Introduction to the Alvarado Vocabulario


User's Guide

FIGURE 2. The moon as a vessel filled with blue water, from page 19a of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 2. The moon as a vessel filled with blue water, from page 19a of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 3. A tonsured and unshaved Dominican friar (right) writes with a bone-like feather quill: Codex of Yanhuitlan, plate 19.

FIGURE 3. A tonsured and unshaved Dominican friar (right) writes with a bone-like feather quill: Codex of Yanhuitlan, plate 19.

FIGURE 4. The place sign of Chiyo Cahnu (Teozacoalco), from page 4 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 4. The place sign of Chiyo Cahnu (Teozacoalco), from page 4 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 5. Dzavui the rain god pours down water from the sky, from page 5 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 5. Dzavui the rain god pours down water from the sky, from page 5 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURA 6. Front cover of the Molina _Vocabulario_, 1571.

FIGURA 6. Front cover of the Molina Vocabulario, 1571.

The Vocabulario en Lengua Misteca preserves an invaluable record of Dzaha Dzavui (that is, ‘Rain speech,’ the language spoken by the Ã’udzavui) in the sixteenth century. Language provides a rich source of information on a people, their society, and their culture.

Vocabularies alone, even without an accompanying grammar, can help to illuminate’“for example’“what foods were part of a people’s diet, what instruments they played, what their daily activities were, and many other aspects of their lives. For an anthropologist, there is much to explore in the words that Ã’udzavui used to describe the world around them. For example, one of the definitions offered for libro (book) is ñee ñuhu, ‘sacred skin.’4 Prehispanic Ã’udzavui screenfolds were made of gessoed deer hide (see the ‘Mesoamerican Screenfolds’ tutorial), and the term ñee ñuhu gives us, now, an idea of how important these documents were to Ã’udzavui life.

The terms recorded in the Vocabulario can also provide important insights into the imagery painted on the surfaces of these screenfold books. Knowing that the word recorded for both ‘moon’ and ‘water vessel’ is yoo, we can begin to understand why the painted image of the moon bears a close resemblance to a cut-away drawing of a wide-mouthed jar filled with water (Figure 2).5 Dzaha Dzavui metaphors for marriage (discussed in the ‘Images of Action’ tutorial), and the special terms for the parts of the elite body (discussed in ‘The Ã’udzavui Body’ tutorial) provide further examples of how linguistic information can be used to interpret the pictures in the codices.

To interpret the Dzaha Dzavui words recorded in the Vocabulario, you should keep a few linguistic details in mind. First, Dzaha Dzavui is an agglutinating language, a language builds words by adding affixes to roots. At the same time, the typesetters who printed the Vocabulario often presented the Dzaha Dzavui entries as long unbroken strings of letters. Understanding the terms offered as equivalents for Castilian words often requires parsing the Dzaha Dzavui translation into smaller parts.

Verbs offer a good example of the agglutinative nature of Dzaha Dzavui. On the Castilian side, verbs are presented in their infinitive form: bever (today’s beber, to drink), cortar (to cut) dormir (to sleep). Verb translations, however, are typically presented in conjugated first-person indicative (that is, present-tense) forms. Most verbal translations begin with yo- (indicative prefix) and end with ‘“ndi (first-person suffix). Thus the Dzaha Dzavui entry for ‘to drink,’ yosihindi, literally translates as ‘I drink’ (yo+sihi+ndi). Then entry for ‘to cut,’ yosandandi, literally translates as ‘I cut’ (yo+sanda+ndi). And the entry for ‘to sleep,’ yoquidzindi, literally translates as ‘I sleep’ (yo+quidzi+ndi). Occasionally, verbs will begin with the past-tense prefix ni-.6

Nouns are often formed by processes of agglutination as well. The term for Milky Way (Camino de Santiago in Castilian) appears in the Alvarado as sichiñuu, composed of the word sichi (path) and ñuu (star or stars’“unlike English and Spanish, Dzaha Dzavui does not mark plural forms with suffixes). The Milky Way, then, is a ‘star-path.’7 A more complex example is provided by the Dzaha Dzavui translation of ‘feather for writing’ (pluma para escreuir): yequetaa tutu.8 Dividing the Dzaha Dzavui words into their constituent elements produces the following analysis:

yeque: bone
taa: to write
tutu: paper

A feather quill for writing, then, is a ‘bone for writing on paper.’ When sixteenth-century Europeans made their quill pens, they would cut off all the plumage, leaving only a long thin white tube (Figure 3). To indigenous eyes, this looked more like a bone than a feather, and thus the translation of pluma para escreuir does not contain the term for feather, tnumi. As you can see, the definitions offered for Castilian words in the Vocabulario are often tiny sentences, whole conceptual statements.

