Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing name “Chichimeca”

Chichimeca Jonaz and Chichimeca Pame


Chichimeca Jonaz (ISO code pei) and Chichimeca Pame (ISO code pbs) are Otopamean languages spoken to the north of Mexico City. Although they have the same name, are of the same linguistic family, and have homelands which are relatively close to each other, they are not as closely related to each other as these factors might suggest. Chichimeca Jonaz (a highly endangered language) is the only survivor of the Jonaz subfamily of Otopamean, while Chichimeca Pame (also called Central Pame) is one of three variants of the Pamean subfamily. These two sub-families form a group which is somewhat more distantly related to Central Otomian (Otomí and Mazahua) and Southern Otomían (Matlatzinca and Ocuilteco). The three groups together form the Otopamean family.

The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

Chichimeca Jonaz and Chichimeca Pame

As explained below, the name Chichimeca was originally used to refer to groups of “barbarian” nomads who came into central Mexico from the northern deserts. By no means all of them were speakers of Otopamean languages, and in fact the ancestors of the Aztecs were called Chichimecas, and most historical references to “the Chichimecas” are to groups other than the modern groups called by that name. This has added considerably to the confusion surrounding the name.

The etymology of “Chichimeca”

During many centuries the cultures of central Mexico, including the Nahuatl-speaking civilizations of Teotihuacán and Tula (the Toltecs), came under demographic and military pressure from semi-nomadic peoples who came from the north. (This was similar to what the Roman Empire had experienced a few centuries earlier from such groups as the Franks, Goths, Vandals, and Huns.) Many of these semi-nomads were Nahuatl-speakers; others spoke other languages. A Nahuatl name which was used to speak of those peoples, their cultures, and their languages, was Chichimeca, which was literally “lineage of dogs” or “dog people”, and generally meant “barbarians”.

The Chichimecas tended to be tough and warlike, and the Teotihuacanos and Toltecs hired or conscripted them and used them as warriors in their own struggles internally and with their other neighbors. Eventually some of these fighting peoples took power themselves, establishing their own empires and kingdoms. A certain prestige came to be associated with the name “Chichimeca”, and different groups of Nahuatl-speakers were proud to identify themselves by that name. The Chichimecan dialects of Nahuatl (what is now identified as Central Nahuatl) came to be socially and politically important. The Mexica (Aztecs) were the last group of Chichimecas to establish an empire, and their language, usually referred to as Classical Nahuatl, was the most influential of all Nahuatl dialects.

Some Chichimecas (in the more general sense) spoke Otopamean languages, and it is descendants of some of those groups whose languages are today known as Chichimeca.


The image at the beginning of this page is a detail from Codex Nuttall, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen, and is used by permission.