Otomi grammar

Otomi grammar

The grammar of the Otomi language is mostly agglutinative, constructing words by combining roots with suffixes, prefixes and clitics. Affixes are often portmanteaus, carrying more than one part of meaning, making Otomi also a fusional language. For example in the verbal conjugation a single prefix carries the both meaning of person of subject and time, aspect and mood. Suffixes on verbs express the number of the participants, most dialects distinguishing singular, dual and plural. Many of the most innovative dialects, those of Querétaro and the Mezquital area, have lost the dual number now distinguishing only singular and plural. Ixtenco Otomi of Tlaxcala distinguishes singular, plural and mass plural.[1] The personal prefixes distinguish three persons and an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the plural. Nouns are inflected for only the number and person of the possessor, number of nouns is shown by means of articles. Semantic alignment is generally nominative–accusative, but with certain traces of an emergent active–stative alignment. Palancar (2006) considers Otomi to be a language without adjectives, preferring an analysis of the words that have traditionally been seen as adjectives as stative verbs.



The phonemic orthography employed for writing Otomi in this article is the one used by Lastra (1992 and 2005). It includes tones in order to be maximally informative, but many practical orthographies used by Otomi speakers do not include information about tone. The symbols used to write the tones in the examples are: acute accent /´/ for high tone, and circumflex accent /^/ for ascending tone; low tone is left unmarked. The symbols used for the four nasal vowels are /į, ę, ą, ų/. The consonant symbols c denotes IPA [t͡s], y denotes IPA [j]. The remaining symbols are from the IPA with their original values.

Pronominal system

The pronominal system of most Otomi varieties distinguish four persons: 1st inclusive and exclusive, second and third and three numbers singular, dual and plural. The system below is from the Toluca dialect.[2]

Singular Dual Plural
1st person Incl. * nugó-bé "you and I" nugó-hé "I and you guys"
1st Person Excl. nugó "I" nugó-wí "we two (not you)" nugó-hɨ´ "We all (not you)"
2nd Person nukʔígé "you" nukʔígé-wí "you two" nukʔígé-gɨ´ "you guys"
3rd Person gégé "she/he/it" nugégé-wí "the two of them" nugégé-hɨ´ "they"


Otomi nouns are inflected for possession, and for diminutive. The particular pattern of possessive inflection is widespread throughout the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. A possessed noun is prefixed with a morpheme agreeing in person with the possessor. If the possessor is plural or dual the nouns is also marked with a suffix agreeing with the possessor's number. Below is given the inflectional paradigm for the word /ngų´/ "house" in the dialect of Toluca.[3]

Singular Dual Plural
1st person Excl. * mą-ngų´-bé "Our house (me and him/her)" mą-ngų´-hé "Our house (me and them)"
1st Person Incl. mą-ngų´ "my house" mą-ngų´-wí "Our house (me and you)" mą-ngų´-hɨ´ "Our house (me and you and them)"
2nd Person ri-ngų´ "your house" ri-ngų´-wí "you two's house" ri-ngų´-hɨ´ "you guys' house"
3rd Person rʌ-ngų´ "her/his/its house" yʌ-ngų´-wí "the house of the two of them" yʌ-ngų´-hɨ´ "their house"

To express plurality of a possessed noun a periphrastic construction is used

kʔɨ mą-ngų´ "my houses"
those I-house

Possession can also be emphatic, in which case it adds an emphatic suffix - (1st person) - (2nd person) or -gégé (third person) and adds as a prefix the word mɛhti "possession".

ni rʌ ʔbɛ^cʔé mą-mɛ´hti-gó-ní "that basket is mine"
that the basket I-possession-me-that
ni rʌ ʔbɛ^cʔé rʌ-mɛ´hti-gégé-ní "that basket is his/hers"
that the basket He/she-possession-her/him-that

The diminutive is inflected by a prefix ci-

ci-nú "little house"


Plurality of nouns is expressed with articles preceding the noun, "the (singular)" or "the (dual/plural)":

Singular Dual Plural
rʌ ngų´ "the house" yʌ yóho ngų´ "the two houses" yʌ ngų´ "the houses"