Another key point to remember is that Dzaha Dzavui is a tone language: a language like Chinese where the pitch on each syllable contributes to a word’s meaning. However. the Vocabulario generally does not record the tones of the words provided. Alvarado’s mentor, fray Antonio de los Reyes, mentioned tone in his 1593 Ã’udzavui grammar, but neither he nor Alvarado consistently marked it in their published works.9 As a result, words which on the printed page look identical may have been pronounced differently. Written combinations of letters that shared the same morphology, yet differed in tone, were different words. The string ñ- u-h-u, for example, appears after a number of different Castilian words: God, fire, and earth.

Dios. ñuhu
Fuego. ñuhu
tierra. ñuhu10

Although all of these words look the same on the page, they were probably pronounced differently’“and thus, in fact, were different words. An analogy in English would be the written form of l-e-a-d, which can refer either to a type of metal (‘lead-glazed ceramics’) or to an action (‘she will lead the pilgrimage’). Note how the same sequence of letters (l-e-a-d) not only has distinct meanings, but is pronounced differently depending on which meaning is intended. Similar differences in pronunciation and sound were at work in the words transcribed in the Vocabulario.

However, at the same time, we know that ‘tone puns’ were (and are) an important part of Ã’udzavui verbal and visual art. Figure 4 shows the place sign for the town of Teozacoalco as depicted on page 4 of the Codex Selden. The Dzaha Dzavui name for Teozacoalco is Chiyo Cahnu or ‘Large Platform.’ However, since ‘large’ is a relational quality, it is somewhat difficult to depict visually. Ã’udzavui scribes therefore resorted to a tone pun. Pronounced differently, cahnu can mean ‘bent,’ not large’“and so the place sign in the Selden depicts an architectural frieze being bent.

A final issue to remember is that Dzaha Dzavui is still spoken in many parts of the Rain Place today. Contemporary knowledge, and dictionaries of contemporary Mixteco, offer important additional resources for understanding the Vocabulario. Of course Dzaha Dzavui’” like English and Spanish’“has undergone changes since the sixteenth century. The Alvarado Vocabulario was created at the same time Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare were writing their earliest works of literature’“works of literature which we can still read, but which preserve a number of archaic words and styles of speaking. Used carefully, then, contemporary usage can serve as a guide for interpreting the terms in the Alvarado.11

Thus far, this User’s Guide has focused on the Vocabulario as a source of information on the indigenous world. At the same time, the Alvarado Vocabulario is the product of a complex colonial situation. It was complied in the 1590s, some sixty years after Europeans first came to the Mixteca. Many if not all of the indigenous people who helped prepare its entries were Catholic converts. This is a document that records sixteenth-century Dzaha Dzavui in the context of the sixteenth-century Catholic Church. The Dominicans who prepared the Vocabulario brought with them a world view different from that of the people of the New World, and this had a tremendous impact on the words that were elicited for translation as well as on the understanding of the translations themselves. The European missionary who asked for a translation of the word ‘idol,’ for example, was no doubt thinking in terms of statues of Baalim , the Golden Calf, the Second Commandment, and the worship of demons’“quite a different set of associations from those of the indigenous speaker who translated Ydolo as _dzahui_—Rain (an important deity; Figure 5).12

