| The Chinantec languages, which together form one of several language families in the Otomanguean stock, are spoken in the northeastern part of the State of Oaxaca (especially in the districts of Ixtlán de Juarez, Tuxtepec and Choapan). Partly because most of this region is mountainous, there are about 13 mutually-unintelligible varieties of Chinantec. Some of these number above 10 thousand speakers but most are less. The larger varieties have 20 or more towns and the smaller ones have only two or three towns. The total population is about 70,000. The Summer Institute of Linguistics has worked in all but the Tepinapa variety.
Chinantec is still the dominant language in most of the communities that traditionally have spoken it, even among the children. However, in some towns near the highways Spanish is more common, and because of the small size of these language groups and the dominance of Spanish in Mexico overall, these languages should probably be considered in danger of extinction within one hundred years.
The Chinantecs are primarily horticulturalists, raising corn (maize) and beans for their own consumption. Through government programs, fertilizers and hybrid seeds are commonly used in some areas. Coffee, timber and chilis are also marketed in significant quantities. Other crops are raised in certain areas, such as avocados, cacao, peaches, tobacco, and vanilla. There are also cottage industries in some places, producing such items as pottery, baskets, and palm mats.
In most towns none or only a few of the older inhabitants still wear traditional clothing. From colonial times men wore white pants and shirt. Women wore a huipil (a short dress worn over a knee-length skirt), the design of which varied from one town to another (woven or embroidered, white or dyed). In most of the areas where women still make this traditional clothing, it is primarily worn only for special occasions; such garments are also sold to tourists.
Like other Otomanguean languages, the Chinantec languages are tonal, which means that the pitch with which a word is pronounced is so important that a change in the pitch can change one word into an entirely different one. The tone on the verb is a very important indicator of its person, number, and tense/aspect; it combines in complex patterns with prefixes and suffixes, and with vowel and consonant changes in the verb stems, to yield 13 or so forms of each verb. Motion verbs are distinguished from each other not only by direction with respect to the speaker (go vs. come) but also by direction with respect to a person or object's "home".
Most roots are monosyllabic and words tend not to have final consonants. (Some Chinantec languages allow more final consonants than others, but in all varieties there are restrictions on what consonants can be word-final.) As a result, words borrowed from Spanish are often incorporated into these languages without final consonants, are reduced to one or two syllables, and are assigned a tone pattern similar to other Chinantec words.
As in most of the other Otomanguean languages, the verb normally comes first in the clause, then subject and object. Possessors, demonstrative adjectives and relative clauses follow the head nouns in a noun phrase, while numerals precede them. There are relatively few true prepositions; instead possessed nouns express many relationships commonly expressed by prepositions in other languages.
© 2004 Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C.
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