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A pocket guide to Totonac, an endangered language.

May 30, 2018

As the digitization of the Sons of the Republic of Texas Mexican Manuscript Collection (SRT) in its entirety progresses, I continue to be amazed and pleasantly surprised by some of the hidden gems that are buried in the unassuming SRT filing cabinets in the Special Collections vault. One of those wonderful moments happened recently when I came upon document 5794, “Vocabulario de la lengua Totonaca.” The vague title featured in the metadata does not do this incredibly interesting document justice. Document 5794 is so much more than just a “vocabulary.” Its cover contains a striking  example of calligraphy, the contents are interesting, unique, and exciting. The document provides a glimpse into the diversity of eighteenth-century Mexico. It features one of the 68 indigenous languages officially recognized by the Mexican government that are still spoken today.

txsau-srt-5794_00001 not cropped

The name Totonac ecompasses a cluster of approximately 9 closely-related languages still spoken by over 200,000 people in the central Mexican states of Veracruz and Puebla. The earliest known research on Totonac was undertaken in the sixteenth century by Fray Andrés de Olmos (famous for his grammar of Nahuatl). The language is considered endangered because several of its dialects have speaker populations of only a few thousand. The Endangered Language Alliance has videos of present-day Totonac being spoken.

txsau-srt-5794_00001 cover image

The author got creative with a mix of several innovative hand-lettering styles on the cover of the otherwise unassuming booklet. The first four letters T-O-T-O overlap the more stylized N-A-C-A in the lower register.

Document 5794 is more than a vocabulary. It functions as a guide to the basics of the Totonac language for Spanish-speakers. The small size (roughly 7 inches tall) suggests a portability; perhaps the author carried the booklet in their pocket as a convenient tool to navigate social interactions in Totonac communities. The document is sub-divided into several themes. It begins with the 21 letter Totonac alphabet (abecedario) as it would appear in the Latin alphabet. (Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the language existed solely in spoken form. Now orthographies based on the Latin alphabet are used but literacy in the language is uncommon.)

txsau-srt-5794_00003 alphabet guide

Interesting to note, are the pronunciation guides. For example, the ‘x’ is explained as being equivalent to the ‘ch’ sound in French.

Next the reader finds thematically arranged word lists translated from Spanish to Totonac. These themes include: people/anatomy, articles of clothing, family structure, adjectives, animals, plants and food, geography, and colors.

txsau-srt-5794_00008 word list family roles

Wardrobe-related vocabulary (enaguas: petticoat, faja: girdle) proceeds familial roles (padre: father, abuelo: grandpa) in this example of the thematic word lists.

After several pages of thematically-arranged translations, the author depicts verb conjugations. These include the indicative (shown below), imperfect, perfect, and future tenses.

txsau-srt-5794_00023 conjugations 1

Next, the basics of conversation are addressed:

txsau-srt-5794_00028 conversation basics

Basic introductory phrases include: ¿Como te llamas? and ¿Cuantos hijos tienes? These are translated into Totonac on the facing page. 

The second-to-last page of the booklet includes a final word list, perhaps key vocabulary that the author felt necessary at the last moment.

txsau-srt-5794_00036 bell on cat

¿Quien le pone el cascabel al Gato? i.e. Who put the bell on the cat?

txsau-srt-5794_00037 signature

The closing states that this booklet was produced in Papantla on the 27th of September, 1887 by A. Fontecilla y Vidas. Papantla is in northern Veracruz, and home to one of most-spoken Totonac dialects.

Document 5794 is a Totonac language and grammar guide. It would have provided a bridge for someone engaging with a community whose language is remarkably unrelated to any other in the world (including the over 60 indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico alone). I look forward to uncovering additional intriguing documents that neighbor this “vocabulario” in the SRT files. Several thousand SRT documents are already available online, with more added each month.



One Comment leave one →
  1. May 30, 2018 12:53 pm

    Reblogged this on stillness of heart and commented:
    Fascinating. What an amazing find.

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