Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing names
“Tepehua” and “Tepehuán”


Although the terms Tepehua (pronounced “teh-PEH-wa”) and Tepehuán (sometimes spelled Tepehuan but in any case pronounced “teh-peh-WAN”; also sometimes called Tepehuano) look and sound very similar, they refer to very different groups of languages. Tepehua is from the Totonacan family while Tepehuán is Uto-Aztecan. Tepehua is spoken in the eastern part of central Mexico, while Tepehuán is spoken in the northwestern part of the country, as the map below indicates.

To increase the confusion, some linguists use the word Tepehuan (pronounced “teh-PEH-wan”) as an adjectival form of Tepehua, speaking for instance of the “Totonacan-Tepehuan” family.


The three languages called Tepehua are spoken in the Eastern Sierra Madre of Mexico, near the point where the states of Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Puebla come together. Huehuetla Tepehua (ISO code tee) is spoken in Hidalgo and Puebla, and Pisa Flores (tpp) and Tlachichilco Tepehua (tpt) are both from Veracruz. There are Nahuatl and Otomi-speaking villages interspersed between the Tepehua-speaking areas, and speakers of the three variants have little contact with each other.

The Tepehuán (or Tepehuano) languages, on the other hand, are from the Tepiman family, which in turn is part of the Uto-Aztecan stock. The three language variants which make up this grouping are spoken in the middle of the Western Sierra Madre. Northern Tepehuán (ISO code ntp) is spoken in the state of Chihuahua, and Southern Tepehuán in its eastern (stp) and western (tla) variants, is spoken in the state of Durango. The northern and southern Tepehuán languages do not form a linguistic unit; they are no more closely related to each other than they are to the other languages in the Tepiman family. An extinct variant (tep), called Tepecano but also sometimes, confusingly, referred to as Southern Tepehuán, was spoken still further south, in the state of Jalisco.

The etymology of “Tepehua” and “Tepehuán”

The Nahuatl stem tepē means ‘mountain’. (It occurs in many place-names of Mexico in the forms -tepec or -tépetl, such as Oaxtepec ‘at the hill / mountain of the guaje trees’, or Popocatépetl ‘the mountain that smokes’.) The suffix -hua(n) means ‘owner of’, or ‘person associated with’. Final n tends to disappear in many varieties of Nahuatl. So the Tepehuanes (or Tepehuanos), who speak Tepehuán, and the Tepehuas who speak Tepehua, were called ‘mountain people’ or ‘mountain-dwellers’, and their languages were referred to by the same name.

Interestingly, the Tepehuas of Tlachichilco call themselves Masipijni' ([maa-sipih-'niʔ]), and call their language Lhimasipijni. The stem sipij ([sipih]) can be reconstructed for proto-Totonacan with the meaning ‘mountain(ous area)’. (It still has that meaning in Totonac, but no longer in Tepehua.) This is, of course the same as the meaning of tepē- in Nahuatl. And the prefix ma- ([maa-]) is used on noun stems with the meaning ‘owner of’, just like -hua(n) in Nahuatl. So masipijni' is parallel in both form and meaning to Tepē-hua. In the other varieties of Tepehua, however, these names are not used; for instance, in Pisa Flores, they call the language Lhi-chiwín [language-word] or Lhi-tepewa [language-Tepehua] instead of Lhi-masipijni'.

In the region where Tepehua is spoken, there is a kind of ants called tepeguas in the local Spanish. This is clearly a borrowing into Spanish of the same Nahuatl word. Thus some have speculated that the Tepehuas are named for this type of ant.

Another possible etymology for Tepehuan or Tepehuano is that it may come from Nahuatl te-pewa-ni [people-goad-er], ‘conqueror, victor’. In that case the two names would have different etymologies.


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