P’urhépecha is spoken by over 100,000 people in the highlands of the state of Michoacán, Mexico, making it one of the country’s largest indigenous languages spoken outside the diverse southern states. A number of dialects have been identified, and Ethnologue distinguishes two separate languages (P’urhépecha and Western Highland P’urhépecha), but there is considerable intelligibility between almost all varieties of the languages. Michoacán remains a distinct homeland for the language, but P’urhépecha speakers have been migrating far and wide recently in search of economic opportunity, recently arriving in significant numbers in California, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
P’urhépecha is usually identified as a language isolate, without any established genealogical relationship to any other language in the world. There have been attempts to link P’urhépecha with the Chibchan language family of lower Central America and Colombia as well as Quechua, Zuñi (a language isolate of the American Southwest), and other languages—so far these remain conjectures.
The vast majority of P’urhépecha speakers are now fluent in Spanish, and there are now some members of the P’urhépecha community who have switched to Spanish and lack proficiency in the language. There was no P’urhépecha writing system or textual tradition before the Spanish Conquest, but today there is a script based on the Latin alphabet in limited use. XEPUR-AM (La Voz de los Purépechas; English: The Voice of the Purépechas) is a radio station in Michoacán that broadcasts regularly in Spanish and P’urhépecha.
Among the most important early sources on P’urhépecha language and culture (then called “Tarascan”) is Relación de Michoacán, a collection of P’urhépecha narratives and descriptions recorded in 1540-41 by Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá, a Franciscan priest. The following decades saw some Spanish attempts to record the vocabulary and grammar of the old P’urhépecha language. Several 20th century grammars and dictionaries exist in different forms, in addition to detailed analyses of particular linguistic features. Among the pioneering modern scholars of the language are Paul Friedrich, Benedict Warren, and Claudine Chamoreau, among others. The P’urhépecha language has a highly complex grammar, with very long words reflecting an agglutinative syntax where grammatical morphemes with different meanings are added on one after another.
Several thousand Purehpecha speakers have come to the United States in the last three decades, primarily to Riverside County, California, parts of Florida, and the area around York, Pennsylvania, often working in agriculture. Endangered Language Alliance collaborator Alexis Paz, who is originally from Ocumicho in Michoacán and grew up in York, Pennsylvania, may be the only speaker of P’urhépecha currently in New York City.