The Surprising Complexity of Intonation in Purepecha Language

Read about the INAH 2022 award-winning graduate students at UNAM studying pre-Hispanic figurine fragments & intonation in the Purepecha language.

The Surprising Complexity of Intonation in Purepecha Language
Graduate student Uriel Montellano Moreno was awarded the "Wigberto Jiménez Moreno" Award (Linguistics), in the category of Master's Thesis, for his research on intonation in the Purepecha language. Credit: UNAM

The research on pre-Hispanic figurine fragments to be considered relevant and the subject of archaeological works, as well as to investigate the intonation of the Purépecha language and prosodic phenomena in the community of Santa Fe de la Laguna, Quiroga, Michoacán, motivated Rocío Berenice Jiménez González and Uriel Montellano Moreno, graduate students at UNAM, to obtain the INAH 2022 awards.

In an interview, Jiménez González, a doctoral student, was recognized with the "Alfonso Caso" distinction in Archaeology, in the category of Best Master's Thesis, for the work "Histories of the body, bodies with history. The ceramic figurines of Xalla, Teotihuacan", which was directed by the university archaeologist Linda Manzanilla Naim, from the Institute of Anthropological Research.

The anthropologist explained that in her research on ceramic figurines in Xalla, a Teotihuacan multifunctional palace, she analyzed their representation with the purpose "to identify possible functions and meanings, through the complete figurines, and to determine the participation of the fragments in specific practices, such as religious ceremonies that intended to evoke memorable events from the destruction and alteration of these".

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, they were an abundant material and nowadays it is safe to find them in any excavation; however, there are problems regarding the methodology to study them, "because it is believed that they will be found complete, 'beautiful', with all the pigments, highly decorated, however, in most of the archaeological interventions these materials that we investigate are very fragmented", she pointed out.

The anthropologist indicated that one of the important aspects of her master's thesis is the proposal of a methodology to incorporate all the fragments, and materials that, in general, in archaeological investigations are not given the necessary attention. "In addition to recovering them, I manage to differentiate between female and male groups, using a series of traits that they do not show, to be able to classify them as female or male. I was able to identify certain practices that are probably related to ceremonial activities".

In the case of several of the figurines it seems that they had an intentional destruction, that is to say, they are scraped or altered of some parts of the head, face, or body; those of women, when they are represented as pregnant, show this intentional scraping in the belly, attributes that allow characterizing these objects.

He detailed that when analyzing those fragments in the laboratory, "we could say they are broken, I am not going to examine them anymore; nevertheless, they allow to observe that the Teotihuacanos destroyed or altered them intentionally and that, probably, that was part of a ceremony in which it was sought to emphasize this destruction or alteration. Or, it was part of trying to erase certain features that give personality to those materials".

Jiménez González explained that the above is achieved from a systematic excavation, as archaeologists call it, a rigorous collection of data, and that is what makes this type of interpretation: to go beyond and describe if a figurine is dressed in such a way if it was altered, where it was, if it was related to a ceremony or if it was part of an offering. In short, the contextual relationship that these objects have, which sometimes in other studies is not possible to identify.

"The main proposal of my thesis is that we do not make these fragments -which for others would be garbage- less and that they are subjects of study for future archaeological work." The figurines are one of the elements most commonly found in (archaeological) housing units and spaces such as Xalla, a multifunctional palace, as Linda Manzanilla calls it, ranging from groups with a high hierarchy to those of lower rank or common people.

Intonation in the Purepecha language

In Michoacán, when Uriel Montellano Moreno, a graduate student, went to an interview to document his project, he observed a grandmother caressing her grandson and expressed the following Purépecha phrase, which struck him: "sipesïnkakeni exeni" (it makes me happy to see you), which is used as an "I love you".

The university student received the "Wigberto Jiménez Moreno" Award (Linguistics), in the category of Master's Thesis, for his reception work "Kusimukua purhepecheeri uantakua. Prosodia enunciativa en el purépecha de Santa Fe de la Laguna, Quiroga, Michoacán. Preliminary study".  It is the first investigation of intonation in the Purepecha language and the first of the prosodic phenomena of the variety of that community.

"Intonation may seem a very familiar term, very colloquial, but it has to do with codified meanings of very specific linguistics, we notice a change, but sometimes it is not reflected in the syntax," he said.

Montellano Moreno said he likes to imagine a line in the air when someone speaks as "if it were downward or upward". The emission of phrases produced by the vocal cords results in messages that we can modify according to what we want to say, or to our intention to communicate something to another person. We studied whether in Purepecha it is possible to make this kind of contrast using atony.

Descriptions such as those made in this project, he continued, are recent due to technological advances. Before, we did not have the necessary tools to detail with such clarity the types of acoustic phenomena we hear every day in these languages. We now have tools such as spectrograms (a visual representation that allows us to identify the different variations in frequency and intensity of sound over a period of time). The first studies of this type were conducted on Huave populations in 2019.

"It is a very interesting language because of its characteristics because it is isolated and does not share characteristics with others in Mesoamerica, even in America. Its morphological and syntactic characteristics do not agree with any other, it has had a resistance like no other, because of the repression and elimination of some others", he expressed.

To carry out his research Uriel Montellano studied the sound waves of its speakers and reviewed the atonia through spectrograms, using the PRAAT program (software for phonetics) that helps visualize sound spectra and provides information of all kinds: decibels and intensity; the atonia can be seen in a spectrogram.

"All of this portrays how complex human communication can be that we don't perceive with the naked eye. Statistical analysis is performed to confirm trends because it is not only a perceptual analysis, but a whole categorization of acoustic data, positioning, occurrence, height, intensity, and frequency, and with all this information trends are estimated to know what all this means".

It is worth mentioning that the Award is granted by the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico, through the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), in the areas of anthropology, history, conservation, and dissemination of cultural heritage.