Zapotec language, El Tajin


Zac xtili – Good morning

Zapotec is the name not of a single language, but of a group of 58 languages that, together with related Chatino group, belongs to the Otomanguean linguistic stock. Zapotec is one of the largest families in the Oto-Manguean stock in terms of the number of speakers since the Zapotecs are the third largest indigenous ethnic group in Mexico, after the Nahua and the Mayan peoples. Zapotec has more varieties than any other member of the Otomanguean linguistic stock (Ethnologue) with almost as many varieties as there are pueblos in which it is spoken.



Mexico mapThere are approximately 450,000 speakers of Zapotec most of whom live in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. While most are proficient in Spanish, there are also many who speak only one or more varieties of their native Zapotec. In some areas, Zapotec is used in local administration, commerce, literature, and religious services. In other areas, the language is on the brink of extinction, e.g., Zapotec Asunción Mixtepec.

Of the 58 varieties of Zapotech listed by Ethnologue, 49 have fewer than 10,000 speakers. Most have only from several hundred to several thousand speakers. Several are on the brink of extinction. The most populous varieties of Zapotec are listed below.

Zapotec Choapan 24,500
Zapotec Güilá 9,500
Zapotec Isthmus 85,000
Zapotec Loxicha 50,000
Zapotec Miahuatlán 80,000
Zapotec Mitla 19,500
Zapotec Ocotlán 15,000
Zapotec San Juan Guelavía 28,000
Zapotec San Pedro Quiatoni 15,000
Zapotec Southern Rincon 12,000



The classification of Zapotec varieties is made difficult by the fact that most of them have several names and many have not been well studied. The 58 varieties of Zapotec fall into several broad groups:

  • Northern Zapotec (Zapoteco de la Sierra Norte) spoken in the northern mountainous region of Oaxaca
  • Valley Zapotec spoken in the Valley of Oaxaca
  • Southern Zapotec (Zapoteco de la Sierra Sur) spoken in the Southern Sierra Madres mountain ranges of Oaxaca,
  • Isthmus Zapotec spoken in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Although all varieties of Zapotec share some basic phonological and structural similarities, there are so many differences between/among them, that 40 of them are considered to be mutually unintelligible.



Sound system

For the most part, the sound systems of Zapotec languages are fairly complicated, with some variation from one variety to another.



Many Zapotec varieties have five vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that can differentiate word meaning. They also have a variety of diphthongs, e.g., /ai/, /au/, /ei/, /eu/, /ia/, /ie/, /iu/, /ua/, /ue/, /ei/.



Depending on the variety, vowels can appear in four different shapes: plain, creaky, breathy, or checked. Not all varieties of Zapotec have all four types.

  • Creaky
    In creaky voice, the vocal folds are so tight, that they vibrate irregularly with individual irregular flaps that are further apart than in normal voicing.
  • Breathy
    When a whisper is combined with voicing, it is called breathy voice or murmur. It is achieved by bringing the vocal folds together along part of their length (producing voicing) and spreading them for the rest (producing the whisper).
  • Checked vowels are followed by a glottal stop (indicated in writing by an apostrophe, e.g., a’)
    The glottal stop is the sound made when the vocal cords are pressed together to stop the flow of air and then released; e.g., the break between the syllables in uh-oh.

Zapotec languages tend to have a large inventory of consonants.

  • Most consonants exhibit a contrast between fortis (tense) and lenis (lax) articulations. In general, fortis consonants are longer than their lenis counterparts, and they tend not to be voiced. Fortis stops are usually slightly aspirated, and may be heavily aspirated in final position. Fortis consonants are represented by double letters in writing, e.g., nn represents a fortis /n/.
  • Some consonants, such as /f/ and /j/ occur mostly in loanwords.
  • All Zapotec varieties have retroflex consonants, such as /ʂ/ and /ʐ/. Retroflex consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue curled so that its underside touches the area behind the alveolar ridge.



Zapotec languages are tonal, which is typical of all Oto Manguean languages. The number of contrasting tones differs from one variety to another. One example is Texmelucan Zapotec which has one level tone and three contour tones (one rising and two falling). Tones are not marked in writing.