Furthermore, the Castilian entries included in the Vocabulario were based on entries in other dictionaries’“an issue discussed in detail in the ‘The Molina Vocabulario’ Nahua tutorial. Specifically, the entries in Alvarado’s Vocabulario were based on three earlier sources: a 1571 Castilian-Nahuatl dictionary compiled in the Valley of Mexico to the north (Figure 6), on a 1578 Castilian-Zapotec dictionary compiled in the Valley of Oaxaca to the south, and on Antoni de Nebrija’s Castilian-Latin Dictionarium. (Specifically, Alvarado’s Vocabulario contains entries added to Nebrija’s Dictionarium in the Antwerp expansion of 1553, entries that were included in all subsequent editions).13 The Nahuatl and Zapotec dictionaries were themselves independently modeled on Antonio de Nebrija’s Castilian-Latin dictionary. In other words, many of the categories translated into Dzaha Dzavui in the Alvarado Vocabulario are categories that have been copied from dictionaries of other languages (Nahuatl, Zapotec, Latin). This means that when consulting a Dzaha Dzavui term included in the Alvarado, it is important to think why that term is included. Is it a word that existed in prehispanic times? Its it a word that had developed organically to describe the strange European things entering the Rain Place since the 1520s? Or is it a word invented on the spot in the 1590s in order to fill-in-the-blank after a strange category the Dominicans wanted defined?

When using Alvarado’s Vocabulario, then, it is always useful to cross-check the Castilian entry of the word you are interested in with a 1553 or later edition of the Nebrija Dictionarium, with Alonso de Molina’s 1571 Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana as well as Juan de Cordova’s 1578 Vocabulario en lengua çapoteca. If the Castilian entry does not appear in these two sources (such as the complex vocabulary offered for types of slaves), this suggests that the entry in question was created by Alvarado and his collaborators in order to record a unique feature of Ã’udzavui language and culture.

However, if the Castilian entry is based on a category previously used by Nebrija or Molina or Cordova, other issues need to be addressed. Does the term refer to a general aspect of Mesoamerican life (such as entries for rain, lluvia, or maize)? Or does the term refer to an important aspect of European life, a term that the Dominican missionaries wanted translated as part of their missionary program, such as terms for Papal court (corte del Papa), and Purgatory (Purgatorio)?14 These neologisms are often quite awkward and literal. A ‘Roman nose’ (naris roma), for example, is defined as dzitni tnama_—literally translated as ‘wide [_tnama ] nose [dzitni ].’ A clock (reloj ) is descriptively defined as caa cánda maa_—‘iron [_caa —metal] which divides into sections [cánda ] from the middle [maa ].’15

Finally, note that the sixteenth century Castilian of the Vocabulario is not the same as twenty-first-century Spanish. Perhaps the most important difference for users of the Vocabulario is spelling. For example, the word zapatos (shoes) was written by Alvarado and his associates with a ç— çapatos. The modern volver (to return) was written boluer.16 A number of Ã’udzavui words end in a double ii sound—which appears in the Vocabulario as ij. Fortunately, these changes in spelling follow a pattern, and involve only a few consonants and vowels. The following is a list of common alphabetic equivalencies that affect the way Castilian words in the Vocabulario are spelled:

b and u and v
ç and s and z
h and u
j and i
h and x and j

The flexible attitude of Europeans towards early modern spelling also impacted the indigenous-language entries in the Vocabulario. The spellings used to indicate certain indigenous-language sounds are not always consistent. Thus the ‘“ndi first-person ending discussed above is sometimes written just ‘“di. The sound nd- is sometimes just written d- (so that the term for water, for example, appears written as both duta and nduta).

Additionally, sixteenth-century writing throughout Europe used an alphabetic character called a “long s.” The “long s” looks like a lower case “f,” but it does not have a crossbar on the front side. In the version of the Vocabulario included in Mesolore, all “long s” characters have been typed as a regular lower case “s.”

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4 Alvarado 1593: 138r; see also Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2004: 268; Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2011: 12.

5 Alvarado 1593, 139r, 43r.

6 Alvarado 1593, 34r, 55r, 83v.

7 Alvarado 1593, 42v.

8 Alvarado 1594, 168v.

9 Terraciano 2001, 70-76.

10 Alvarado 1593, 81r, 113v, 195v.

11 For an excellent recent dictionary of Mixteco, see Caballero Morales 2008; see also Stark Campbell et al. 1986 and other grammars and dictionaries published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (

12 Alvarado 1593, 129r.

13 Hamann n.d.; see also Hernández 2006, 69-70 and Hernández 2008, 203.

14 Alvarado 1593, 55v, 175v.

15 Terraciano 2001, 83.

16 Alvarado 1593, 60v, 37r.