Lealao Chinantec
(ISO code cle)



The Chinantec language spoken in the town of San Juan Lealao, Oaxaca, is also spoken in the towns of Tres Arroyos and Hondura.The inhabitants of San Juan Lealao had to travel progressively greater distances in the 20th century to find sufficient land to farm. Before the beginning of the 21st century, the small settlements towards the east and south of San Juan Lealao came to be the towns of Tres Arroyos and Hondura. Hondura is the smallest of these three towns, and the combined population is approximately 2000. There are also a few speakers of this language who live in Latani and Santa María Yahuivé.

The speakers of this language refer to it as fáh⁴jmii⁴², which probably means ‘plain (i.e., straightforward) speech’.

Map: Chinantec region
Map of the language area

It is believed by the residents of San Juan Lealao that the town was originally settled by a man named Juan Arco from Petlapa. A large bell in Lealao that is almost a meter high bears the date of 1738, which some people consider to be the date when San Juan Lealao officially became a town.

Lealao bells
Date on bells

The land and climate are suitable for coffee and sugar cane, as well as the traditional crops of corn and beans. Since 1990, there has been a resurgence of adobe making but the adobes being made now are only half (5 x 10 inches) the size of traditional adobes. The local economy is extremely poor. A different road was finally opened to San Juan Lealao in 2000. A different road (from the direction of Zacatepec) reached Tres Arroyos in 2006 and a third road (through Lachisova) is under construction towards Hondura. Electricity is not available in any of the villages as of 2008.

Tres Arroyos
Tres Arroyos
Wedding in Hondura
Wedding in Hondura

In the Chinantec region, whistle talk is widely used by the male population for distances beyond 10 meters. It consists of the tone stripped from a stream of speech, and since the tone carries such a heavy information load, it is sufficient for light communication. The women do the same thing but with a falsetto voice.

In Chinantec, a polite greeting is “Now come and see us sometime.” Young children have been known to actually show up! Also, when a Chinantec person happens to visit a neighbor, he is normally invited to eat something. The polite response is to decline. Then the host will extend the invitation again and the visitor might say: “Oh, no, I've just eaten”, or “I will be eating later.” The interchange continues until finally the visitor accepts the invitation; otherwise he would appear to be excessively hungry.

--James and Nadine Rupp


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