Mixtec belongs to the Otomanguean group of Mesoamerican languages. Proto-otomanguean, the mother language, was spoken by hunters and gatherers in the region over 10,000 years ago. A forerunner of contemporary Mixtec appeared some 7,000 years ago (Bartolomé, 1999).

Children practicing

It is misleading to talk about Mixtec language as a single, uniform system of oral and written communication. By some estimates there are thirty or even fifty variations of the language, some of which are very different from one another. Residents of settlements separated by a few miles may only understand about 10-25% of what each other says. (Julián, 2003; Bartolomé, 1999). For example, water is called ndute by some, others call it chikui. Tortillas are called dita, xita, jita, ista, staa, and ita, depending on the area. Reading comprehension across even the most dissimilar variations, however, is estimated to be at least 50% (Bartolomé, 1999). Nevertheless, when Mixtecs who speak various regional variants gather, they typically speak Spanish with one another.

The Academy for the Mixtec Language (Ve’e Tu’un Savi in Mixtec, literally, “House of the Voice of the Rain”) formed in 1989 to preserve the Mixtec language and to develop a standardized written alphabet. Mixtec pronunciation roughly follows Spanish pronunciation, but has some unique features. For example, a repeating vowel, such as in the words “staa” or “yuu” is articulated for a slightly extended length of time. The letter “x” is pronounced like the English “sh”; “n” is pronounced before consonants, such as in the word “ndute” (water). An apostrophe (‘) mid-word is used to indicated a glottal stop, meaning that air is abruptly cut off before going on to articulate the following syllable. And the sound represented by the crossed “I” symbol closely resembles the sould of the letter “I” in English words “kit” or “mitt.” Notice in the samples of text that the written Mixtec may or may not capitalize the beginning of sentences or punctuate using question or exclamation mark.

Mixtec is a tonal language; this means that a single written word can have a variety of different meanings depending on the tone and the stress of its pronunciation. While some linguists say there may be up to nine different tones, most agree that there are three basic ones: high, medium and low (Julián, 2003). The word yaa for instance, depending on the pronunciation, may mean tongue, music or ashes; koo, snake or to sit down.

In the 500+ years since the arrival of Cortés, Mixtec has adopted or adapted Spanish words for which there are no Mixtec equivalents. And today, because of the heavy migration between Oaxaca and the United States, Anglicisms are increasingly creeping into the language. A startling, but no longer uncommon scenario in schools in the Mixteca is the following: A Spanish-only speaking teacher, educated in Mexico City, leads a classroom comprised of Mixtec-only speaking students, bilingual Mixtec-Spanish speaks and bilingual Mixtec-English speakers.

The place names commonly found on maps of Oaxaca and the Mixteca are Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs (Culhua-Mexica) who dominated the region in the last centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. The word Mixteca, in fact, derives from the Nahuatl Mixtecatl, “Country of the Clouds” (Bartolomé, 1999). However, locales preserve their original Mixtec names, which are more or less familiar to local residents. Mixtepec, for instance, is “Xnuviko” or “Snuviko” meaning “meadow where the fog comes in;” these names appear on the signs of some of the town’s shops.

Here are some words that you can try to pronounce. If you need more help, be sure to check out the videos and flashcards on the Resources page.

kuka - comb
yaa - tongue
koo - snake
ñuu - palm tree
yoo - moon
yuu - palm mat (petate in Spanish)
pañu - shawl (rebozo in Spanish)
ngunu doo - backstrap loom
riki - woodpecker
nuni - corn
lo'o - rooster
ita - flower
viko - cloud
didi - aunt
tikoo - tamales
ve'e - house
nini - ear of corn
djo'o - ear
kawa - rock quarry
chaka - fish
tyoko - ant
saa - bird
ma'a - badger
kitsi - animal
xikon - traditional woman's blouse (huipil)
jita - tortilla
ya'a - chile

You can also practice traditional greetings/phrases in two Mixtec variants:

Mixtec Greetings
English San Juan Mixtepec variant San Antonio Huitepec variant
How are you? A yee va'a menu?
Nku kueeni yo'oa?
Very Well, thank you. And you? Va'a xee, tatsa'vi meu. Cha meu? Achi nke kueeni, nakuu ta'viin nuu. Te yo'o tuku u'.
What is your name? Nixi nani meu? Na nani yo'o taa(sir)/naa (ma'am)/landa (child)/ñani(young man)/ku've(young woman).
My name is __________. Mee nai ________. Me naniin ________.
Thank you Tatsa'vi. Nakuu ta'viin.
You're welcome. Koo ña kui. Aña'an kojani iñi yo'o