Zapotec: Language and Perspective

By Julie Etra

Living here on the Oaxacan coast, we native English speakers forget that Spanish was not the native language here (in fact there are 16 distinct languages in the State of Oaxaca). Although we have absorbed so many Native American words in the USA and Canada daily vocabulary, like cars, bridges, highways and athletic teams, it is a bit different here (from my perspective). Many pre-Colombian languages in Oaxaca are still spoken, and Zapotec words are found in daily culture in and around Huatulco, such as the names of restaurants like Itoó (come and eat) and hotels like Binniguenda (actually Binni guenda, two words, and means Shaman, a live soul, or ancient people), etc. At Hagia Sofia, the lovely gardens on the way to Pluma Hidalgo, the plants are labeled with scientific, Spanish (Mexican) common, and Zapotec names.

Language, especially if you speak more than one, shapes and expands the manner in which you experience and interpret the world around you. Without getting into great and somewhat obscure detail, this brief article discusses Zapotec perspectives on nature, how the plant and animal kingdoms are classified and viewed, and selected cultural components such as how the weavers from the Valley of Oaxaca (Teotitlán del Valle) work with nature to produce stunning and unique colors.

The Zapotec language belongs to the Oto-Manguean language family and is spoken by people from the southwestern-central highlands of Mexico. Today native speakers are estimated to number over half a million, with the majority inhabiting the state of Oaxaca; however, there are numerous dialects and major differences in vocabulary throughout the region. For this discussion on ethnobiology, I reference Etnobiologia Zapoteca (V.M. Cerqueda [ed.], Universidad del Isthmo, 2005), which specifically focuses on the dialect of the San Baltasar Chichicapan region, south of Oaxaca City.

The Zapotec organize the living world very differently from the academically accepted Linnaean system, where life is morphologically defined mostly by sexual parts (flowers and fruits) and uses a two-ranked system to make decisions and correctly identify organisms. Among the Zapotecs, life forms are more likely to be described according to ecological function or behavior. For example, the majority of the names of animals begin with pe/be or pi/bi, which means breath, wind, or spirit. The Zapotec divide the kingdoms of life into four broad categories:

  1. bwínn = people
  2. mán = animal
  3. buaa’ á = mushroom
  4. plant (although there is no specific word for plant in Zapotec).

People are not considered animals. They are further subdivided into normal people and supernatural people, the later being more interesting; supernatural people are further subdivided into evil (like the devil), stone dwarfs, and fairies.

The animal category is very broad, ranging from elephants to lice, but is broken down to creatures walking on four legs, aquatic animals, and small and large birds. Not sure where the lice fit. Getting even more complicated, they are then further defined as ferocious animals, useful animals, dangerous animals, flying animals, aquatic animals, and snakes and snake-like animals (not sure about the rationale for including scorpions and spiders in this group). A great fable about this latter group involves a book worm (literally), who says to an owl about to eat him/her, ‘But you don’t eat worms! You eat rodents and snakes.’ And the owl replies ‘since you worms are in the same group as the snakes, I am perfectly authorized to eat a poor worm’.

Mushrooms constitute 11 categories. As mentioned, there is no specific word in Zapotec for plants, and although ‘yàga’ is used for ‘plant’, it also refers to trees, sticks, wood, and firewood. Subgroups include big trees, medium trees, cactus, brooms (I thinks this refers to leguminous plants that are invasive in California), vines, grasses, herbs, and wetland plants. Enigmatic is the existence of a generic word for banana in Zapotec (yaga bi+dua), although this plant, and all its varieties, are native to Asia. So where did the name come from? Turns out that bananas look vaguely like a native cucumber-ish plant roasted and eaten with sugar.

The Zapotec weavers who make the lovely tapetes (wall hangings) use all natural dyes, in combination with a variety of mordants, to achieve a rich array of distinct colors (www.biidauu.com.mx/spanish/10.html). As was recently explained to a fortunate group of us by Jocobo Mendoza Ruiz and Maria Luisa Vasquez de Mendoza, each piece is unique and the colors are never precisely repeated, as they are subject to numerous variables.

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a parasitic mealy-bug like insect that grows on cactus pads, produces initially a deep red color, modified to various shades including pink and purple by adding lime juice or other mordants. Since the insects are so small, the dye is very expensive. Marush, an herb in the mint family, produces a green or bright yellow color.

Añil, indigo, (Indigofera suffruticosa), is still cultivated on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and is a member of the Pea family. In Nahuatl it is called jiquitle. Its production is tedious, methodical, and labor intensive. Harvest occurs by hand approximately four months after seeding and is done early in the morning so the plants don’t dry out. Two brick tanks, one above the other, are used to extract the dye. The plants are soaked in the upper tank and processed in the lower tank. The dye is then strained to remove residual material and dried in fabric. The waste material is composted with worms and re-used. Although there is an “artisan” market in Mexico and elsewhere, the cost of production and high labor requirements limit the competiveness of the product with commercial dyes from India and Japan, but it remains the choice dye for the Zapotecs.

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