun and an adjetive, or a noun and a pronoun. Mixtec has four such verbs:
Káá is only used with adjectives that describe a thing's appearance. The other three can be used with practically any adjective, albeit with slight semantic shifts.
| Maéstru kúu-te̱e ún.|
[Teacher is–man a]
"The man is a teacher
"He is a teacher"
"You will be intelligent"
|Va̱ni íyó itu.|
[Good is crop]
"The crop is fine"
|Káa likuxi sɨkɨ̱ tɨ̱.|
[appears grey back its-(animal's)]
The animal's back is grey"
"He was rich but is no longer"
Descriptive verbs are a special class that can be used as either verbs or adjectives. One of these verbs followed by a pronoun is all that is needed to form a complete sentence in Mixtec. Descriptives are not conjugated: they always appear in the present tense. To give the same idea in the past or future tenses, a copulative verb must be used.
[shall-enrich he ]
"He is rich"
"The maize is heavy"
|Descriptives with contracted copulas|
|Vijna te kúkúká-de.|
[now and is-rich–he]
"Now he is rich"
"He became rich again"
Modal verbs are a small group that may be followed by another verb. Only the relative pronoun jee̱ can occasionally appear between a modal and its associated verb, except in sentences involving kuu (can, to be able).
The indicative mood describes actions in real life that have occurred, are occurring, or will occur. The verb forms of the indicative mood are described above, in the section on verb tenses.Imperative mood
Imperatives are formed by adding the particle -ni to the future indicative form of the verb. In informal speech, the simple future indicative is frequently used, although the pronoun ró may be appended. There are three irregular verbs with imperative forms different to their future indicative. Negative imperatives are formed by adding the word má, the equivalent of "don't".
| Kaa̱n ní.|
| Kaa̱n. |
| Kaa̱n ro̱.|
| Má kaa̱n ro̱.|
In Mixtec, the subjunctive mood serves as a mild command. It is formed by placing the particle na before the future form of the verb. When used in the first person, it gives the impression that the speaker closely reflects on the action before performing it.
|Third-person subjunctive||First-person subjunctive|
[subjunctive shall-enter–he house]
"Let him enter the house"
|Na kí'ín-na. |
Then I shall go"
The counter-factual mood indicates that the action was not performed or remained incomplete. To form the past counter-factual, ní is added added and the tones of the verb change from preterite to present. A counter-factual statement not accompanied by a subordinate clause acquires the meaning "If only..." The particle núú can be added at the end of the main or subordinate clauses, should the speaker wish, with no change in meaning. Examples are shown below:
Nouns indicate persons, animals, inanimate objects or abstract ideas. Mixtec has few nouns for abstract ideas; when they do not exist, it uses verbal constructions instead. When a noun is followed by another in a sentence, the former serves as the nucleus of the phrase, with the latter acting as a modifier. In many such constructions, the modifier possesses the nucleus.
The base number of Mixtec nouns is singular. Pluralisation is effected by means of various grammatical and lexical tools. For example, a noun's number can be implicit if the phrase uses a plural pronoun (first person inclusive only) or if one of various verb affixes that modify the meaning are used: -koo and -ngoo (suffixes) and ka- (prefix). A third way to indicate a plural is the (untranslatable) particle jijná'an, which can be placed before or after verbs, pronouns, or nouns.
Deictic adverbs are often used in a noun phrase as demonstrative adjectives. Some Mixtec languages distinguish two such demonstratives, others three (proximal, medial, distal), and some four (including one that indicates something out of sight). The details vary from variety to variety, as do the actual forms. In some varieties one of these demonstratives is also used anaphorically (to refer to previously mentioned nominals in the discourse), and in some varieties a special anaphoric demonstrative (with no spatial use) is found. These demonstratives generally occur at the end of the noun phrase (sometimes followed by a "limiter"). The demonstratives are also used (in some varieties) following a pronominal head as a kind of complex pronoun.
Mixtec is a Verb Subject Object language. Variations in this word order, particularly the use of the preverbal position, are employed to highlight information.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the Mixtec language to Mexican Spanish is in the field of place names, particularly in the western regions of the state of Oaxaca, where several communities are still known by Mixtec names (joined with a saint's name): San Juan Ñumí, San Bartolo Yucuañe, Santa Cruz Itundujia, and many more. In Puebla and Guerrero, Mixtec place names have been displaced by Nahuatl and Spanish names. An example is Yucuyuxi (in Puebla) which is now known as Gabino Barreda.
Prior to the Spanish Conquest in the early 16th century, the native peoples of Mesoamerica maintained several literary genres. Their compositions were transmitted orally, through institutions at which members of the elite would acquire knowledge of literature and other areas of intellectual activity. Those institutions were mostly destroyed in the aftermath of the Conquest, as a result of which most of the indigenous oral tradition was lost for ever. Most of the codices used to record historical events or mythical understanding of the world were destroyed, and the few that remain were taken away from the peoples that created them. Four Mixtec codices are known to survive, narrating the war exploits of the Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw. Of these, three are held by European collections, with one still in Mexico. The key to deciphering these codices was rediscovered only in the mid-20th century, largely through the efforts of Alfonso Caso, as the Mixtec people had lost the understanding of their ancient rules of reading and writing.
However, the early Spanish missionaries undertook the task of teaching indigenous peoples (the nobility in particular) to read and write. Through the efforts of those missionaries, or those of the Hispanicized natives, certain works of indigenous literature were able to survive to the modern day. Over the five centuries that followed the Conquest, Mixtec literature was restricted to the popular sphere. Through music or the way in which certain rituals are carried out, popular Mixtec literature has survived as did for millennia: by means of oral transmission.
It was not until the 1990s that indigenous literature in Mexico took off again. At the vanguard were the Zapotecs of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, who had been recording their language in writing since at least the mid-19th century. Imitating the great cultural movement of the indigenous people of Juchitán de Zaragoza in the 1980s, many native cultures reclaimed their languages as literary vehicles. In 1993 the Asociación de Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas was created and, three years later, the Casa del Escritor en Lengua Indígena. At the same time, the Nezahualcóyotl Prize for indigenous language literature was created, in order to promote writing in Native American tongues.
In the Mixteca region, the literary renaissance has been led by the peoples of the Mixteca Alta, including the cities of Tlaxiaco and Juxtlahuaca. The former has produced such notable writers as Raúl Gatica, who published works by several Mixtec poets in the book Asalto a la palabra, and Juan de Dios Ortiz Cruz, who in addition to collecting the region's lyrical compositions has also produced notable pieces of his own, such as Yunu Yukuninu ("Tree, Hill of Yucuninu"). That piece was later set to music by Lila Downs, one of the leading figures in contemporary Mixtec music; she has recorded several records containing compositions in Mixtec, a language she learnt from her mother.