The Mixtecan language family, one of the largest and most diverse families in the Otomanguean stock, includes three groups of languages: Cuicatec, Mixtec, and Triqui (or Trique). These languages are spoken primarily in the western part of the state of Oaxaca, but Mixtec is also spoken in neighboring parts of Puebla and Guerrero.
Cuicatec and Triqui have only a few varieties each, but Mixtec comprises a subfamily with many varieties. For the most part, each town has its own way of speaking, with features that are slightly different from those of neighboring towns, because social identity is based on belonging to a town, rather than to a larger geographical region or to a language group. This linguistic difference is often reinforced by the distinctive clothing worn by the women in each town. It is therefore difficult to say how many varieties of Mixtec there are.
While people from neighboring towns can understand each other fairly well, people from towns that are more than a day's walk apart usually cannot. One reason for this is that various sound changes have affected different parts of the Mixtec region. For example, most towns in the southwestern half of the region have the consonant s in many words, while most towns in the northeastern half have a soft d (the initial sound of English this) in the corresponding words. Thus the word for ‘deer’ is isu in one part and idu in the other, and the word for ‘metate (grinding table)’ is yoso in one part and yodo in the other. (Some towns have different consonants in these words.) Another reason that it is hard for people from different towns to understand each other is that they sometimes use completely different words. For example, the set of pronouns used in each town often differs from the set used in neighboring towns.
The area where the Cuicatecs, Mixtecs, and Triquis live is known as the Mixteca, and it includes a wide range of elevations. It was originally a very fertile area, but parts of it have suffered severe erosion, and it is now difficult for the people to make a living by growing corn (maize), beans, and squash in the traditional way. One way in which Mixtecs supplement their income is by weaving palm leaves into hats, mats, and baskets, but their earnings from this work are very low. Triqui women weave items for the tourist trade using their traditional backstrap loom. A few women in Santa María Peñoles still raise silkworms and sell the thread in Oaxaca City; some men sell homemade charcoal in the Oaxaca market.
Another response to economic pressure is emigration, and many people from this language group live and work in Mexico City, Oaxaca, and other large cities. They usually remain loyal to their hometown, return each year for special fiestas, and contribute toward town projects. Many people also go to northern Mexico, especially the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California, to work in the large agricultural operations there; and many others go to the United States and to Canada.
Much is known about the history of the Mixtec from the pictorial history books known as codices. These books describe their cosmovision, and also give the history of some of their kings. One of the most famous Mixtec kings was Eight Deer Tiger Claw of Tilantongo, who ruled over a large empire in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Mixtecs were also superb goldsmiths, potters, and carvers. The most famous collection of Mixtec artifacts was found in tomb seven at the Monte Alban archaeological site in Oaxaca.
Like other Otomanguean languages, the languages in the Mixtecan family 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 tones are so important that they are written in the practical orthographies (alphabets) of many Mixtecan languages, at least on some words. Chicahuaxtla Trique was the first language discovered to have five contrastive levels of tone, described by Robert Longacre in a 1952 article. Also, tones sometimes change before or after other tones. Kenneth Pike'sdescription of San Miguel El Grande Mixtec tone was one of the earliest descriptions of such changes, which are known as tone sandhi.
As is the case in many other languages in the Otomanguean stock, the normal word order in Mixtecan languages is Verb-Subject-Object. Numerals precede the nouns they modify, but possessors and other modifiers follow them. There is a special set of dependent pronouns which at first appear to be suffixes on verbs (indicating the subject) or on nouns (indicating a possessor), similar to the person/number suffixes on verbs in Spanish. However, as far as the grammar is concerned, they are better considered to be the actual subject or possessor, because they are not used when a separate noun follows the verb as subject or the possessed noun as possessor.