Totonacan languages: Wikis


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isolated language family (part of the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area)

The Totonacan Languages are a family of closely-related languages spoken by approximately 200,000 Totonac and Tepehua people in the states of Veracruz, Puebla, and Hidalgo in Mexico. The Totonacan languages are not demonstrably related to any other languages, although they share numerous areal features with other languages of the Mesoamerican Sprachbund, such as the Mayan languages and Nahuatl.



Although the family is traditionally divided into two languages, Totonac and Tepehua, the various dialects thereof are not always mutually intelligible and thus Totonac and Tepehua are better characterized as families in themselves. The following classification is the one made by the Ethnologue, although some of these groups can probably be seen as forming subgroups of their own. Standard terminology is used for the dialects that the Ethnologue names differently from published scholarly works, e.g. "Upper Necaxa Totonac" instead of "Totonac of Patla-Chicontla".

Approximate number of speakers of all varieties of Totonac: ~280,000
Language ISO-Code Where spoken Number of speakers
Totonac of Coyutla toc Coyutla, Puebla 48,062 (2000 WCD)
Totonac of Filomena Mata-Coahuitlán tlp the Town of Filomena-Mata, Highland Veracruz, surrounded by Highland Totonac 15,108 (2000 WCD)
Highland Totonac tos Around Zacatlán, Puebla, and Veracruz 120,000
Totonac of Ozumatlán tqt Northern Puebla: Ozumatlán, Tepetzintla, Tlapehuala, San Agustín 4,000 (1990 census).
Papantla Totonac top Around Papantla, central lowland Veracruz 80,000 (1982 SIL).
Upper Necaxa Totonac tot Northeastern Puebla, Patla, Chicontla, Tecpatlán 4,000 (2005 census)
Totonac de Xicotepec too In 30 Villages around Xicotepec de Juárez northern sierra de Puebla and Veracruz 3,000
Misantla Totonac tlc Yecuatla and Misantla in southern Veracruz <500
Approximate number of speakers of all varieties of Tepehua ~10,000
Language ISO-Code Where spoken Number of speakers
Tepehua of Huehuetla tee Northeastern Hidalgo, Huehuetla, and half the town of Mecapalapa in Puebla. 3,000 (1982 SIL)
Tepehua of Pisaflores tpp Around the town of Pisaflores Veracruz 4,000 (1990 census).
Tepehua of Tlachichilco tpt Tlachichilco, Vera Cruz 3,000 (1990 SIL).

The ISO code TOT designating Upper Necaxa was retired in 2008, and replaced by TKU designating Upper Necaxa Totonac (the variety spoken in Patla, Chicontla, Cacahuatlán and San Pedro Tlalantongo) and TCW designating the variety spoken in Tecpatlán. Other classifications will likely evolve as more reconstructive work is done on the family.

Like many indigenous languages of Mexico, these languages are slowly giving way to Spanish. Of them, however, only Misantla Totonac is in immediate danger of extinction; some of the rest appear to be spoken in viable language communities, although others are not not being learned by, or being learned only by a handful of, children (Lam, to appear).


Tepehua is spoken across a number of central Mexican states by the Tepehua ethnic group. It is not to be confused with the language called Tepehuán, which is Uto-Aztecan. Tepehua is a Mesoamerican language, and shows many of the traits which define the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area.


Spoken in Mexico: Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo
Total speakers over 250,000
Language family American
  • Totonac
Official status
Official language in None
Regulated by Secretaría de Educación Pública
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2
ISO 639-3


There is some variation between the phoneme inventories of the different dialects of Totonac and Tepehua, but the following phonome inventory, which is reconstructed as proto-Totonacan by Arana (1953), can be considered a prototypical totonacan inventory.



