The Effects of the Linguistic Contact Between P’urhepecha and Spanish and the Efforts to Revitalize an Endangered Mesoamerican Language

1. Introduction

After the Spanish Conquest, Spanish gradually became the dominant language in all of the conquered territories of the New World, reaching the status of official (or co-official) language of twenty one countries in Latin America. In what became Mexico, Spanish came into contact with numerous indigenous tongues spoken in its territory at the time of the arrival of the Conquistadors in the 16th century. In spite of the complete hegemony achieved by Spanish, to this day there remain about sixty of these indigenous languages still alive in Mexico. One of these languages is P’urhepecha, a Mesoamerican language isolate, spoken now mainly in the state of Michoacán in central-western Mexico. It is the language of the P’urhepecha people, who originally inhabited an area corresponding to most of the present-day Mexican state of Michoacán and portions of the states of Jalisco, Guerrero, and Guanajuato. The P’urhepecha were declared enemies of the Aztecs or Mexica, who in spite of all their attempts were never able to conquer them, and had developed quite an advanced civilization at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Over the centuries, the situation of language contact between Spanish and P’urhepecha has proved extremely detrimental to this minority language. Its linguistic territory and the number of its speakers have decreased considerably and the prospects for its long-term survival may be called into question. Yet, there is an increasing awareness of the serious challenges indigenous languages face in a globalized world, where only a few languages dominate, and the need to redouble efforts to study them, teach them, document them, and preserve them. Given all this, one of the goals of this article is to present a brief overview of the history and current state of the linguistic contact between Spanish and P’urhepecha, including a brief discussion of the main characteristics of P’urhepecha and the linguistic influence exerted by each of these two languages on the other, especially with respect to borrowings. Furthermore, this article also discusses some of the efforts currently under way to preserve and revitalize this Mesoamerican language despite the challenges it faces; these include community efforts, governmental support, and educational initiatives, as well as the creation of pedagogical materials and the compilation of a bilingual dictionary P’urhepecha-Spanish/Spanish-P’urhepecha, a project in which the author is involved. This type of endeavor should ultimately contribute to shed some light upon issues of language contact and shift between Spanish and the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica and to the dissemination of revitalization initiatives.

2. P’urhepecha and Its Speakers

P’urhepecha is a language isolate and one of the approximately sixty indigenous languages that are still spoken in today’s Mexico. According to the INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía), P’urhepecha had about 105,500 speakers as of the year 2005 (INEGI 2007). The language is inflectional with a system of cases that include the genitive, the objective (marking of the direct or indirect object), and the locative, as well as an agglutinative type of language where word formation consists of the addition of morpheme after morpheme without much allomorphic variation. P’urhepecha morphology, especially its derivational morphology, is extremely varied and complex. Meanings that other languages may express through prepositions, adverbs, or auxiliaries, such as causation, deixis, manner, voice, volition, and many others, involve processes of derivation. As an illustration of the processes in question, consider the following example: From the verbal root uaxa ‘sit’, one can derive uaxajtsïkuni (–ni is the infinitive ending) ‘to sit on a table’, uaxamukuni ‘to sit at the door or entrance’, uaxandikuni ‘to sit at a corner’, uaxandukuni ‘to sit at the base of a tree’, uaxajchukuni ‘to sit under a passageway or hallway’, uaxaŋeni ‘to sit inside a cave or ravine’, uaxarhini ‘to sit on someone’, uaxakatarani ‘to make someone sit’, uaxaŋeni ‘to fall inside a well or ravine in a sitting position’, among numerous others.

P’urhepecha is also especially known for its body part suffixes, which are used not only to name the parts of body but also in the expression of spatial location and orientation (Mendoza 2006 and 2007; Friedrich 1971 and 1969), as in the following examples (the body part suffix is in bold):

(1) Retratuecha tirhiŋarhikustiksï ixu

pictures hang-face-asser.3p. pl. here

‘The pictures are hanging on the wall here’

This sentence may be translated literally as: “The pictures, which are hanging on a flat surface are on the face of the surface.” Notice that the verb, tirhiŋarhikustiksï, obligatorily contains a body part, ŋarhi ‘face’, to describe the exact location of the pictures, in this case the wall’s surface (referred to in P’urhepecha as its “face”).

(2) Kabli ma mesarhu chakijtsïkusti cable a table-loc flexible-head-asser.3p. sg. ‘A cable is on the table’.

This sentence actually expresses something closer to: “The cable [a longish and flexible object] is on the head [the main part] of the table [an elevated horizontal surface].” In sentence (2), the body-part suffix has been changed from ŋarhi ‘face’ to jtsïhead’ for illustration purposes.

