In early March, Mexico Cooks! and a friend spent a glorious day in Santa Fe de la Laguna, Michoacán. We walked in the village, basking like lizards in the warm sun, slipping into one tiny shop and then another searching for the best rebozo (a type of shawl). We stepped into the welcome shady patio of an artisan friend, a potter. When we finished at the potter's home, we took our time ambling to the car. Turning a corner, we found ourselves face to face with a vocabulary lesson!
In the Purépecha language, misitu means gato, or cat, if you speak English.
I am always surprised by the number of well-educated people, both native Spanish-speakers and people whose native language is English, who believe that Mexico's indigenous people speak dialects of Spanish. Consider that the indigenous groups of what is now Mexico lived on this land for thousands of years before the arrival of the conquistadores (Spanish conquerers). Until the 16th century, no one in what is now Mexico spoke Spanish. Each indigenous group spoke its own language and each group continues, to one degree or another, to use that language today. Here's a link to a list of the indigenous languages spoken in today's Mexico: Mexico's indigenous languages.
Tindi is the mosca--the common house fly.
In the state of Michoacán, four indigenous languages are spoken. The most common is Purépecha, with approximately 100,000 native speakers. Next is Mazahua, with nearly 4,000 speakers, followed by 2700 coastal region speakers of Nahúatl. Approximately 600 people in the easternmost part of the state speak Otomí.
Purépecha is considered to be an isolate language, with no connection to any other language spoken in the region, in the country, or in any other country. Linguists have found only remote ties to the Quechua language in Perú.
Xanchaki: the burro, or donkey.
Kuanasï is the rana--the frog. Note the umlaut over the letter ï. Because of the umlaut, the pronunciation of the preceding 's' becomes 'sh'. Kuanashi!
Axuni, or venado--the deer.
Most Purépecha children learn their parents' native language as a first language, often learning Spanish only after they are more than halfway through primary school. Although Purépecha has been a written language since the 16th century, standard written Purépecha only began to come into existence in 1939. Even now there is no consensus as to how the language should be written.
Uakasï, the vaca--the cow. Note that uakasï is pronounced with the 'sh' sound.
Utuksï, the caracol--snail! Now you know how to pronounce that sï at the end of the word.
Like all of the languages native to what is now Mexico, Purépecha is in danger of becoming extinct. Fortunately, both the state government as well as the native speakers are coming to understand the cultural and historic importance of keeping the language alive. It's taught in primary schools for the first three years. Once a child starts fourth grade, classes are bilingual Purépecha and Spanish.
K'útu is the tortuga--the turtle.
Puki is the jaguar--the big native cat. Its scientific name is Panthera onca, and it is the only big cat native to the Americas. In this painting, you see a person dressed in the jaguar dance costume, rather than the actual animal.
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