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Textual and Lexical Documentation of Ixcatec, Oaxaca, Mexico


Language Ixcatec
Depositor Denis Costaouec, Michael Swanton
Affiliation Université Paris Descartes & lab. SeDyl (Inalco, CNRS, IRD)
Location Mexico
Collection ID 0193
Grant ID MDP0214
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


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ELAR Showcase of the Dead


Summary of the collection

Ixcatec is a highly endangered language belonging to the Popolocan branch of the Otomanguean language family. It is spoken only in Santa María Ixcatlán, situated in the state of Oaxaca, southeastern Mexico. This collection includes a variety of linguistic and cultural material that came from both a linguistic and an ethnobiological project. The aim of this documention was to produce, safeguard and disseminate as much high-quality linguistic and cultural documentation on lxcatec as possible.


Group represented

Ixcatec is spoken only in Santa María Ixcatlán (17° 51′ 14″ N, 97 ° 11′ 30″ W), a municipality composed of a single small village of some 400 inhabitants and extensive territory in the state of Oaxaca, located in southeastern Mexico. This region has been the only known home of the Ixcatecs throughout their centuries-long documented history. Several other Ixcatec settlements located to the north of the present-day village, though still within the territory of the municipality, existed during the period of Spanish colonial rule, but were apparently abandoned by the eighteenth century (Hironymous, 2007). Today called despoblados, these earlier settlements are attested in historical sources and archaeological remains as well as oral literature known to some elders.

Santa María Ixcatlán is located at the heart of a mountainous, arid zone known for its surprising cultural and biological diversity. It has been estimated that approximately one-third of the flora of the region is endemic (Smith, 1965). In recognition of this great diversity, the Mexican federal government declared this region an important protected zone in 1998 (the Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacan-Cuicatlan). The elder Ixcatec speakers possess extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of their municipality as well as its toponymy. Many also possess specific specialized knowledge about palm-weaving and the production of pulque and mezcal, activities for which the municipality is locally renowned.


Language information

Ixcatec is a highly endangered language belonging to the Popolocan branch of the Otomanguean language family. There are 9 fluent speakers all of whom reside in Santa Maria Ixcatlán, Oaxaca, Mexico, (Otomanguean, Eastern Otomanguean, Popolocan-Zapotecan, Popolocan).


Special characteristics

Typologically, the Ixcatec language is of interest for factors such as its verb-initial constituent order, use of noun classifiers which co-reference with pronominal clitics, evidentials, and complex phonology involving both contrastive phonation and contrastive tone.


Collection contents

This collection comprises 231 bundles of the Ixcatec language, including Video, Audio, ELAN files and metadata, documented alternately by Swanton and Costaouec. It includes a lexicon project and an ethnobiological project.

The documentation is an extensive corpus of video recorded Ixcatec texts and their time-coded transcriptions that reflect a wide range of socio-cultural knowledge and practices. This textual documentation contributes significantly to Costaouec and Swanton’s long-term goal of producing an Ixcatec grammar.

In addition to this primary text-based video documentation, there is also documentation of the Ixcatec lexicon. Furthermore, thanks to the participation of an ethnobiologist, there is an extensive collection for precise biological identification and classification of Ixcatec terminology for flora and fauna.

The videos show speakers in their community narrating traditional oral genres and history, demonstrating the manufacture and use of traditional Ixcatec foods, beverages, medicines, cultigens and artifacts (e.g. palm weaving), and explaining the local flora, fauna, toponymy, architecture and archaeological ruins (e.g. despoblados). In most cases, multiple speakers are present and create a more natural speaking environment. These videos are transcribed, translated and edited.

The language documentation achieved in this project also serves as an important step in achieving two other long-term research goals of the co-applicants: the descriptive linguistics of Ixcatec and the historical linguistics of Popolocan. Regarding the first long-term goal, both Costaouec and Swanton see the documentation as an obligatory step towards making a dictionary and grammar of the Ixcatec language. Lexical items and example sentences gleaned from the documentary corpus are added to their already existing Toolbox database, so providing a solid foundation for an Ixcatec dictionary. Furthermore, the documentary corpus is a crucial tool for elucidating aspects of Ixcatec grammar. The second goal-the historical linguistics of Popolocan-is a specific research interest of Swanton who, in the context of his PhD research, has studied the linguistic history of Chocholtec through philological study of older writings in this language and Popolocan comparative linguistics. Given its phonological conservatism and the current uncertainty regarding its position within Popolocan, Ixcatec can be considered a keystone language for the reconstruction of this branch of Otomanguean.


Collection history

Costaouec has significant fieldwork experience reaching back to 1993 and Swanton has conducted original fieldwork on his own or in collaboration with the Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica (PDLMA) for over a decade. They are experienced with Toolbox, Transcriber and are becoming familiar with ELAN and Final Cut Pro.

The co-applicants presented their research to the community’s asamblea (a general assembly of representatives from every household living in the municipality) where they solicited and received approval for their work. The co-applicants consider the involvement of the asamblea of double importance: not only is it considered to be the ‘maximum authority’ of the community, but it is also the most important forum to present findings and address community questions.