Another remarkable feature of the P’urhepecha language is its use of deictic suffixes, such as –pa and –pu, in derivation (Mendoza 2007). –Pa refers to movement away from the deictic center—usually the location of the speaker—while performing the action of the verbal base, as in: Arhinta-pa-ni ‘to go reading, to read while going somewhere, to read while moving/going away’ < arhinta ‘read’; ch’ana-pa-ni ‘to go playing, to play while moving/going away’ < ch’ana ‘play’; kará-pa-ni ‘to go along writing, to write while moving’ < kará ‘write’; kaui-pa-ni ‘to go drinking wine, to drink wine while moving’ < kaui ‘drink wine’; k’uimu-pa-ni ‘to go whistling, to whistle while moving’ < k’uimu ‘whistle’; piré-pa-ni ‘to go singing, to sing while moving’ < piré ‘sing’; t’iré-pa-ni ‘to go eating, to eat while moving’ < tiré ‘eat’; uandontskuarhi-pa-ni ‘to go talking, to converse while going somewhere’ < uandonts-kuarhi ‘converse, talk’; uarha-pa-ni ‘to go dancing, to dance while moving’ < uarha ‘dance’, and so on.

By contrast, –pu means something like ‘to move towards the deictic center while performing the action of the verbal base’, as in: Arhinta-pu-ni ‘to come reading’; ch’ana-pu-ni ‘to come playing’; kaui-pu-ni ‘to come drinking wine’; k’uimu-pu-ni ‘to come whistling’; piré-pu-ni ‘to come singing’; t’iré-pu-ni ‘to come eating’; uarha-pu-ni ‘to come dancing’, and so forth.

3. The contact between Spanish and P’urhepecha

Spanish and P’urhepecha have been in constant contact for nearly five centuries, since the early years of the Spanish Conquest and Colonization of Mexico. The first Conquistadors arrived in Michoacan in 1521 (Krippner-Martínez 2001: 2-3) and the first Franciscan missionaries did so in 1525 (Warren 2007: 19). Almost from the beginning, efforts were made by the missionaries to document and record the P’urhepecha language, mainly due to their goals of evangelization given that very few natives had acquired Spanish. This resulted in the publication of several works in P’urhepecha, the first of which appeared in 1558: Arte de la lengua de Michuacan. It was the work of the Franciscan missionary Maturino Gilberti, who went on to also publish other works, such as: Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacan, en el que se contiene la doctrina christiana y oraciones de cada dia, y el examen de la conciencia, y declaracion de la missa, Dialogo de doctrina christiana, en lengua de Mechuacan, and Vocabulario en lengua de Mechuacan (Warren 2007: 26). Other P’urhepecha publications of the colonial period are: Arte y diccionario con otras obras en lengua michuacana (1574) by Juan Baptista de Lagunas; Dialogo sobre la naturaleza in two volumes (1575 and 1578) by Juan de Medina Plaza, and a further work was written by the missionary Diego Basalenque: Arte de la lengua tarasca, published in 1714 (Warren 2007).

Even though throughout the colonial period the language policies of the Spanish Crown vacillated between imposition of Spanish as the sole language and provisions for the teaching of indigenous tongues (Hidalgo 1996), Spanish was all along the privileged language in its status as language of the empire, and it eventually became the official language of the new nation. Thus, the pressure of Spanish on P’urhepecha (and on all the other indigenous languages) greatly increased. Overtime more and more indigenous people became bilingual, a situation which oftentimes constituted just a transitional stage in the eventual abandonment of their native tongue. Nowadays, in the areas where P’urhepecha is still spoken (alongside Spanish), there is a high (and increasing) degree of bilingualism among P’urhepecha speakers, a situation which, unfortunately, is not limited to these areas. Margarita Hidalgo (1996: 57) remarks that “all Indian languages are losing ground to Spanish; the preference for Spanish is revealed in the decrease of monolinguals and increase of bilinguals.”

There are various factors that have contributed to the increase in bilingualism, among them the continued contact with Spanish, which is the language of the media, government and church, and the need on the part of P’urhepecha speakers to communicate and establish commercial relations with members of the mainstream society; other factors are the desire to learn Spanish as a way to improve their economic and social standing and the fact that high school and higher education are predominantly conducted in Spanish. The situation of bilingualism in the areas where P’urhepecha is still spoken can be considered evidence of a language shift in progress, given that many P’urhepecha speakers eventually give up their native tongue; by contrast, Spanish speakers rarely learn the indigenous language even in these areas of close contact.

