Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing names
“Popoloca” and “Popoluca”


A number of indigenous languages in Mexico have been called “Popoloca” or “Popoluca”, and the usage of the terms has been, and still is, quite confusing. Today the word Popoloca is used for a group of Otomanguean languages spoken in the state of Puebla, and Popoluca is used for some Mixe-Zoquean languages spoken in the southern part of the state of Veracruz. The locations of these languages are marked on the following map.

the locations of Popoloca and Popoluca

The Popolocan language family, which forms part of the Otomanguean language stock, includes the half-dozen languages which are called Popoloca (ISO codes pbe, pbf, pca, pls, poe, pow and pps), as well as the Mazatec languages, Chocholteco (Ngigua), and the nearly-extinct Ixcateco.

The languages which are called Popoluca, though they are called by the same name and are very close to each other geographically, are not as closely related as one might think; rather they belong to different subfamilies of the Mixe-Zoquean family. Sierra Popoluca (poi) and Texistepec Popoluca (poq) are Zoquean; that is, they are more closely related to the Zoque languages of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco than to the nearby Sayula and Oluta Popoluca languages. And Sayula Popoluca (pos) and Oluta Popoluca (plo) are Mixean, more closely related to the Mixe languages of Oaxaca than to Sierra and Texistepec Popoluca.

The Sierra Popolucas call their language nuntajɨ̠yi, ‘straight speech’ or ‘true speech’.

The etymology of “Popoloca” and “Popoluca”

In Nahuatl the word popoloca refers to the sound of a thick liquid (like gruel) bubbling and popping when it boils. By semantic extension it came to mean something like ‘babble’, or ‘jabber’, or ‘gabble’, referring to unintelligible, rapid speech. So Nahuatl-speakers sometimes used it to refer to languages they did not understand. Naturally a name given in such a way is unlikely to reflect a good understanding of which languages are related how closely to which others.

The /o/ sound in Nahuatl was sometimes pronounced [o] and sometimes [u], especially when next to /k/ (orthographically c or qu). This accounts for the difference in pronunciation between Popoloca and Popoluca.


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