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Tarascan Family

Purepecha
(P'orhepecha, P'urhepecha)
Old-folks' dance (c) Sue Sill © Sue Sill

The Purepecha language, previously known as Tarascan, is a language isolate that is not even provisionally linked with any other language. It is spoken in the state of Michoacan near Lake Pátzcuaro and the Paricutín volcano. There are two main variants and perhaps a dozen minor variants, the main divider being the lake area vs. the volcanic plateau. Speakers can easily identify each other by their speech as to their region, and even their home village. Speakers take pride in keeping their “native” variety even if they have moved to another part of the region. The dialectal differences are relatively recent, though, and the speakers identify all of the variants as being part of the same language.


Map: where the Purepecha language is spoken Map: the Purepecha region

The language has been studied and continues to be studied by both Mexican and foreign linguists. The Summer Institute of Linguistics has completed work in one of the two main varieties but continues working in the other.


The Purepechas have their own flag, which consists of pink, blue, green and yellow squares with a clenched fist and arrows in the middle, representing the unity of the Purepecha region. Several newspapers publish sections in the language, and at least one periodical is predominately Purepecha. Catholic church services are held in Purepecha in many of the villages occasionally, and regularly in some where the priest is Purepecha himself. Pride in the language and culture seems to be on the rise, with governmental encouragement.


The elevation of the Tarascan villages varies from 5200 feet (1600 meters) above sea level to over 8200 feet (2500 meters), with Lake Pátzcuaro (Mexico's highest lake) at 7200 feet (2200 meters). Temperate climate, fertile soil and pine forests dominate the area. The rainy season is from the end of May to September, and at higher elevations January and February bring frost but rarely snow.


Almost all villages now have electricity and most have water. Nearly all villages specialize in some particular cottage industry: furniture, copper products, guitars, violins, pottery, ceramics, bricks, adobe, wooden utensils, hats, mats, masks, etc. These are marketed in towns and cities, and some even internationally. Some villages take pride in their distinctive dress, including ornately stitched aprons and blouses. Nearly all women wear shawls, but many use western clothing.


Purepecha music is very viable. Many songs are popular elsewhere in Mexico, for example the song Flor de Canela (“Cinnamon flower”), which is Tsitsiki Urhapiti in Purepecha. There are dozens of Purepecha music tapes and CDs available in the area. Many traditional dances, such as the Danza de los Viejitos (“Old-folks’ dance”, pictured above), are well preserved from precolonial times and are presented at special occasions.


Most children attend at least the first few years of elementary school, of which the first two grades are taught in Purepecha. Although illiteracy rates are high among older people and women especially, there are many highly-educated Purepecha: priests, doctors, nurses, lawyers, linguists and anthropologists.


Modern health services are widely available, with clinics in most villages and hospitals in the cities surrounding the area. Still, many prefer to use traditional practices, such as practiced by brujos (shamans) and curanderos (healers). Both systems, modern and traditional, are generally accepted, although the traditional often operates clandestinely.


The Purepecha were a major force in western Mexico before the arrival of Europeans. Their empire consisted of the entire state of Michoacan and parts of Jalisco and Guanajuato, and they had influence all the way to modern New Mexico among the Zuni. The Purepecha kings lived in Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio and Pátzcuaro (now archeological sites) by Lake Pátzcuaro at different times until the Spanish conquest. They held their own against the Aztecs, employing Otomies as border guards in a buffer zone between the two empires. Prisoners of war had a choice between slavery and the sacrificial altar.


Theories on the origin of the Purepecha vary. Some say they migrated from the north together with the Aztecs, others that they came from the south and might be related to the Quechua of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. Although the language is an isolate, it has some similarities with Zuni and Quechua (which may simply be due to borrowings).


The word order of Purepecha is most commonly subject - object - verb. Long words containing many suffixes and even more than one root are common. Vowels that fall at the ends of words are often voiceless and thus are hard to hear or are dropped altogether.

Interesting facts about the Purepecha region
Specific varieties of languages in the Tarascan Family
Name Materials
Available
Ethnologue entries
Purepecha book tsz
Western Highland Purepecha book pua
Publications by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and its members
Linguistics
Literacy and literature
Various fields
For more information



The photo that appears at the top of this page is used by permission of Sue Sill and Rancho Madrono.