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