SIL Mexico

Zapotecan Family
Chatino, Zapotec

Zapotec rug


The Zapotecan languages are spoken in the state of Oaxaca, primarily in the central valleys near Oaxaca City, south from there to the Pacific coast, southeast to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and northeast into the Sierra de Juárez.

Map of MexicoMap: where the Zapotecan languages are spoken


The Zapotecan family is one of the largest families in the Otomanguean stock in terms of the number of speakers. It also has more distinct local varieties than any other family in the Otomanguean stock (except perhaps for the Mixtecan family). It is composed of two subfamilies: Chatino and Zapotec. Chatino has seven important variants, all spoken in Oaxaca. Zapotec is a large subfamily in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz.

Zapotecs and Chatinos were traditionally farmers, and most still are, but today some towns are much better known for other things. For example, Zapotecs in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, are known internationally for their rugs and other wool weavings; their town near the Pan-American highway is a major tourist attraction. Zapotecs from the Isthmus area travel to neighboring states to sell their hand-made gold jewelry, palm baskets, colorful embroidery, totopos (their special kind of tortilla), dried fish and shrimp. They bring back things that they do not have in their area, such as certain fruits and vegetables.

Zapotec-speaking peoples were probably among those who built the famous ruins at Monte Alban, although the site is better known for the fabulous treasures discovered in tombs of Mixtec kings buried there at a later date.

One of the most famous of Mexico's presidents, Benito Juarez, was a Zapotec. He is often compared with president Abraham Lincoln of the USA and his life is well represented by his most famous saying: “The people and the government should respect the rights of all. Between individuals, as between nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.”

As in many other languages in the Otomanguean stock, the normal word order in Zapotecan languages is Verb-Subject-Object. Numerals precede the nouns they modify, but other adjectives and possessors 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 there is a separate noun as subject or possessor.

Like other Otomanguean languages, most Zapotecan languages 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. However, tone is not marked in the practical orthographies (alphabets) because the correct tones of a word can usually be determined by the context. All the Zapotecan languages have a “fortis/lenis” (strong/weak) distinction for many consonants. The fortis consonants are generally longer than the lenis ones, many fortis consonants are voiceless (for example: p, t, k) while the corresponding lenis consonants are voiced (b, d, g), and sometimes there are other differences in their pronunciation. This distinction generally does need to be marked in the practical orthography, often by writing fortis consonants with double or underlined letters. Zapotecan languages also have laryngeal modifications on vowels; in addition to ordinary vowels, the majority of Zapotecan languages have both “checked” vowels and “laryngealized” vowels. Checked vowels are cut short by closing the vocal folds abruptly at the end of the vowel. Laryngealized vowels are produced either with a brief pause in the middle or with a creaky voice (somewhat like what some English speakers use on all vowels when tired or imitating an elderly speaker).


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