The co-applicants also had support of the municipal government. The municipal government’s interest in the documentation of Ixcatec has resulted in the creation of an Ixcatec language archive kept in the town hall. With the financial support of the FAHHO, the municipal government acquired a specially-designed cabinet for housing this language documentation. Under the agreement with the FAHHO, the municipal government is in charge of assuring the preservation and access of this community language archive. Swanton and Costaouec submit copies of their material to this repository. Although not a professional archive for language documentation, the co-applicants believe that such a local repository is important so the community has easy access to documentation of the Ixcatec language (there is no internet access in Santa Marfa Ixcatlan).

The project co-applicants both have previous experience investigating this language. Costaouec has worked on Ixcatec since January 2008, when he dedicated his 5-month sabbatical semester to the study of Ixcatec. In the summer of 2009 he returned for another 2 month’s of investigation during his summer vacation. Swanton’s first contact with the Ixcatec language was a two-week survey in Santa Marfa Ixcatlan in 1999 conducted with the Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica (PDLMA). Since December 2005 Swanton has been carrying out small-scale documentation of Ixcatec. Swanton has also worked on two other Popolocan languages. In collaboration with the PDLMA he has carried out three intensive two-month field seasons documenting the Otlaltepec Popoloca, focusing on the lexicon. His PhD dissertation is a historical study of Chocholtec (also called Chocho, Ngiwa).

Previous linguistic study of Ixcatec is minimal and has essentially been limited to the work of Marfa Teresa Fernandez de Miranda in the 1950s and Annette Veerman-Leichsenring’s brief investigation in 1997 (published in 2001 ). While both investigators produced valuable, preliminary descriptions of aspects of Ixcatec grammar and vocabulary, their work provided few records of the linguistic practices of Ixcatec speakers. For example, Fernandez de Miranda’s investigations produced transcriptions of only seven brief texts and Veerman-¬Leichsenring was unable to collect any texts. Furthermore, Fernandez de Miranda’s investigations were conducted with a single speaker in Mexico City.

In 1950, Fernandez de Miranda made wire recordings of Ixcatec which includes a handful of texts.


Other information

Since September 2008, Cipriano has been giving an Ixcatec course in the community’s primary school twice a week. All children in the primary school, regardless of grade, attend Cipriano’s classes, which he gives as a volunteer. Participation is also offered to students in the community’s telesecundaria (remote-learning secondary school).The results of this class have been modest, but have broadened interest in the language within the community. One of the teachers, supported by the school’s director, is in the process of generating teaching materials on the basis of Cipriano’s course. The teacher (Mtro. Francisco Espinoza Perez) and director (Mtra. Lilia Zarate Mendoza) have recently asked the co-applicants for linguistic consultation and assistance regarding this endeavor. It is anticipated therefore that the project will also help generate pedagogic materials to be used in this school program.

In itself, the documentary corpus of this project is also of interest to those working on historical and typological investigation of Otomanguean languages. For example, investigation into classifiers in Otomanguean has largely been limited to Mixtec and Chinantec. With a publicly accessible, annotated corpus, Ixcatec is able to contribute to such investigations. The documentary corpus is of research value to non-linguists, such as anthropologists. Since Ixcatec is spoken in one of the most biologically diverse zones of Mexico, the textual and lexical materials gathered in this project contributes to the ongoing work of ethnobiologists in the Reserva. Furthermore, located at the border of the municipality of Santa Marfa Ixcatlan is the longest known text in the so-called Nuiiie script, a still undeciphered Mesoamerican writing system (Urcid, 2005). The documentation of Ixcatec could be of value to epigraphers in establishing a linguistic identity of the script.


Fernandez de Miranda, Maria Teresa. 1953. Las formas posesivas en ixcateco. Memorias de/ Congreso cientffico mexicano, vol. 12, pp. 159-70.

1959. Fonemica de/ lxcateco. Direcci6n de lnvestigaciones Antropol6gicas Publicaci6n 3.

Mexico: INAH.

1961 a. Toponimia popoloca. In: A William Townsend en el vigesimoquinto aniversario de Instituto Lingufstico de Verano (B.F. Elson and J. Comas, eds): 431-447. Mexico: lnstituto Ling0fstico de Verano.

1961 b. Diccionario lxcateco. Direcci6n de lnvestigaciones Antropol6gicas Publicaci6n 7.

Hironymous, Michael 0. 2007. Santa Marfa lxcatlan, Oaxaca: From Colonial Cacicazgo to Modern

Municipio. PhD dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

Smith, C. E. 1965. Flora Tehuacan Valley. Fieldiana Botany, 31: 101-143.

Swanton, Michael. 2008. La escritura indfgena como “material ling0fstico”: una carta en lengua ixcateca al presidente Lazaro Cardenas. In: Pictograffa y escritura alfabetica en Oaxaca. (S. van Doesburg, ed): 353-387. Oaxaca: Fondo Editorial del IEEPO.

Veerman-Leichsenring, Annette. 2001. lxcateco: la frase nominal. Ana/es de antropologfa, 35: 323-358

Urcid, Javier. 2005. Sacred Landscapes and Social Memory: The Nuifle Inscriptions in the Ndaxagua Natural tunnel, Tepelmeme, Oaxaca. Report submitted to FAMSI. Online:


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Costaouec, Denis & Michael Swanton. 2009. Textual and Lexical Documentation of Ixcatec, Oaxaca, Mexico. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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