Cultural Context

When the Spanish arrived on the coast of what they were to call New Spain—which included what is now modern-day Mexico—the Zapotec people had already been writing for some 2,000 years. It was therefore not surprising that they quickly adopted the alphabetic writing system. Such writing was introduced as part of an expansive undertaking that had as its objective the conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity. This project created the need for a learning process unprecedented in world history: describing and analyzing the multiple languages of Mesoamerica.  The results of this project were numerous dictionaries, grammars, and religious works created by Dominican friars relying heavily on the collaboration of Zapotec speakers.

These indigenous communities began to utilize alphabetic writing to create documents in their own language for their own purposes, including wills, land titles, and songs. Researchers have identified colonial documents written in Central Zapotec, Cajonos Zapotec, Nexitzo Zapotec, and Sierra Juárez Zapotec. Today these texts are dispersed throughout local, state, national and international repositories and archives. Currently, Ticha provides access to colonial documents written in Central (Valley) Zapotec, such as the Arte a book that seeks to describe the structure of the Zapotec language, and many wills.

The indigenous language documents are invaluable sources in understanding the historical and cultural developments of Mesoamerican peoples from the beginning of the colonial period until the present day. Unlike Spanish texts, these native language documents describe the world using their own cultural categories. For example, in Zapotec wills the testator might offer his soul to God to be eaten and his body to be consumed by the earth; clear continuities of indigenous perceptions related to death. These texts, and as such the Ticha portal, are a window for contemporary indigenous communities and scholars alike to explore Zapotec history, language, and culture.

View  Dizhsa Nabani, a documentary web series, to learn more about the relationship between identity, language, and daily life in the Valley Zapotec community of San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya.

Linguistic Background

Zapotec is an extensive language family indigenous to southern Mexico, which belongs to the larger Otomanguean family Today, there are over 50 different Zapotec languages (iso code zap) most of which are endangered.  They are spoken primarily in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, by a total of approximately 425,000 people (INEGI 2010) within a much larger Zapotec ethnic community. Due to immigration, there are now Zapotec speakers in many other parts of Mexico and the United States. Dialectal divergence between Zapotec-speaking communities is extensive and complicated. Many varieties of Zapotec are mutually unintelligible with one another. The Zapotec language family is on par with the Romance language family in terms of time depth and diversity of member languages.

​​​​The variety of Zapotec presented in Ticha represents the Zapotec of the colonial period of Mexico (1521-1821).  During this period, hundreds of documents were written in Zapotec, including religious materials, last wills and testaments, deeds, and letters.   Many of these documents were written by native speakers for use by native speakers, such as local administrative texts.  Other texts were written to be used by Spanish speaking priests and were likely created in collaboration with Spanish speakers.

The texts currently available on Ticha are written in Zapotec from the Central branch, often referred to as Colonial Valley Zapotec.  The Ticha Bibliography lists works written about Colonial Valley Zapotec.

Colonial Valley Zapotec to English Vocabulary

This Vocabulary contains over 600 words and morphemes commonly found in the documents and some of their variant spellings. There are two main parts: the main dictionary (Zapotec to English) and the English index, which can be used to look up a word in the main section.

If you know what the word might mean, but do not know what the Zapotec word might look like, the index will likely be the most useful place for you to look. Be sure to try looking under synonyms, as well.

If you are trying to figure out what an unidentified Zapotec word might mean, recall that spelling can be quite variable. Here are some tips for finding a Zapotec word in the dictionary:

