SIL Mexico

Northern Tlaxiaco Mixtec
(ISO code xtn)

Woven belt


Northern Tlaxiaco Mixtec is one of the varieties of Mixtec spoken in the western Mixteca Alta (Highland Mixtec) region. Its speakers call their language sa'an ñuu savi, which means “rain-people’s language” or sa'an savi, which means “rain language.” Their traditional homeland lies to the north of the city of Tlaxiaco, in the state of Oaxaca.

Location in Mexico
Area where the language is spoken


Northern Tlaxiaco Mixtec is spoken in the adjacent municipalities of San Juan Ñumí, Santiago Nundiche, San Sebastián Nicananduta and San Antonino Monteverde, whose linguistic variants are grouped together under the same code [xtn], although there are clear differences among them. According to the 2000 census, the four municipalities have the following numbers of speakers of the language:

Speakers of
indigenous languages
  San Juan Ñumí 5974 5872 953  
  Santiago Nundiche 916 887 120  
  San Sebastián Nicananduta 1458 684 46  
  San Antonino Monteverde 5217 5155 988  


The speakers of this language live in a very mountainous area, at altitudes of around 6500 feet (2000 meters). The area is very beautiful with its evergreen forests, rivers and cliffs. Traditional houses are built of logs and roofed with metal or asbestos sheeting, clay tiles, or pine-needle thatch.

Log house
Pine thatch roof
Sheep and goats

The Mixtec people keep cattle, sheep, and goats, as well as smaller animals such as turkeys and chickens. They plant corn, wheat, beans, squash, and tomatoes in hillside fields or terraces.

Plowing a field
Cattle in a field

Mixtecs make a variety of crafts such as different kinds of clay pots. They also weave hats, mats, baskets, belts and rain capes from natural palm fronds. The palm does not grow in the area, and must be brought in from towns further to the east.

Clay pots
Things woven from palm


Linguistic features of Northern Tlaxiaco Mixtec

This section is based on the speech of the municipality of San Juan Ñumí; certain grammatical or lexical structures may be somewhat different in each town of the region.


A tonal language

Mixtec is a tonal language: that is, the pitch (fundamental frequency) of the voice distinguishes between words which have the same vowels and consonants. This variant of Mixtec has three contrastive levels of tone: high (á), mid (ā), and low ().

  kuáán ‘yellow’ (high high)
  kuāān ‘buy’ (mid mid)
  kuāa̱n ‘(wheat) ripen’ (mid low)


In Mixtec the high tone of a word is said to be pronounced kuiñi (‘restricted’) while a low tone is ka'nu (‘big’) or ‘more open’. In songs, high tones are kasi (‘closed’), mid tones are tau (‘medium’), and low tones are ndee (‘thick’ or ‘wide’).

For some verbs the tones are the only distinction between potential aspect (action not yet begun) and continuative aspect (action currently in progress).

  ká'a̱n sa̱n ‘I will say’ (high low low)
  ká'ān sān ‘I am saying’ (high mid mid)


Tone is the only difference between the numbers one and nine. Almost all of the basic numbers have the same tone pattern: high, low.

  íín ‘one’ (high high)
  úu̱ ‘two’ (high low)
  úni̱ ‘three’ (high low)
  kúu̱n ‘four’ (high low)
  ú'u̱n ‘five’ (high low)
  íñu̱ ‘six’ (high low)
  úja̱ ‘seven’ (high low)
  úna̱ ‘eight’ (high low)
  íi̱n ‘nine’ (high low)
  úxi̱ ‘ten’ (high low)
  xá'u̱n ‘fifteen’ (high low)
  óko̱ ‘twenty’ (high low)


Sometimes tone is the only difference between a pair of clearly related words.

  tnúú ‘black’ (high high)
  tnúū ‘soot’ (high mid)


Some pairs of distinct words are homophones; that is, they sound exactly alike including their tones. Examples include māā dē “he himself” or “the same water”; yuá'a̱ “thread” or “ice”; kúchí “bathe” or “chew.”

The morphemes for progressive aspect and for negation are homophonous: they sound exactly the same. The phrase má kāā nī means either “climb up” or “don’t climb up”. In this case the only way to know whether one is to climb up or not (for instance to get into a vehicle or not) is to watch the speaker carefully. If he or she nods affirmatively or opens the door of the vehicle, then the words mean you should climb in; but if he or she shakes the head in negation, the meaning is that you should not climb in.

In the following set of words, the words meaning “red” and “the right side” are homophones.

  kuá'á ‘red’ (high high)
  kuá'á ‘the right side’ (high high)
  kuá'a̱ ‘much’ (high low)
  kuā'a̱ ‘cross-sibling’ (sibling of the opposite sex) (mid low)


Some phrases are homophonous because a word’s tone can affect the tones of the following words. In the following examples, the tones of the word meaning “car” affect the tones of the words meaning “red” and “sister of a male” so as to make them homophones in that context.

  kārrú kuā'ā dē ‘his red car’
  kārrú kuā'ā dē ‘his sister’s car’


Rhetorical doublets

Mixtec uses a wide range of rhetorical doublets, pairs of synonyms whose initial sounds are repeated. Their alliteration is an important part of Mixtec poetry and rhetorical style. Some common doublets are:

  koo ini koo anu ‘be inside’ + ‘be in the heart’ = “to be ready or determined to do something”
  kuanyu'u kuandetu ‘close the mouth’ + ‘obey’ = “to submit”
  ni kuii ni kani ‘every moment’ + ‘all along’ = “forever”


—Peter and Laura Gittlen
Photos by Laura Gittlen


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