In addition to the simple plural/singular articles the Classical Otomi language as described by Cárceres distinguished honorific and pejorative articles. In classical Otomi the articles were ąn "neutral singular", e (neutral and honorific plural), nø^ (pejorative singular) yo (pejorative plural) and o (honorific singular).[4]

ąn ngų´ "the house"
nø^ ngų´ "the damn house"
o ngų´ "the honored house"


On verbs all of the categories of person of subject, tense, aspect and mood are marked by the means of a single prefix on each verb.[5] In Otomi of Toluca and of Ixtenco the categories distinguished are Present, Preterit, Perfect, Imperfect, Future, Pluperfect, two different Subjunctives, present and past Continuative and Imperative. Mezquital Otomi has additional moods.[6] On transitive verbs Person of object is inflected by a suffix. If either subject or object is dual or plural it is shown with a plural suffix following the object suffix.

The structure of the Otomi verb is as follows:

Person of Subject/T/A/M Misc. prefix (e.g. adverbial) Root Object suffix Plural/Dual suffix

Person, Number, Tense, Aspect and Mood

The present tense prefixes are di- (1st person), gi- (2nd person), i- (3rd person).

Singular Dual Plural
1st person Excl. * di-nú-bé "we see (me and him/her)" di-nú-hé "we see (me and them)"
1st Person Incl. di-nú "I see" di-nú-wí "We see(me and you)" mdi-nú-hɨ´ "We see (me and you and them)"
2nd Person gi-nú "you see" gi-nú-wí "You two see" gi-nú-hɨ´ "You guys see"
3rd Person gi-nú "she/he/it sees" gi-nú-wí "the two of them see" gi-nú-hɨ´ "they see"

The Preterit uses the prefixes do-, go- and bi-, perfect uses to-, ko-, ʃi-, imperfect uses dimá, gimá, mi, future uses go-, gi- and da- and pluperfect tamą-, kimą-, kamą-. All tenses use the same suffixes for dual and plural numbers and clusivity as the present tense, from here on oly the singular forms will be given. The difference between preterit and imperfect is similar to the distinctiion between the preterit in Spanish habló "he spoke (punctual)" and the imperfect hablaba "he spoke/He used to speak/he was speaking (non-punctual)".

- Preterit Perfect Imperfect Future Tense Pluperfect
1st Person singular do-nú "I saw (punctual)" to-nú "I have seen" dimá-nú "I saw (non-punctual)" go-nú "I will see" tamą-nú "I had seen"
2nd Person singular go-nú "you saw (punctual)" ko-nú "you have seen" gimá-nú "you saw (non-punctual)" gi-nú "you will see" kimą-nú "you had seen"
3rd Person Singular bi-nú "she/he/it saw (punctual)" ʃi-nú "she/he/it has seen" mi-nú "you saw (non-punctual)" da-nú She/he/it will see" kamą-nú "she/he/it had seen"

In Toluca Otomi the semantic difference between the two subjunctive forms (A and B) are not easily defined according to Lastra sometimes Subjunctive B has a meaning that is more recent in time than Subjunctive A. Both have the meaning of something counterfactual. However in other Otomi varieties, e.g. Otomi of Ixtenco Tlaxcala, the distinction between the two forms is one of Subjunctive vs. Irrealis.[6] The past and present progressive are similar in meaning to English was and is X-ing respectively. The imperative is for issuing direct orders.

- Subjunctive A Subjunctive B Present progressive Past Progressive Imperative
1st Person singular (n)gwa-nú "I would have seen" kwa-nú "I would have seen" drʌ-nú "I am seeing" ndrʌ-nú "I was seeing" *
2nd Person singular (n)gwi-nú "you would have seen" kwi-nú "you would have seen" grʌ-nú "you are seeing" dgrʌ-nú "you were seeing" "See!"
3rd Person Singular (n)di-nú "she/he/it would have seen" trʌ-nú "she/he/it would have seen" rʌ-nú "she/he/it is seeing" mbrʌ-nú She(he/it was seeing" *

Verbs expressing movement towards the speaker such as ʔįhį "come" use a different set of prefixes for marking person/T/A/M. These prefixes can also be used with other verbs to express "to do something while coming this way". In Toluca Otomi mba- is the third person singular imperfect prefix for movement verbs.

