Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing name “Huasteco”

Huastec(o) and Huasteca Nahuatl


Huastec (or Huasteco) and Huasteca Nahuatl are spoken in the same geographical region and owe the similarity of their names to that fact, but they are not related linguistically. Huastec is a member of the Mayan family, and Huasteca Nahuatl belongs to the Nahuatl (Aztecan) family, itself part of the Uto-Aztecan stock. The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

Location within Mexico of Huasteco and Huasteca Nahuatl

The speakers of Huastec (hus) call their language Tének (the accent indicating vowel length), and that name is increasingly used with over 120,000 speakers both by outsiders as well as by native speakers. The Chicomulceltec language (cob), which was formerly spoken in the Mexican-Guatemalan border area but is now probably extinct, was also from the Huastecan sub-family.

Huasteca Nahuatl is the easily the most populous language grouping at its level among Mexican indigenous languages, with over a million speakers distributed among three varieties: Eastern (nhe), Central (nch) and Western (nhw).

The etymology of “Huasteco” and “the Huasteca”

The Spanish names for the guaje (or huaje) tree and fruit (Crescentia spp.) are derived from the Nahuatl word huaxi, the root of which is huax ([wāʃ]). Huax-tlan means ‘place of guajes’, and the inhabitants of Huaxtlan are called, following a regular rule, the huax-tecos. Nahuatl x [ʃ] often became s in Spanish, since Spanish does not have an /ʃ/ phoneme. So Huaxteco came to be pronounced Huasteco [wastéko]. In English it is sometimes written Huastec, without the final o.

The region west of Tampico, which includes parts of the states of Veracruz, Hidalgo, San Luís Potosí, and Tamaulipas, has been known for centuries as the Huasteca, that is, the territory of the Huastecos. In that region there was, and is, spoken the rather isolated Mayan language known as Huastec or Huasteco or Téenek. Also in that area are many speakers of Nahuatl, and their kind of Nahuatl has come to be known, naturally enough, as Huasteca Nahuatl or Nahuatl of the Huasteca.


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