Languages and place names of Lake Chapala, Mexico

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

Letter to the editor:

As a newcomer to the area, I wonder if your excellent magazine could assist me in understanding a couple of things. Is it correct that the language of this area at the time of the conquistadors was Nahuatl, the language of the Azteca? If so, when did the language cease to be used around the lake? And finally, could you advise of the translation into English of some of these names, such as Chapala, Ajijic, Cosala, Jocotepec, Mazamitla, etc.

Eric B

Reply by Ron Barnett

Many Indian tribes speaking different languages inhabited the general region of West Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. For many of them, we do not know what language they spoke or what they called themselves. The names by which we know them today, such as Cocas, Huicholes, Cocas, Tecuexes, etc., were assigned by Conquistadors and Spanish missionaries to peoples they met, converted or simply destroyed.

Groups of Nahuatl-speaking peoples first entered the Lake Chapala area probably around 1000 BC. With the exception of the Shaft Tomb Complex, such as the El Openo archaeological site (around 400 BC) on the eastern shore of Lake Chapala, they left little record, except for the many un-deciphered rock hieroglyphics. Written records begin only with the Spanish missionaries and Conquistadors. However, by means of various types of linguistic and cultural analyses, we can get some idea of the languages spoken at the time of the Conquest. For example, the Cazcan tribe was divided into three parts: Cazcan proper, Coca and Tecuexe. Coca was spoken around the western end of Lake Chapala. Another related Nahuatl language was Sayultec, spoken to the south and southwest of Lake Chapala. All of these languages are now extinct, but they belong to Aztecoidan, a sub-classification of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, extending up as far as the southern border of the United States. These included the Classical Nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs of Mexico-Tenochtitlan at the time of the Conquest in 1521.

The Tarascans, powerful rivals to the Aztecs Tenochtitlan, lived around the western end of Lake Chapala and in the present day state of Michoacan. The Tarascan language, or Purepecha, is a language isolate, unrelated to other indigenous languages in Mexico. The Tarascans spread their influence as far as Ixtepete, the archaeological site on the periferico near Guadalajara and Mazamitla on the far south side of the lake. Tarascan is still spoken today.

The Spanish religious chronicler Fr. Antonio Tello, writing between 1650 and 1653, tells us that in 1531 Xitomatl was chief over a large Indian population, possibly speakers of Coca (a nahuatl dialect), around what is now San Juan Cosala. He and his family worshiped a God called Huitzilopoch. This, along with other Nahuatl names that occur further, demonstrates the interconnection of this and other related languages within the larger Uto-Aztecan family. This does not, however, mean that this was the language spoken by the Classical Aztecs of Tenochtitlan. Many tribes spoke linguistically related but mutually unintelligible languages.

Around 1530 Nuno Beltran de Guzman invaded northwestern Mexico and began a lengthy process of destruction of the languages, cultures and way of life of all indigenous peoples in the area, with the notable exception of the Huichols, who retreated into the vastness of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The decline and eventual disappearance of indigenous languages around Lake Chapala, with the exception of Tarascan (the few Mixtec and Zapotec speakers in Ajijic come from Oaxaca and their languages are not native to this area), begins from about this time.

A few examples follow:

  • Chapala: There are many myths and legends about how Chapala got its name. For example, some say it was named after a rebel chief Chapalac and refers to the sound of waves on the shore of Lake Chapala. Others say it comes from a Mexican word, “chapatla” (place where the pots abound), referring to the practice of Indians throwing sacrificial bowls into the lake as offerings to the Gods. The Huichols still make such offerings to the spirits of the lake.
  • Ajijic: In Nahuatl Axixique or Axixic (Place where the water springs forth). This particular example is a Spanish corruption of the original Nahuatl form.
  • San Juan Cosala: In his chronicle Tello refers to the village of San Juan Cutzalan (Place of the many warm springs), site of today’s famous hot springs. Under missionary influence St. John became the patron saint of the town, which was known henceforth as San Juan Cosala.
  • Jocotepec: Xuxutepeque, later Xilotepec (Hill of ear of corn). Under the Spaniards (around 1529) it became Jocotepec (Hill of Guaves – a bitter fruit). The derivation is said to be from Xoco-tepe-k (Xoco, “Acid” + tepetl, “hill” + k, “place of”).
  • Mazamitla: (Poss. Place of Arrows for hunting deer) Derivation from Nahuatl: Mazatl (deer) + Mitl (arrow).

There are many other place names in the Guadalajara-Chapala area that testify to their Nahuatl origins. However, with the exception of a small enclave of Nahuatl speakers in Tuxpan, the Nahuatl language has died out in Jalisco.

Ron Barnett

This article appears courtesy of the Chapala Review, a monthly newspaper published in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. The focus is the Lake Chapala area. The goal is to provide quality information about the area, its stories, events, history, culture and people.

Published or Updated on: January 7, 2007 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2008
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