mba-tųhų "he came singing"
3rd person/movement/imperfect-sing[7]

To form predicates from nouns the subject prefixes are simply added to the noun root:

drʌ-môkhá "I am a priest" [8]

Transitivity and Stative verbs

Transitive verbs are inflected for agreement with their objects by means of suffixes, while using the same subject prefixes as the intransitive verbs to agree with their agents. However in all dialects a few intransitive verbs take the object suffix instead of the subject prefix, usually these intransitive verbs are stative, i.e. describing a state. This has led to the interpretation that in Otomi morphosyntactic alignment is split between active–stative and accusative systems.[9]

In Toluca Otomi the object suffixes are - (1st person), -kʔí (2nd person) and -bi (3rd person), but the vowel /i/ may harmonize to /e/ when suffix to a root containing /e/. The first person suffix has is realized as -kí after sibilants and after certain verb roots, and -hkí when used with certain other verbs. The 2nd person object suffix may sometimes metathesise to -ʔkí.The third person suffix also has the allomorphs -hpí/-hpé, -, -, and sometimes 3rd person objects is marked with a zero morpheme.

1st person object 2nd person object 3rd person object
bi-ñús-kí "he wrote me" bi-ñús-kʔí "he wrote you" bi-kré-bi "he believed it"
he/past-write-me he/past-write-you he/past-believe-it
bi-nú-gí "he saw me" bi-nú-kʔí "he saw you" bi-hkwáhti-bí "she/he hit him/her"
he/past-see-me he/past-see-you he/she/past-hit-him/her

Plural and dual number of object is marked by the same suffixes as the subject, in some cases leading to ambiguity about the respective numbers of subject and object. With object suffixes of the first or second person some times the verbal root changes, often dropping final vowels.

dual object/subject plural object/subject
bi-ñaʃ-kʔí-wí "the two of them cut your hair" or "he cut the hair of the two of you" bi-ñaʃ-kí-hɨ´ "they cut my hair" or "he cut our hair"
he/past-cut.hair-you-dual he/past-cut.hair-you-plural

A class of words that describe properties or states have been described either as adjectives[10] or as stative verbs.[11] This wordclass consists of words with a meaning of attributing a property to an entity, e.g. "the man is tall", "the house is old". Within this class some roots use the normal subject/T/A/M prefixes, while others always use the object suffixes to encode the person of the patient/subject. The fact that they use the same suffixes that are used to encode the patient/objects of transitive verbs to encode the patient/subject of the predicate has been interpreted as a trait of Split intransitivity.[9] This phenomenon occurs in all dialects, but which Stative verbs the object prefixes, and how many take, vary between dialects. In Toluca Otomi most stative verbs are conjugated using a set of suffixes similar to the object/patient suffixes and a third person subject prefix, while only a few use the present continuative subject prefixes. The following examples of the two kinds of stative verb conjugation in Toluca Otomi.[10]

with patient/object suffix with subject/agent prefix
rʌ-nô-hkʔí "I am fat" drʌ-dôtʔî "I am short"
it/present-fat-me I/present/continuative-short

Other affixes

Most Otomi varieties also allow different kinds of adverbial meanings to be inflected on the verb.

From Toluca Otomi examples of adverbial affixes are:

- An evidential prefix used about progressive events being witnessed by the speaker (It only exists in third person singular)
kʔʌ rʌ ʃùa ya bì-pɛphí "Juan is working now (I see)"
Indicative the Juán now -work
ga- A prefix expressing two simulataneous events or one event immediately preceding another. Also has the second person ngo-
bɨ ga-thô rʌ-tá mbrʌ-mí-thó "When his father came by he was already sitting"
when ga-pass.by 3.person/past/continuative-sit-completive
ndɨ- A prefix expressing that something was done well or a lot.
do-ndɨ-chú "I got really scared"
ist person/pefect-ndɨ-scared

Other affixes express inchoative aspect, instrumental function or purpose. There is also a suffix with the meaning of "mean while"[10]


