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Of Planes and Spindles:
Tracing the History of a Copala Triqui Word

Puzzling data

I started studying Triqui back in the days of manual typewriters and paper file slips. One day I decided to review my dictionary file, and I came across this set of “homonyms,” each carefully written on a separate slip.

  truck   cane press  
  cuchri' — truck, car   cuchri' — cane press (a wooden machine for extracting juice from sugarcane)  
  corn grinder   spindle  
  cuchri' — corn grinder (a metal machine that grinds cooked corn into tortilla dough)   cuchri' — spindle (a double pointed stick with a clay weight for spinning cotton into thread)  

I also had cuchri' chéé xta' for airplane, literally, a truck that walks in the sky.

Hmmmmm! Very strange. Then the wheels started turning in my brain.


I started asking myself a few questions:

The first one was about the word cuchri' itself. Could it possibly be a loan from Spanish, or was it a native Triqui word? And the answer was obvious. It had to be a native word because it had the chr sound in it and because it ended in a glottal stop. Spanish loanwords never have either of these things. The second question I asked was about the many things that the word referred to. Were any of them a part of Triqui life before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century? And the answer to this one was clear too. Cotton was cultivated in Mesoamerica, and both cotton and fiber from century plants were spun and woven into fabric, using backstrap looms. Clearly the spindle was part of pre-Hispanic culture. None of the other three were.

Sugarcane was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, and the technology for making sugar along with it, including the cane press. The Triqui word for sugar is ascuá, clearly a loan from Spanish azúcar. Metal corn grinders could not have been manufactured before the Industrial Revolution; the traditional way of grinding corn uses a stone roller against a stone metate. And as for trucks and cars, not to mention planes, they are obviously even more recent introductions; roads were first constructed into the area somewhere around the 1950s.

corn grinder

If trucks, sugarcane presses, and corn grinders are all introduced, the Triquis could have borrowed the names along with the items. They could have adapted the Spanish words carro, trapiche, and molino into Triqui. But they did not. They took what appears to be the very same native word and applied it to three very different things. Why? The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are all contraptions.

What about the word for spindle, which is not a contraption? Is it the same word, or a different one that just happens to sound the same?

Do these four objects have anything in common?

The missing link

It all came together when I took a good long look at an oxcart. Mexico did not have wheeled vehicles, pack animals, or draft animals before the Spanish came. Everything was carried by porters using tumplines over their foreheads. Wooden oxcarts and the oxen that pull them were brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, and they are still sometimes used where the land is flat. An oxcart consists of a large wooden cargo box over a single wooden axle and two large wooden wheels.

ox cart

Surely this was the first wheeled vehicle that the Triquis ever saw, and it must have been an impressive sight. Two huge beasts with horns pulling this contraption. And as they pulled, the huge wheels turned on their axle, and the cart moved.

Was there anything in their own experience that they could compare this to? What turns? And the answer is: a spindle. It not only turns, it even has a “wheel.”

And so the word spindle was extended to mean oxcart, which was basically an axle with a box on top. From there it is easy to see how the word generalized its meaning to keep up with technology. It came to mean any moving vehicle, even an airplane.

But what about the other meanings? How did the word come to be applied to a cane press? Let’s go back to the sixteenth century again. It must have been pretty impressive for the Triquis to see a wooden canepress in operation, with its pair of rollers that squeeze the juice out of tough sugarcane stalks, working like the wringer on an old-fashioned washing machine. The rollers turned, and the juice came out. Another “turning machine.” Another place where the word for spindle could be applied. And from there it is an easy step to a corn grinder, with its drive shaft that can be viewed as yet another “turning machine.”  

At the present time, Copala Triquis have a lot of contact with trucks and other vehicles, but very few women still spin. Spinning is a lot of work, and they can easily buy the thread they need for their weaving. It is likely that within a generation, the art of spinning will be lost, and the original meaning of the word cuchri' along with it, leaving ‘vehicle’ as the most common meaning for the word.

A cane press in operation Exprimiendo caña con un trapiche

A cane press in operation in San Juan Copala (photographed during the 1960s)

Publications available on this website
Links to other sites

For a list of other materials about Copala Triqui, see the bibliography in Barbara Hollenbach's personal website and the bibliography in the grammar posted on that site.

To obtain a catalog of printed and audio materials available in Copala Triqui, or to order materials from it; write to Allan Lee (a distributor who cooperates with SIL): or