P'urhépecha language

P'urhépecha language
P'urhépecha, Tarascan, Phorhé
Pronunciation [pʰuˈɽepet͡ʃa]
Spoken in Michoacán, Mexico
Native speakers 175,000  (2005)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 either:
tsz – Eastern
pua – Western

P'urhépecha (Phorhé, Phorhépecha, Purepecha, also Tarascan, Tarasco) is a language isolate or small language family spoken by more than 100,000 P'urhépecha people in the highlands of the Mexican state of Michoacán. Even though it is spoken within the boundaries of Mesoamerica P'urhépecha does not share many of the traits defining the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area, probably due to a long adherence to an isolationist policy.

P'urhépecha was the main language of the pre-Columbian Tarascan state and became widespread in north western Mexico during the height of the Tarascan state.


Geographical extension

Distribution of P'urhépecha Language in the present-day Mexican state of Michoacán

The P'urhépecha language is mostly spoken in rural communities in the highlands of Michoacán. The former center of the Tarascan state was around lake Pátzcuaro and this remains an important center of the P'urhépecha community. The Ethnologue counts two variants of P'urhépecha: the central dialect spoken by approximately 120,000 people (1990) around Pátzcuaro and the western highland variety spoken around Zamora, Los Reyes de Salgado, Paracho, and Pamatácuaro, all of which are in the vicinity of the Paricutín volcano.


P'urhépecha has long been classified as a language isolate. This judgement is repeated in Campbell's authoritative classification (Campbell 1997). Greenberg assigned it to the Chibchan language family, but this proposal was rejected by specialists.[1] Statistical studies by Swadesh have suggested relationships to Zuñi, Quechua, Mayan and Aymara, but these conclusions remain unproven.[2][3]


The official alphabet is the P’URHEPECHA JIMBO KARARAKUECHA (P'urhépecha Alphabet):

a b ch ch' d e g i ï j k k' m n nh o p p' r rh s t t' ts ts' u x.[4][5]

The three letters < b, d, g > occur in spelling only after the nasal letters < m, n >: < mb, nd, ng >. Their use is not consistent with orthography on the phonemic principle, because the sounds [p, t, k] are automatically voiced, shifting in pronunciation to [b, d, g] respectively, after a nasal consonant.


In all dialects of P'urhépecha, stress accent is phonemic. As in Spanish orthography, the stressed syllable is indicated by the acute accent. Examples of minimal pairs are:

karáni 'write' — kárani 'fly'
p'amáni 'wrap it' — p'ámani 'touch a liquid'

Usually the second syllable of the word is stressed, occasionally the first.

The phonemic inventory of the Tarécuato dialect is presented below.[6] The Tarécuato dialect differs from other dialects in having a velar nasal phoneme. The table of phonemes uses International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols and also gives the alphabet equivalents (enclosed in parentheses) in nonobvious cases.


Front Central Back
Close i ɨ ( ï ) u
Mid e o
Open ɑ

The two mid vowels /e, o/ are uncommon; /o/ is especially rare.

The high central vowel occurs almost exclusively after /s/ or /ts/, and is almost a predictible allophone of /i/ in that position.

The final vowel of a word is usually whispered or deleted, unless the word is at the end of a phrase or sentence.

Sequences of vowels do occur, but are very rare except for sequences generated by adding grammatical suffixes such as the pluralizers -echa or -icha, the copula -i, or the genitive -iri; and a sequence of vowels (sounds, not letters) virtually never occurs as the first two sounds of a word.


P'urhépecha is one of the minority of languages in the Mesoamerican region which do not have a phonemic glottal stop (a distinction shared by the Huave language and by some dialects of Nahuatl). On a worldwide scale, it is very unusual in lacking any laterals ('l'-sounds). (However, in the speech of many young speakers, the retroflex rhotic has been replaced by [l], due to Spanish influence.[7]) There are distinct series of nonaspirated and aspirated plosives and affricates; aspiration is spelled with an apostrophe. There are two rhotics ('r'-sounds; one of them retroflex).

