Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing name “Chontal”

Oaxaca Chontal and Tabasco Chontal


Two languages are referred to with the name Chontal. The Chontal spoken in the state of Oaxaca, and usually referred to as Oaxaca Chontal, is a language family that has not been shown to be related to any other. The Chontal spoken in the state of Tabasco is a Mayan language. The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

Map for languages called Chontal

Oaxaca Chontal, in its highland and lowland varieties (ISO codes clo and chd, respectively), is the last surviving representative of the Tequistlatecan family

Tabasco Chontal (ISO code chf) is a language of the Mayan family, spoken in the state of Tabasco by about 45,000 people. It forms a sub-family together with Ch'ol, Tseltal and Tsotsil (spoken in Chiapas) and Chortí, which is spoken in Guatemala.

The etymology of “Chontal”

The Nahuatl word chontalli (whose root is chontal) means ‘foreigner’. The fact that both the Chontals of Oaxaca and those of Tabasco were foreigners to the Nahuatl-speakers explains both why these two languages could be called by the same name, and why the enormous linguistic differences between them could be ignored in so doing. The wonder is that there are not more languages called Chontal today, since all the non-Nahuatl languages would have been as good candidates as these two.


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