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). There are about 14 mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinantec, due in part to the mountainous nature of the region. There is a large range of size among the varieties. Some number above ten thousand speakers and are spoken in twenty or more towns; but most are smaller, spoken in only two or three towns.
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 commonly spoken, and because of the small size of the Chinantec communities, these varieties of Chinantec are endangered.
The Chinantecs are primarily subsistence agriculturalists, 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, traditional dress is no longer worn except perhaps by a few of the older inhabitants. From colonial times men wore white pants and shirt, while women wore a huipil (a short dress) worn over a knee-length skirt. The design of the huipil was unique to each town, varied by weave, embroidery, or color. In most of the areas where women still make this traditional clothing, it is primarily worn for special occasions or sold to tourists.
The term the Chinantec people use for themselves in many areas appears to translate as ‘ordinary people’ or ‘just plain-old folks’, and the term for their language as ‘ordinary words’ or ‘everyday language’. By contrast, their word for the Spanish language appears to mean something like ‘salty words’ or ‘higher words’.
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.