The term Totonac refers to a cluster of approximately nine closely related languages spoken by an estimated 280,000 people in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Puebla. Subgrouping proposals have included a four-way split, with the terms Papantla, North-Central, South-Central, Misantla used for different dialect groupings, and more recently a basic split between Misantla Totonac and Central Totonac, where most of the internal diversity is concentrated.
Totonac varieties, together with the three Tepehua languages spoken by several thousand people across central Mexico, are not definitively known to be related to any other language family.
Three varieties of Totonac account for the overwhelming majority of speakers: Highland, Tepantla, and Coyutla. Other dialects may be endangered, with speaker populations never more than a few thousand and some speakers switching to Spanish or possibly Nahuatl. There are orthographies, based on the Latin alphabet, for some Totonac varieties but literacy in the language is not widespread. The government-run radio station XECTZ-AM broadcasts regular Totonac-language programming from Cuetzalan, Puebla.
The earliest known research on Totonac, apparently including both grammatical and lexical descriptions was undertaken in the 16th century by Fray Andrés de Olmos, famous for his grammar of Nahuatl. Missionary linguists like Hermann Aschmann, with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, began work in the 1950s and 60s. One of Edward Sapir’s last students, Norman McQuown, later of the University of Chicago, produced several pioneering studies on a range of Totonac dialects. Over the last decade or so, several key reference works have been published, including David Beck’s 2011 Upper Necaxa Totonac Dictionary, various works by Paulette Levy on Papantla Totonac, Carolyn MacKay’s grammar of Misantla Totonac, and so on.
Among the Totonac-speaking individuals in New York, ELA is working with Totonac speaker and shaman José Juárez, originally from the city of Tuxtla in Puebla, Mexico. Although Totonac has been described relatively extensively by linguists, the dialect of Tuxtla has not received much attention. Our efforts have been primarily aimed at recording and translating texts.
A recent piece by video journalist Emon Hassan, shown below, documents the recording and translation of a short text with our collaborator, Jose Juarez.
The Endangered Language Alliance has been working for several years with Sierra Totonac speaker and curandero José Juárez, originally from the city of Tuxtla in Puebla and now living and running his store Leecatzin in Clifton, New Jersey. There are also speakers of Papantla Totonac in the city.