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Mixtec plant nomenclature and classification

  • Author(s): de Avila, Alejandro
  • Advisor(s): Berlin, Brent
  • et al.

Ñuu Savi (`Sacred Rain's collectivity'), the Mixtec people of southern Mexico, had created

some of the most complex polities in the continent at the time of European contact. Five

hundred years later, they remain cohesive, culturally distinct communities, as increasing

numbers of individuals and families migrate to northern Mexico and the US for work in the

agricultural and service sectors. In 2005, the Mexican Federal Government reported there were

more than 446,000 speakers of Tu'un Savi (`Sacred Rain's word,' the Mixtec languages) five

years of age and older, 322,000 of them still living in 1551 settlements within their historic

homeland; an additional 100,000 to 200,000 are estimated to reside in the US.

The term Mixtec, derived from the Náhuatl mixte:cah (`cloud-people'), has been considered

by different authors to encompass between 12 and 52 mutually unintelligible languages, in

addition to numerous dialects. According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics' Ethnologue,

it is the second most diversified group of languages in the Americas, after Zapotec. The

Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas, however, recognizes 81 variants of Mixtec, making

it the most diversified language group in Mexico following official criteria. The internal

variation of Mixtec and its geographic proximity to three related groups (Cuicatec, Triqui and

Amuzgo, members of the same lineage in a progressively earlier sequence of branching

episodes), provide fertile ground for diachronic inquiry into various lexical and grammatical

traits of these languages, which are part of the Otomanguean phylum.

The Mixtec territory can be portrayed as an intricate mosaic in its geology and vegetation. It

boasts one of the richest floras in Mexico, itself one of the most diverse areas of the planet in

biological terms. Furthermore, the Mixteca (the local name for the region in Spanish) is

notable for a high incidence of endemic species of vascular plants and terrestrial vertebrates,

which reflect long series of climatic and ecological changes in the area's natural history. It is

part of a larger region of Otomanguean speech where a characteristic stone-working

technology has been documented by archaeologists, in conjunction with the early development

of plant domestication and agriculture. Natural complexity and cultural history thus converge

to enhance the interest of the Mixtecan languages for ethnobotanical study.

This dissertation presents the results of several years of research on the names and uses of

plants in Mixtec communities in the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero. Extensive


information is provided on plant terminology, backed in part by herbarium specimens

collected in the field by the author. The Mixtec languages make use of a productive system of

noun markers, in some cases matched by pronominal clitics, to label various plant categories.

Adscription to these groupings appears to be determined by use, edibility and symbolic

significance, as much as by life form affiliations that reflect adaptive design, such as woody

plants, leafy herbs, vines and grasses. Categories labeled by class terms appear consistently in

all the Mixtec languages that have been documented to date. The dissertation reviews the

botanical nomenclature recorded by linguists and naturalists throughout the Mixteca since the

16th century.

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