Table of Totonacan consonants

  Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral
Nasal m n          
Plosive p t     k q  
Affricate   ts    
Fricative   s ɬ ʃ x   h
Approximant     l j w    


Totonacan vowels
  Front Central Back
  creaky plain creaky plain creaky plain
Close i u
Open a

Grammatical traits

Like many American-Indian languages, the Totonacan languages are highly agglutinative and polysynthetic. Furthermore, they exhibit many features of the Mesoamerican areal type, such as a preference for verb-initial order, head-marking, and extensive use of body part roots in metaphorical and locative constructions.

Two features distinctive of Totonacan are worth mentioning in further detail: first, the comitative construction, and secondly, body-part incorporation. Most of the examples that follow are taken from Misantla Totonac, but illustrate processes found in all the Totonacan languages.

The Comitative Construction

Languages of the family have a comitative construction in which both an actor and a co-actor of a verb are specified. For instance, a verb such as 'go' can take a comitative prefix to form a verb meaning 'go with someone', someone being the co-actor. In some of the languages of the family, these constructions specify the co-actor as an object:

Upper Necaxa Totonac
"I go with you"

In other languages, the co-actor can be inflected as a second subject. For example, a verb "run" may be inflected with both 1st person and 2nd person subject affixes simultaneously to give a sentence meaning "You and I run", "You run with me", or "I run with you".

"You and I run".

Body-Part Incorporation

The Totonacan languages exhibit noun incorporation, but only special prefixing combining forms of body-part roots may be incorporated. When these roots are incorporated, they serve to delimit the verb's locus of affect; that is, they indicate which part of the subject or object is affected by the action.

"I kiss your nose. (Lit: "I nose-kiss you.")
"You wash your foot/feet" (Lit: "You foot-wash yourself".)

A body-part root acting as a non-agentive subject may also be incorporated.

"My head hurts." (Lit: "I head-hurt".)

It is worthwhile to note that Totonacan noun incorporation never decreases the valency of the verb, making Totonacan very typologically unusual. The lack of valency-reducing noun incorporation, which is the cross-linguistically the most common type, may well be due to the very tight semantic restrictions on incorporable nouns. This may in turn be related to the fact that independent bodypart words in many Totonacan languages can be analyzed as consisting of the bodypart prefix attached to a partonymic base (Beck 2004), casting some doubt on the idea that this is noun incorporation at all, at least under the usual understanding of the term.

Sound Symbolism

A prominent feature of Totonacan languages is the presence of sound symbolism. Through this trait, the meaning of words can be altered slightly by substituting one consonant for another, e.g. indicating intensification or size.


Totonacan-language programming is carried by the CDI's radio station XECTZ-AM, broadcasting from Cuetzalan, Puebla.

External links


  • Anonymous. Arte Totonaca. Facsimile edited by Norman McQuown. UNAM, Mexico.  
  • Arana Osnaya, Evangelina (1953). Reconstruccion del protototonaco. Revista Mexicana de estudios Antropologicos 13:1-10
  • Aschman, H.P. (1946). Totonaco phonemes. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 12.1:34-43
  • Beck, David (2004). Upper Necaxa Totonac. Munich: Lincom GmbH
  • de Léon, Lourdes & Levinson, Stephen C. (1992). Spatial Description in Mesoamerican Languages (Introduction). Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 45.6:527-29
  • Lam, Yvonne (to appear). The straw that broke the language's back: Language shift in the Upper Necaxa Valley of Mexico. International Journal of the Sociology of Language
  • Levy, Paulette (1987). Fonologia del Totonaco de Papantla. Mexico: UNAM
  • Levy, Paulette (1992). "Body Part Prefixes in Papantla Totonac" in Léon, de Lourdes and Stephen C. Levinson (Eds.) Spatial Description in Mesoamerican Languages (pp. 530-542)
  • MacKay, Carolyn (1999). A Grammar of Misantla Totonac. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press
  • McQuown, Norman (1983(1940)). Gramatica lengua totonaca (coatepec, sierra norte de puebla). Mexico: UNAM
  • Reid, A.A. & Bishop, Ruth G. (1974). Diccionario de Totonaco de Xicotepec de Juarez, Puebla. Mexico D.F.: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano (ILV)


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