Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing names
“Mixe” and “Mixtec(o)”

The names “Mixe” and “Mixtec” look more confusing than they sound. “Mixe” is generally pronounced somewhat like "MEE-hay", and “Mixtec” like “MEES-teck”. The places where they are spoken are not far apart, as the map indicates, but they belong to completely different linguistic stocks.

The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

The location of Mixe and Mixtec within Mexico

The name Mixtec is used for any of a rather large group of languages which, together with the languages called Cuicatec and Trique (or Triqui), form the Mixtecan language family. Mixtecan in turn is part of the Otomanguean stock.

Mixe is part of the Mixe-Zoquean language family. The Mixean sub-family of this family consists of as many as ten mutually-unintelligible linguistic variants. Most of these variants are called Mixe, although Sayula and Oluta Popoluca are also Mixean. There is evidence linking an ancestor of this language family to the ancient civilization known as “Olmec”.

The etymology of “Mixe” and “Mixteco”

“Mixe” and “Mixtec” are both names of Nahuatl origin. The Nahuatl stem meaning ‘cloud’ is mix ([miʃ]; sounds like MEESH) and the endings -eh ‘owner of’ and -teko ‘lord of, owner of’ are typical ethnonymic (people-naming) suffixes of Nahuatl. So both the “Mixes” and the “Mixtecos” were called “cloud-people” by their Nahuatl-speaking neighbors.

The Nahuatl sound traditionally spelled x was (and is still) pronounced like the English “sh” sound (phonetically [ʃ]). This sound has no equivalent in modern Spanish. Words that had the sound are usually pronounced either with the Spanish j sound (a sort of slightly rough [h] sound) or with an [s] sound. The name of Mexico itself is pronounced, and even written by some, as Méjico ['mehiko]; the name of the volcano Ixtaccíhuatl is pronounced with an [s], and sometimes written with a z (pronounced [s] in Mexican Spanish): Iztaccíhuatl.

This explains why the words “Mixe” and “Mixtec” look more alike than they sound. They come from the same Nahuatl root, and their spellings reflect that fact, but that root has given rise to two different modern pronunciations, and one of those is used for “Mixe” (MEE-hay ['mihe]) and the other for “Mixtec” (MEES-teck ['mistek]).

The image at the beginning of this page is a detail from Codex Nuttall, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen, and is used by permission.