In the bilingual regions, a situation of diglossia has developed; P’urhepecha, not surprisingly, is the low variety, used for informal communication among family and friends whereas Spanish constitutes the high variety, reserved for school, commerce, church, and government (Demišová 1999: 69-70). Although some form of bilingual education has been mandated on and off by the different political powers since colonial times (Hidalgo 1996), the instructional method commonly in place in P’urhepecha areas is the transitional type, where the indigenous language is only a temporary tool used along the way towards the acquisition of Spanish (Demišová 1999: 68; 72-76).

We should note that, in spite of the situation of great inequality between Spanish, as the dominant language, and P’urhepecha, as the subordinate one, this indigenous language has nevertheless left a visible imprint on the Spanish of the state of Michoacán, as can be inferred by the various P’urhepecha borrowings present. A few examples of the lexical influence of P’urhepecha on the Spanish of Michoacán (Chávez Rivadeneyra 1999, Demišová 1999, Velásquez Gallardo 1988) are nouns such as huarache ‘sandal, huarache’ < P’urhepecha kuarhachi ‘sandal’, tacuche ‘suit, elegant outfit’ < P takusï ‘fabric, clothing’, chocho ‘grasshopper’ < P chochu ‘grasshopper’, charanda (type of alcoholic drink) < P charanda (alcoholic drink made of sugar cane), tecata ‘crust’ < P t’ejkata ‘wood splinter’, uchepo (type of tamal) < P uchepu (type of tamal), chapata (type of wheat tamal) < P ch’apata ‘wheat tamal’, corunda (type of tamal) < P k’urhunda ‘corn tamal’, churipo (beef stew dish) < P churhipu (beef stew dish), pirecua (any P’urhepecha song) < P pirékua ‘song’, guanengo/huanengo (type of woman’s shirt) < P uaneŋu ‘woman’s shirt’, guare (any indigenous woman) < P uarhi ‘woman’, puscua (cooked corn to prepare a drink known as atole/atol) < P puskua ‘type of drink made of corn’, napisï ‘acorn’ < P napis? ‘acorn’, güinumo ‘pine tree leaves’ < P uinumu ‘pine tree leaves’, tamo (debris that comes off of dry corn) < P tamu (debris that comes off of dry corn), guangoche (type of wide net for carrying a load) < P uaŋochi ‘sack’, as well as names referring to local flora and fauna, and toponyms, such as Aporo, Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio, Chupícuaro, Pátzcuaro, Nahuatzen, and Zinapécuaro. However, as can be observed, these borrowings are solely nouns and have not really affected the grammar of Spanish.

By contrast, Spanish has exerted undeniably the greatest linguistic influence on the indigenous language as P’urhepecha has borrowed from it extensively, not only nouns but also verbs and adjectives, and even grammatical elements, like the diminutive –itu < Spanish –ito and the prepositions para < Sp para ‘for’ and asta < Sp hasta ‘until’, which are used as subordinating conjunctions. Examples of borrowed lexical items from Spanish are: Siruela < Spanish ciruela ‘plum’, ratu < Sp rato ‘a while’, monu < Sp mono ‘doll (Mex. Sp)’, sapatu < Sp zapato ‘shoe’, periku < Sp perico ‘parrot’, kandela < Sp candela ‘candle’, butella < Sp botella ‘bottle’, platu < Sp plato ‘plate’, mantekiia < Sp mantequilla ‘butter’, kafe < Sp café ‘coffee’, uakasï ‘head of cattle’ < Sp vaca ‘cow’, beserru < Sp becerro ‘calf’, pioni < Sp peón ‘worker’, arreglarini < Sp arreglar ‘to fix’, desmaiarini < Sp desmayar ‘to faint’, kumplirini < Sp cumplir ‘to fulfill’, pensarini < Sp pensar ‘to think’, kambiarini < Sp cambiar ‘to change’, enkantadu < Sp encantado ‘enchanted, delighted’, interesadu < Sp interesado ‘interested’, etc. Other common borrowings into P’urhepecha are the days of the week, months of the year, and higher numbers.

4. Efforts to Promote and Revitalize P’urhepecha

As mentioned earlier, P’urhepecha had approximately 105,500 speakers in 2005, which represents about 16,000 fewer speakers than the 121,500 recorded in the year 2000. Because of this downward trend is especially important to redouble the efforts and initiatives to help in its preservation and revitalization. Fortunately, some of the work needed has already been undertaken. There are different projects that have to do with historical study and documentation of P’urhepecha, such the excellent work being produced at El Colegio de Michoacán in Zamora, Michoacán; there are also other researchers who have contributed different articles and monographs about the contemporary language (Chamoreau 1988; Mendoza 2006 and 2007).