  • Disregard any accent marks. For example, if you are looking for <quéche> try by looking under <queche>.
  • If you don’t find the word spelled exactly as you found it in the text, trying changing the spelling in ways listed below. For example, if you are looking for <aanna> and do not find it there, try looking under <ana>.
    change to
    double consonants single consonants
    double vowels single vowels
    <ij> <i>
  • Disregard any <h> between two identical vowels. For example, if you are looking for <anachihi> and find nothing there, try looking under <anachi>.
  • Keep in mind that the following letter (sequences) may be used interchangeably. If you expect your word to have one of these letters, try replacing it with the one (or ones) in bold, e.g. if you are looking for <veni> you might also look under <peni> and <beni>.
    • p, b, u, v
    • t, d
    • g, gu, c, q, qu
    • s, z, x, c, ç
    • u, o
    • e, i

sp. var. spelling variant

There are two types of entries. Main entries, like anachi and beni below, and cross references for spelling variants, like anachihi below. Cross-references always contain the headword and the cross reference to the main entry. Main entries minimally contain the headword and the definition. They may optionally contain other elements, such as notes on the composition of the word, a list of spelling variants, and sub-entries of words related to that headword. Below, three entries are broken down and their component parts are numbered. A key to these numbered parts follows directly below the sample entries.

1 headword Each definition starts with a headword.
2 definition The headword is followed by a definition. If there are multiple senses to a word, they are numbered.
3 notes on morphological composition The component parts of a word may be noted. For example anachi is made up of ana ‘now’ and chi ‘day’.
4 spelling variants Some possible spelling variants are listed.
5 cross-reference from a spelling variant Some spelling variants (sp. var.) are listed in the vocabulary with a cross reference to the main headword.
6 sub-entry Some subentries are listed under headwords. These can also be found as headwords with more information.
7 example Some entries have examples. The examples are introduced with a reference to the text from which they come, followed by the Zapotec examples in italics and the English translation in quotes.
8 cross-reference Some entries contain cross-references to other entries.
9 modern cognate with audio Some entries contain cognates with audio. Click on the blue play button to hear a native speaker pronounce the cognate in that modern Valley Zapotec variety. Click on the black arrow to jump to that entry in the corresponding Talking Dictionary.

The modern cognates with audio come from four Talking Dictionaries of modern Valley Zapotec languages. These dictionaries are collaborations with native speakers and were made possible by Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, K. David Harrison, and Jeremy Fahringer. We owe special thanks to Fahringer for enabling the mechanism whereby Ticha can interact with the Talking Dictionaries. The language varieties are listed below with links to the Talking Dictionaries and the names of the contributing speakers.

San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya Zapotec

Speakers: Moisés García Guzmán, Angélica Guzmán Martínez, Antonio García Cruz, María Mercedes Méndez Morales.

San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec

Speakers: Felipe H. Lopez and Victoria Lopez.

Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec

Speakers: Camillo Alavéz Alavéz, Gario Angeles, Manuel Bazan Chávez, Froilán Carreño Gutiérrez, Natalia Carreño Hernandez, Janet Chávez Santiago, Federico Chávez Sosa, Elena García Jimenez, Noel Alejandro García Juárez, Silvia González Ruiz, Ambrocio Gutiérrez, Bibiana Gutiérrez, Zenón Pablo Gutiérrez, Erasto Gutiérrez López, Celso Gutiérrez Montaño, Jorge David Hernández Sosa, Edison Hipólito de los Ángeles, Camelia Lazo Chávez, Teresa Martínez Chavez, Adrián Martínez Mendoza, Leonardo Martínez Sosa, Miguel Ángel Mendoza Bautista, Rocío Mendoza Bazán, Manuel de Jesús Mendoza Chávez, Teresa Manuela Mendoza Ruíz, Miros Laba, Cristina Ruiz, Rosa Ruiz González, Francisco Ruiz Gutiérrez, Mariano Sosa Martinez.

Tlacolula de Matamoros Zapotec

Speakers: Roberto Antonio Ruiz, and Josefina Antonio Ruiz.

Lillehaugen, Brook Danielle, George Aaron Broadwell, Michel R. Oudijk, Laurie Allen, May Helena Plumb, and Mike Zarafonetis. 2017. "Colonial Valley Zapotec to English Vocabulary." Ticha: a digital text explorer for Colonial Zapotec, first edition. Online:

This dictionary was last updated at Sept. 27, 2017, 7:27 p.m.