Some dialects have SVO as the most frequent word order, forexample Otomi of Toluca[12] and of San Ildefonso, Querétaro,[13] but other dialects such as Mezquital Otomi have VSO as the basic, pragmatically unmarked word order.[14] Proto-Otomi is also thought to have had VSO order as Verb initial order is the most frequent basic word order in other Oto-Manguean languages. It has been reported that some Otomi dialects are shifting from verb initial to a subject initial basic word order under influence from Spanish.[15] Interrogative particles occur sentence initially conditional classes follow the conclusion. Relative clauses follow the noun.[10]


  1. ^ Lastra (1998, 2006:54–55)
  2. ^ Lastra (1992:19)
  3. ^ Lastra 1992 pp. 18–19
  4. ^ Lastra 2006 p. 39
  5. ^ These prefixes are also sometimes described as proclitics, because they can also be prefixed to other lexical material than verbs e.g. nouns. This usage is preferred by Palancar (2008) and Voigtlander Echegoyen (1985)
  6. ^ a b Lastra 1996
  7. ^ Lastra (1992:24)<
  8. ^ Lastra (1992:24)
  9. ^ a b Palancar (2008)
  10. ^ a b c d Lastra (1992)
  11. ^ Palancar (2006, 2008)
  12. ^ Lastra (1989), Lastra (1992)
  13. ^ Palancar in Donohue & Wichmann (2008) p. 358
  14. ^ Hess 1968
  15. ^ Hekking & Bakker (2007)


Hekking, Ewald; Dik Bakker (2007). "The Case of Otomí: A contribution to grammatical borrowing in crosslinguistic perspective". In Yaron Matras, Jeanette Sakel (eds.). Grammatical borrowing in cross-linguistic perspective. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 311019628X. 
Lastra, Yolanda (2000). "Otomí language shift and some recent efforts to reverse it". In Joshua Fishman. Can threatened languages be saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Multilingual Matters Ltd. ISBN 185359492X. 
Lastra, Yolanda (2001). Unidad y diversidad de la lengua. Relatos otomíes. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México, Instituto de investigaciones Antropológicas. ISBN 968-36-9509-4. (Spanish)
Lastra, Yolanda (1998). Ixtenco Otomí. Lincom. ISBN 3929075156. 
Lastra, Yolanda (2006). Los Otomies – Su lengua y su historia. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México, Instituto de investigaciones Antropológicas. ISBN 978-970-323388-0. (Spanish)
Lastra, Yolanda (1992). El Otomí de Toluca. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México, Instituto de investigaciones Antropológicas. ISBN 968-36-2260-7. (Spanish)
Lastra, Yolanda (1989) (PDF). Otomi de San Andrés Cuexcontitlan, Estado de México. Archivo de Lenguas Indígenas. ISBN 968-12-0411-5. http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED378799. (Spanish)
Lastra, Yolanda (1996). "Verbal Morphology of Ixtenco Otomi" (PDF). Amerindia 21: 1–8. http://celia.cnrs.fr/FichExt/Am/A_21_06.pdf. 
Palancar, Enrique L. (2008). "Emergence of Active/Stative alignment in Otomi". In Mark Donohue & Søren Wichmann (eds.). in The Typology of Semantic Alignment. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0199238383. 
Palancar, Enrique L. (2006). "Property in Otomi: a language with no adjectives". International Journal of American Linguistics 72 (3): 325–66. doi:10.1086/509489. 
Palancar, Enrique L. (2006). "Intransitivity and the origins of middle voice in Otomi". Linguistics (3): 613–643. 
Voigtlander, Katherine; and Artemisa Echegoyen (1985). Luces Contemporaneas del Otomi: Grámatica del Otomi de la Sierra. Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.  (Spanish)
Palancar, Enrique L. (2008). "Juxtaposed Adjunct Clauses in Otomi: Expressing Both Depictive and Adverbial Semantics". International Journal of American Linguistics 74 (3): 365–392. doi:10.1086/590086. 
Palancar, Enrique L. (2007). "Cutting and breaking verbs in Otomi: An example of lexical specification". Cognitive Linguistics 18 (2): 307–317. doi:10.1515/COG.2007.018. 
Palancar, Enrique L. (2004)). "Verbal Morphology and Prosody in Otomi". International Journal of American Linguistics 70 (3): 251–78. doi:10.1086/425601. 

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