Furthermore, the teaching of P’urhepecha at the college level is nowadays a reality; the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, Michoacán’s state university, offers a language program in P’urhepecha consisting of six semesters from beginning to advanced levels. These courses are open to both heritage and non-heritage students. Also, the Universidad Michoacana houses the Centro de Investigación de la Cultura P’urhépecha, which is dedicated to the promotion and study of the P’urhepecha language and culture and has worked on the standardization of its writing system. Moreover, in 2006 the Universidad Intercultural Indígena de Michoacán opened its doors offering, among other possible fields of specialization, a program in translation and interpretation of P’urhepecha. We should also mention the fact that in 1980 La Academia de la Lengua P'urhépecha was created, which has strengthened the overall standing and recognition of this language. Special mention is deserved by the joint efforts by the federal government (Dirección General de Culturas Populares e Indígenas), state governments, and indigenous communities in the organization of a literary contest—Concurso Regional de Cuento en Lenguas Indígenas—which has already produced a few publications containing the winning titles.

Among the different efforts to revitalize and preserve the P’urhepecha language, one that should prove especially fruitful is a project the author is currently involved in, which refers to the creation of a bilingual dictionary P’urhepecha-Spanish/Spanish-P’urhepecha. There is little question that there exists a dire need for pedagogical and reference materials related to the indigenous languages of Mexico. Such materials are truly indispensable for the younger generations to (re-)learn the languages and for knowledge of these languages to be disseminated among experts and non-experts alike. Dictionaries are vital in providing continuity to a language and are crucial in elucidating a myriad of lexical and grammatical areas. They constitute invaluable tools not only for native speakers who wish to deepen and further their knowledge of their own language but also for researchers, linguists, and other interested parties. The need is especially urgent in the case of the indigenous languages that find themselves in danger of extinction. In this scenario, P’urepecha constitutes no exception.

Thus, my main goal, and that of my coauthor, Lucas Gómez Bravo (Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo),is to build a bilingual dictionary that, due to its extension and depth, will at least in part fill the void that nowadays exists with respect to descriptive and pedagogical materials of indigenous languages, especially dictionaries, and thus help contribute to the preservation of P’urhepecha in particular. The project as it has been conceived will be concerned with contemporary P’urhepecha and is thus intended to reflect current usage, focusing especially on a detailed semantic description of each term with plenty of illustrative examples also included. Even though there are other dictionaries of contemporary P’urhepecha, these are often plagued with inaccuracies in the definition of terms, and there is often a lack of illustrative examples. To reiterate, in creating a dictionary it is very important to especially take into account the needs of native speakers, who should find in it an informative, useful, and practical source of knowledge of their language. Therefore, the presentation and description of the terms included must appear at the right level of detail and accessibility so as to fulfill a clear pedagogical objective.

Another feature that will be part of this project will be the inclusion of common loanwords and neologisms, whose incorporation may especially contribute to revitalize the language, as well as toponyms and terms that refer to cultural practices, such as games and typical dances. In addition, dialectal differences between different P’urhepecha speaking regions will be noted, all this with the goal of illustrating the great dialectal diversity and complexity of a language in constant evolution as P’urhepecha. Finally, a brief grammatical description of the language will also be included in the dictionary in order to familiarize the users with its basic features.

5. Conclusion

The linguistic contact between Spanish and P’urhepecha and the hegemony exerted by Spanish has brought about a situation of language shift and endangerment of this indigenous Mesoamerican language. Only with the concerted efforts of all interested parties will this situation be counteracted and even possibly reversed. There have been positive developments over the last few years, which gives us some reason to be at least partially optimistic as to the future of P’urhepecha. Fortunately, different projects, among them a bilingual dictionary P’urhepecha-Spanish, are currently under way and will add to the efforts by institutions and individuals alike to continue to continue researching, documenting, and teaching this most fascinating language with the aim of ensuring its long-term survival.


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Demišová, Lada. El español y el purépecha: Lenguas en contacto. Influencias mutuas en el campo del léxico, unpublished MA Thesis, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad Carolina de Praga, República Checa, 1999.

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Mendoza, Martha. Derivational Resources in P’urhepecha: Morphological Complexity and Verb Formation, Acta Linguistica Hungarica, Budapest, 2007, vol. 54, num. 2, pp. 157-172.

Mendoza, Martha. Spatial Language in Tarascan: Body Parts, Shape, and the Grammar of Location, Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, Berkeley, CA, Berkeley Linguistics Society, 2006.

Velásquez Gallardo, Pablo. Diccionario de la lengua phorhépecha, Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.