The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages

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Apr 232010

Most people realize that the national language of Mexico is Spanish and that Mexico is the world’s largest Spanish speaking country. In fact, its population, now numbering 105 million, represents about one-third of all the 330 million or so Spanish speakers in the world. Spanish is the majority language in nineteen other countries besides Mexico, and is the world’s third most spoken language, after English and Chinese.

Far fewer people realize that, in addition to Spanish, another 62 indigenous languages are also spoken in Mexico. This makes Mexico one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, in terms of the number of languages spoken, behind Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India, but well ahead of China, Brazil and just about anywhere else.

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

Some estimates put the number of different Indian languages in use at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century as high as 170. This number had dwindled to about 100 by 1900, and has continued to decline to the present day. The latest estimates are that at least 62 distinct languages (and 100 dialects) are still spoken somewhere in the country.

The largest indigenous groups are those speaking Nahuatl (2,563,000; dispersed locations, and therefore not shown on the map), Maya (1,490,000), Zapotec (785,000) and Mixtec (764,000), followed by those using Otomí (566,000), Tzeltal (547,000) and Tzotzil (514,000). Other well known groups include the 204,000 having Purépecha (or Tarasco) as their first language and the 122,000 speaking Tarahumara.

At the other end of the spectrum, only about 130 people still speak Lacandón and only 80 use Kiliwa. Only 60 people still use Aguacateco in Mexico and only 50 speak Techtiteco (or simply Teco), though both languages are spoken by several thousand Indians in neighboring Guatemala.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that many Mexicans not only speak Spanish and/or an indigenous language, but also manage pretty well in English, French, Japanese and many others!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect – click here for the original article

Indigenous languages and cultures are analyzed in chapters 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Mexican sayings and beliefs, cats and unlucky days

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Mar 082010

Anglo and Mexican sayings are often subtly different.

For starters, consider your pet cat. In Canada or the USA, cats are considered to have nine lives; in Mexico, however, cats only have seven (siete) lives. Perhaps they used up two lives as kittens just getting to be old enough to be a cat?

Nine lives or seven? Hmm... let me see, which country is this? Photo by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Or perhaps the difference reflects the differences in the human lifespans in the two cultures? The life expectancy of someone born in the USA is currently about 74 years for men and 80 years for women, compared with 73 years and 78 years respectively for people born in Mexico.

While on the subject of luck, it is not Friday the 13th that is considered an unlucky day in Mexico but Tuesday the 13th (martes trece). Perhaps that is just as well since it means that it can never simultaneously be unlucky in all three North American countries. Hence, on days when it is unlucky to do business in the USA and Canada, it will not be so in Mexico and vice versa.

In 2001, Mexicans had to survive three Tuesdays that fell on the 13th (February, March and November), whereas Anglos had to cope with two Fridays that fell on the 13th: April and July. In 2002, it was a better time to be in Mexico since there was only one martes trece in the calendar (in August), compared with two Fridays the 13th, in September and December.

The calendar is not always very fair. This year (2010) Mexico faces two martes trece (April and July) while Anglos are looking at only one Friday 13th (August). But the same is also true in 2011, with a martes trece in both September and December, while Friday 13th occurs only in May.

Perhaps readers know of other days of the week associated with the number 13 and considered unlucky elsewhere in the world?

Still on a calendric note, how about the first day of April, variously known in English-speaking countries as April 1, April Fool’s Day or All Fool’s Day? Anyone playing minor pranks on someone on this day in Mexico is likely to be met with blank stares, or looks of shock or horror, depending on the prank. The Mexican equivalent comes much later in the year, on December 28, Day of the Holy Innocents ( Día de los Santos Inocentes). This is when Mexican children will borrow, but not repay, small loans from unsuspecting friends and relatives that they consider a soft touch. Once they’ve received the loan, they say either the following verse (quoted in Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, 1947) or something similar:

Inocente Palomita
Que te dejaste engañar
Sabiendo que en este día
Nada se debe prestar.

Innocent little dove
You have let yourself be fooled
Knowing that on this day
You should lend nothing

So, be careful on December 28 if anyone admires your prized possessions!

Now, you probably want to know how these subtle differences came into being.

Well, I’ve no idea and I’d like to know too! But it is precisely these subtle differences in sayings and beliefs that help make Mexico such an interesting place. Remember, though, that these small, and apparently insignificant differences in everyday life are only the tip of the iceberg. Anyone intending to do business in Mexico or thinking of moving there from another country should be aware that many aspects of Mexican culture and life are very different to Canada and the USA – not better, not worse, just different!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect

Click here for the complete article

Linguistic diversity in Mexico, with a map showing areas where indigenous languages are spoken, is analyzed in chapter 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. The geography of the Spanish language in Mexico, complete with a map of  Spanish dialect regions, is discussed in chapter13 of Geo-Mexico; Mexico’s life expectancy is discussed in chapter 9.