Research Seminars

Research seminars

Wednesday 2nd November 2016

The changing faces of language contact in Purépecha (Mexico).

Kate Bellamy (Leiden University Centre for Linguistics) 

Despite its lack of linguistic relatives, Purépecha – also known as Tarascan, spoken by around 100,000 people in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico – has clearly not existed in isolation from other languages. For many centuries prior to the arrival of the conquistadores in the early 16thcentury, speakers of the language interacted with other indigenous groups at both the local (west Mexican) and regional (Mesoamerican) levels (see, e.g. Campbell et al., 1986). Before the imposition of Spanish, Purépecha was the dominant language of the region, being the first language of the elite within the Tarascan State (c. 1350-1521 CE). The language may have functioned as a lingua franca amongst the various groups within the State, also suggesting certain levels of multilingualism (Gorenstein & Pollard, 1983).

In this talk I will address the differing outcomes of these two periods of language contact, namely proposed multilingualism within the prehispanic Tarascan State as opposed to contemporary bilingualism and increasing language shift to Spanish. An on-going comparative study of standardised wordlists (based on the World Loanword Database, Haspelmath & Tadmor, 2009) for languages in the region indicates that Purépecha possesses very few loanwords from neighbouring languages. The few loans identified to date are predominantly nouns and originate either (i) directly from Nahuatl, the language of the most powerful neighbours (i.e. the Aztecs), e.g. Purépecha kuarháchi from Nahuatl guarache‘sandal’, or (ii) as pan-Mesoamericanisms whose precise origin is unclear, e.g. misitu ‘cat’ (e.g. Campbell, 1997). Contemporary Purépecha, however, has been heavily influenced by Spanish. It possesses loans in all word classes, such as the conjunctions apenašɨ or apenasitu ‘as soon as; barely, hardly’, and a number of colour terms, e.g. anaranjadu ‘orange’, rosita ‘pink’. Changes in word order and other structures are also observable (e.g. Chamoreau, 2007).

This shift from greater to lesser resistance to borrowing has two main implications. First, as the dominant language of the Tarascan State, Purépecha was more likely to act as donor rather than recipient language where borrowing occurred. Second, the paucity of loans may hint at more casual contact than has been posited previously, a situation in which bilingualism may, in fact, not have been the norm. In contrast, the modern-day language demonstrates the outcomes of more intense contact, with profound bilingualism and the potential for even more major language shift (Thomason, 2001). Its status now is clearly subordinate to Spanish, a situation highlighted in its considerable absence from core communicative domains such as education and media. Evolving language dominance, as reflected in borrowing  patterns, can therefore act as a mirror for social change (Bellamy, 2016).


Bellamy, Kate. 2016. Language as a mirror for social change, The Linguist @ NTNU:

Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of native America, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Lyle, Terrence Kaufman & Thomas C. Smith-Stark. 1986. Meso-America as a linguistic area, Language 62(3): 530-570.

Chamoreau, Claudine. 2007. Grammatical borrowing in Purepecha. In: Y. Matras and J. Sakel (eds.), Grammatical borrowing in cross-linguistic perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 465-480.

Gorenstein, Shirley Slotkin & Helen Perlstein Pollard. 1983. The Tarascan civilization: a late Prehispanic cultural system, Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University.

Tadmor, Uri, Martin Haspelmath & Bradley Taylor. 2010. Borrowability and the notion of basic vocabulary, Diachronica 27(2): 226–246.

Hazel Price