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar
or palatal
Velar Labio-
Nasal m n ŋ (nh)
Plosive plain p t k (ku)
aspirated (p') (t') (k') kʷʰ (k'u)
Affricate plain ts (ts) (ch)
aspirated tsʰ (ts') tʃʰ (ch')
Fricative s ʃ (x) x (j)
Rhotic r ɽ (rh)
Approximant j (i) w (u)

The official orthography does not have distinct representations for the four phonemes /kʷ/, /kʷʰ/, /w/, /j/. It uses the letter 'i' for both the phonemes /i, j/ and the letter 'u' for both of the phonemes /u, w/ (These two semivowels are fairly rare). When k and k' are followed by u and another vowel this virtually always represents the labio-velar phonemes.

Intervocally, the aspirated consonants become pre-aspirated; when following nasals, they lose their aspiration entirely. The unaspirated consonants become voiced when following nasals.


The P'urhépecha language is agglutinating and exclusively suffixing and has a large number of suffixes (as many as 160[8]) and clitics. It has no noun compounding or incorporation. The verb distinguishes thirteen aspects and six modes. It has a nominal case system distinguishing nominative, accusative, genitive, comitative, instrumental and locative cases, but also a large number of nominal derivational affixes. Basic word order is SVO, but other word orders are commonly used for pragmatic purposes.[9]

The Noun

Plural of a noun is formed by a suffix -echa/-icha or -cha.

kúmi-wátsï "fox" - kúmi-wátsïcha "foxes"
iréta "town" - irétaacha "towns"
warhíticha tepharicha maru "some fat women (lit. women fat some)"

The nominative case is unmarked. The accusative case (also called objective case), used to mark direct and sometimes indirect objects, is marked by a suffix -ni:

Pedrú pyásti tsúntsuni "Pedro bought the pot"
Pedrú pyá-s-ti tsúntsu-ni
Pedro buy-PRF-3ind pot-ACC

The genitive is marked by -ri -eri:

imá wárhitiri wíchu "that woman's dog"
imá wárhiti-ri wíchu
that woman-GEN dog

Discourse-pragmatic focus on a noun or noun phrase is indicated by the clitic -sï.[10]

Ampé arhá Pedrú? "What did Pedro eat?"
ampé-sï arh-∅-∅-á Pedrú
what-FOC eat-PRF-INT Pedro
kurúcha atí. "he ate fish" (i.e., fish is what he ate)
Kurúcha-sï a-∅-tí
fish-FOC eat-PRF-3IND

The Verb

The P'urhépecha verb inflects for aspects and modes. There are also a number of suffixes expressing position or body parts affecting or affected by the verbal action. Transitivity is manipulated by suffixes forming transitive verbs with applicative or causative meaning or intransitives with passive or inchoative meanings.


P'urhépecha-language programming is broadcast by radio station XEPUR-AM, based in Cherán, Michoacán. This radio station is an enterprise of the CDI.



  • Capistrán, Alejandra. 2002. "Variaciones de orden de constituyentes en p'orhépecha". In Paulette Levy, ed., Del cora al maya yucateco: estudios lingüísticos sobre algunas lenguas indígenas mexicanas. Mexico City: UNAM.
  • Chamoreau, Claudine. 2003. Purépecha de Jarácuaro, Michoacán. Mexico City: El Colegio de México. Archivo de lenguas indígenas de México; 25.
  • Chamoreau, C. 2003. Parlons Purépecha. Paris: L'Harmattan, ISBN 2747543579.
  • Chamoreau, C. 2009. Hablemos Purépecha. Morelia, Mexico: Universidad Intercultural Indígena de Michoacán. ISBN 978-607-424-042-9. [Revised and enlarged Spanish language translation of the above]
  • De Wolf, Paul. 1989. Estudios Lingüísticos sobre la lengua P'orhé. Mexico City: Colegio de Michoacán.
  • De Wolf, Paul. 1991. Curso básico del tarasco hablado. Zamora: Colegio de Michoacán. ISBN 968-7230-61-4.
  • Foster, Mary LeCron. 1969. The Tarascan Language. Berkeley: University of California Press. University of California publications in linguistics; 56.
  • Foster, Mary LeCron. 1971. "Tarascan". In Jesse Sawyer, ed., Studies in American Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Friedrich, Paul. 1984. "Tarascan: From Meaning to Sound". In Munro Edmonson, ed., Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 2. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Monzón, Cristina. 1997. Introducción a la lengua y cultura tarascas. Valencia, Spain: Universidad de Valencia. ISBN 8437033071.
  • Pollard, Helen Perlstein (1993). Taríacuri’s Legacy: The Prehispanic Tarascan State. The Civilization of the American Indian series, vol. 209. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2497-0. OCLC 26801144. 

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