Zapotecan languages are agglutinative, i.e., they add prefixes and suffixes to roots to mark grammatical functions.


Nouns and pronouns

  • Nouns and pronouns vary in accordance with the relationship of speaker to interlocutor or object. For instance, they can indicate whether one is speaking about or with a human, animal, inanimate object, or a supernatural being.
  • One can also indicate an intimate or formal, and inclusive or exclusive relationship with the object by choice of nouns and pronouns.
  • In some cases, gender-specific forms of speech exist as well.
  • Zapotec languages distinguish between inalienable (cannot be removed or gotten rid of) and alienable (can be removed or gotten rid of) possession.



Prefixes and suffixes are added to verbs to indicate person, voice, tense and mood. Some varieties of Zapotec use tones to mark aspect.



Zapotec languages do not have true prepositions. Instead, they use nouns denoting body parts to express spatial relations. Below are a few examples from Zapotec Mitla.

Zapotec prepositions
English equivalents
Literal meaning



on top of






in front of








Word order

As in many other Otomanguean languages, the normal word order in Zapotec varieties is Verb-Subject-Object. Numerals precede nouns, but adjectives follow them. Possessors follow possessed nouns, e.g., làb ‘sandal,’ làb lè ‘your sandal.’



There are significant differences in vocabulary among different varieties of Zapotec, making most of them mutually unintelligible. All of them have borrowed a substantial number of words from Spanish, e.g., syudaa ‘city’ from Spanish ciudad.

The first of its kind dictionary of Zapotec Zapotec Dictionary of San Lucas Quiavini (Di’csyonaary X:tee’n Dii’zh Sah Sann Luu’c) by Pamela Munro and Felipe Lopez was published in 1999. It includes 9,000 words translated into English and Spanish. It was designed for the 50,000 Oaxaca Indians living in California. The dictionary bears the name of the hometown of the dictionary’s main author, Felipe Lopez, a Oaxaca Indian who arrived in California as an undocumented immigrant 25 years ago. He worked in agriculture and then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a dishwasher until he became a legal resident. Lopez was inspired to compile the two-volume dictionary because his language had never been written and because it was becoming endangered.

Below are a few common words from Zapotec Teotitlan

mother Nnaaan
father Da’ad
woman Mnnaaa’
yes Aaa’
hand Nnaaa’
Thank you Xtiuzu’u
Excuse me Shti
How are you? Xa yu’u?
Good morning Zac xtili


Below are the numerals 1-10 in Zapotec Mitla.




The Zapotec script is one of the earliest writing systems in Central America. Zapotec inscriptions were found on stone monuments dating back to between 400 and 200 BC. Most of them were found in Monte Albán, a large archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca. The script used a separate symbol to represent each syllable of the language. The script is not well understood because it is not known what language it was based on and because there are only very few brief samples of it. The script fell into disuse and was replaced by another form of writing by the 10th century AD. Nevertheless, it was influential inasmuch as it served as a basis for the scripts developed by the Mayas, Mixtecs, and Aztecs.

Today, Zapotecan languages are written in the Latin alphabet adapted to represent the sounds of the languages. It must be kept in mind that the orthographies were originally designed by Spanish friars who imposed Spanish orthographic traditions on the Zapotec languages that have many sounds which do not exist in Spanish. The Mexican branch of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) has attempted to design an orthography for the Zapotec languages, following general linguistic and orthographic principles. However, linguists encountered difficulties in trying to represent the wide range of sounds found in these languages with one single orthography. Thus, the issue remains unresolved, and there are several competing orthographies that are currently in use.


Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Zapotec Güilá.

Te’ihby (1)
Ra’ta ra bu:unny ra:aaly liebr cëhnn te’bloh deree’ch cëhnn dignidaa. Ra:alyne:erih gahll ri:e:eny cëhnn saalyb, chiru’ na:a pahr ga:annza’crih loh sa’rih.

Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Did You Know?

Do you know some English words that were borrowed from Zapotec? Let us know and we’ll add them here!



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Zapotec?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Zapotec for speakers of English.