Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing names
“Mazahua” and “Mazatec(o)”


The Mazahua and Mazatec languages both belong to the Otomanguean stock, but they are no more closely related than, say, English and Russian. Mazahua belongs to the Otopamean family, and Mazatec to the Popolocan family. The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

Location of Mazahua and Mazatec within Mexico

The ISO recognizes two varieties of Mazahua (maz and mmc); one is spoken in the Federal District and the state of Mexico by 350,000 people, and the other further west in the state of Michoacán by 15-20,000 people.

Mazatec has a larger number of varieties, with eight in the ISO list (vmy, maq, mau, mzi, maj, vmz, maa and vmp). The Mazatec of Ixcatlán (mzi) is sometimes called Ixcateco, and sometimes confused with a (nearly extinct) language of the same name. Mazatec is highly tonal, with as many as five level tones plus contours in some variants. George Cowan described whistle speech for Mazatec, in which the tones alone carry the message.

The etymology of “Mazahua” and “Mazatec”

The root maza [masā] in Nahuatl means ‘deer’. The suffixes -hua ‘owner of, one who has / person associated with’ and -teco ‘owner of / lord of’ are typical ethnonymic (people-naming) suffixes of Nahuatl. Thus both the Mazahuas and the Mazatecs are ‘deer people’ in Nahuatl, and the names of their languages reflect that fact. The Mazatecs’ name also correlates with the name of one of their principal towns, Mazatlán Villa de Flores; -teco or teca(tl) is the standard Nahuatl ethnonymic suffix corresponding to place names ending in -tlan.


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