Mixtec

Language

Mixtec means “language of rain.” The Mixtec language is one of the largest families belonging to the Otomanguean Stock language family. Otomanguaen Stock language families are comprised of several Native language families. All Otomanguaen languages are indigenous to Mexico; some extinct languages were spoken as far as Nicaragua.  In total, there are about 500,000 people who speak Mixtec today, and 400,000 of those speakers live in Mexico.

The Mixtec language has many dialects. These language differences can be categorized by their town of origin. Each town's dialect is associated with specific clothing worn by the women. Mixtec dialects are only slightly varying, allowing neighboring communities to communicate. Towns more than a day’s walk apart, however, are unable to understand the dialect of that distant neighborhood.  Summer Institute of Linguistics has determined that dialects are 70% intelligible to each other.
Mixtec is a tonal language in which pitch can change the word meaning. Tones are indicated in the written language (practical orthographies). Spoken and written word order is verb-subject-object. Nouns are followed by possessors and modifiers, but proceed numerals. Certain pronouns act as suffixes on verbs and nouns; similar to Spanish (e.g. verbs indicate subject and nouns indicate possessor).

Dialects

Mixtec dialects are grouped by geographical areas. The number of dialects depends on how you qualify a dialect. Different sources have reached a different total number of dialects (e.g. Government agencies have said there were no dialectal differences). The consensus is that there are 25-50 dialects.

Phonological Characteristics

These are some of the most common and shared consonants and vowels in the Mixtec dialects:

Consonants

  Plosive Fricative Affricate Nasal Approximant Tap
Bilabial Voiceless /p/     Voiced /m/ Voiced /w[β]/  
Interdental   Voiced /ð/        
Alveolar Voiceless /t/ Voiceless /s/   Voiced /n/ Voiced /l/ Voiced /r/
Palatoalveolar   Voiceless /∫/ Voiceless /t∫/      
Palatal       Voiced /η/ Voiced /j/  
Velar Voiceless /k/ Voiceless /x/        


* Not all variants of Mixtec have /s/, /x/, /t∫/, and /ð/


Vowels

  Front Central Back
Close /i/ /†/ /u/
Middle /e/   /o/
Open   /a/  


Tones

Mixtec distinguishes three different tones- high, middle, and low. Tones are used grammatically and lexically (e.g. Lexical example: Kuu [kùū] to be and Kuu [kūù] to die). Tones are an important aspect of the language, however, tonal use among dialects are very different.  Tones are not always represented in written language. When tones are indicated in written language an acute accent over the vowel indicates high tone, mid tone is not marked, and a grave accent over the vowel or an underscore on the vowel is a low tone.

Written Tones

high tone ncháá
mid tone luu
low tone chùù


Nasalization

The Mixtec language is marked by nasalization. Some sounds like /m/ and /w/ are allophones because of nasalization. In most of the Mixtec dialects, nasalization occurs on the right-most morpheme of a word and spreads leftward until it hits an obstruent consonant (e.g. /p,t,k/). For example, the word 'yati' (meaning near) would have nasalization on the /i/ and it would not spread because it is blocked by an obstruent on the left side. The word 'nani' (meaning long) would have nasalization on the /i/ and would spread to the whole word because it is not blocked by an obstruent. There is a nasalized form of each of the 6 vowels. When transcribed, the nasalized vowel is marked with a small ‘n’ in the upper right-hand corner of the letter.  When vowels that are nasalized are adjacent to nasalized variants, they become less nasalized.

Glottalization

Many words in the Mixtec language have glottal stops in medial position following a vowel. Glottal stops occur when the airflow is obstructed in the throat. Glottalization is a unique feature of many Otomanguean languages.  For example: ta sa'nui and na sa'nui (meaning grandpa and grandma) a glottal stop follows the second /a/ and in this example is marked with an apostrophe (').


Education

The Mixtec language has only recently developed a written language. Information on how the Summer Institute of Linguistics developed orthographies for indigenous languages. Mixtec communities in the United States and Mexico battle high rates of illiteracy. Because of the vast number of dialects, attempts to carry out literacy programs have proved unsuccessful. The new written Mixtec language, however, has been shown to address the education deficits in these regions. The knowledge of Mixtec spoken and written language will aid individuals in learning a second language (e.g. Spanish or English), allowing access to formal education. The Office of the Development of the Indigenous people is funding programs to teach Mixtec and it’s written component to migrants living in the United States.

Alphabet of the Mixtecan Languages (ndusu tu'un sávi)

Symbol IPA Example Meaning Approximate pronunciation
a a andívi sky Similar to the English a in father
ch chitia banana Like English ch in chocolate

d
ð de he Like English th in father
e e ve'e home Like Spanish e in este
g ɡ ga̱ more Like English g in go

i

i ita̱ flower Like English i in machine
ɨ ɨ kɨni pig Like Russian ы or Romanian î

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 English m 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 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 ts tsi'ina puppy-dog Like ț in Romanian or ц in Russian
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

y
ʒ yuchi dust Like English ge in beige
' ˀ 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.

Implications for SLPs

  • There are no standardized language or articulation assessments in Mixtec.
  • When assessing an individual who speaks Mixtec, rely on dynamic assessment, language samples, interviews, and observations.
  • When using an interpreter be sure to use one that speaks the same dialect (being that dialects are only 70% intelligible to each other).
  • Some people speaking Mixtec may have differing views regarding the etiology of diseases and disorders.
  • Written language is fairly new to the Mixtec language and may not be known or a high priority for your client.
  • When providing paper-documents or requiring signatures, be conscious that written language may not be used by Mixtec speakers.
  • If a bilingual child is using verb-subject-object order when speaking English, this may be an overgeneralization from Mixtec.
  • If a bilingual child is nasalizing or inserting glottal stops when speaking English, this may be an overgeneralization from Mixtec.
  • English sounds varying only by resonance (e.g. /m/ and /w/) are allophones in Mixtec and may not be distinguished by Mixtec speakers.
  • English phonemes /b,f,v,d,z,dʒ,θ,j,w,h/ do not exist in Mixtec
  • Mixtec is a tonal language, whereas English makes no phonemic distinctions based on tone.

 

Originalcontributors: Jillian Sherrodd and Maggie Voinot-Baron. Winter Term 2011.

References and Resources