Detail from Codex Nuttall

Why the confusion?

of frequently-confused names
of Mexican indigenous languages


The names of Mexico’s indigenous languages can be confusing! In a number of cases, a name or a pair of closely related names are used to designate widely different languages. This confusion arose historically, in most cases, from a common etymology for the names, which generally come from the Nahuatl language.

Particular etymologies:

The Nahuatl factor

A good deal of this confusion of naming has its roots in the Nahuatl language. In the first years after their arrival in Mexico, the Spanish had more direct dealings with Nahuatl-speakers than with speakers of other indigenous languages of Mexico, and they accordingly adopted Nahuatl names for those people groups and their languages.

Ethnocentrism—thinking of one’s own culture, language, and people as primary and all others as secondary—is endemic if not simply natural to the human race. It is, unsurprisingly, especially characteristic of groups that are or have been politically and socially dominant (who by their very dominance make their neighbors limit their own ethnocentrism). This attitude was reflected to some extent in the Nahuatl names for some of the other ethnic groups and their languages.

The Nahuatl language provides its speakers with various lexical and grammatical resources for naming places and their inhabitants. There is a whole range of toponymic suffixes, such as -tlan, -ko, and -kan. The corresponding ethnonyms often end with suffixes such as -teco [-tēko] ‘owner, master of’ (related to tecuhtli ['tēkʷtɬi] ‘lord’) or -teka(tl) [-tēka(tɬ)] ‘inhabitant of’, -e(h) ‘owner of, possessor of’, -hua(n) [-wa(n)] ‘owner of, possessor of’. These suffixes appear in many of the names of Mexico’s indigenous groups and therefore of their languages: they have in common the idea ‘person associated with’ the noun stem to which they are attached.

Other sources of confusion

Confusing though it is, a list of standard names of the sort we are using is considerably better than some less formal alternatives that have been used in the past. Besides the etymological similarities, a number of other factors contribute to the confusion of language names.

Names arising from ethnonyms and toponyms

Languages are spoken by ethnic communities, and the names of the languages tend to come from the ethnonyms rather than vice versa. The ethnic groups are often named according to their geographical location, instead of their linguistic affiliations, and the people’s loyalty and self-identification tends to center on their home town. As a result, the ethnonyms tend to be derived from toponyms. Thus, if there are some Mixtec speakers who live in a town called San Juan Ixtepec, and others who speak a mutually intelligible variant live in San Bartolo Miahuatlán, their languages are likely to be called Sanjuanero or Ixtepecano, and Miahuateco. In effect, there would be three different names for the same language. And if there were three towns called Miahuatlán (in fact there are more than that), the languages of their inhabitants might well be all called Miahuateco, even if they are of three completely different language families.

There is still confusion about languages called Ixcateco that seems to have arisen from this source. A relatively isolated Popolocan language which was called by that name is apparently extinct, but a variant of Mazatec (also Popolocan), which also happens to be called Ixcateco, is periodically “discovered” and thought to be a survival of the extinct language.


Adding to the confusion is the use of autonyms, or self-designated names, alongside of names imposed from the outside (usually, as noted above, from the Nahuatl language as filtered through Spanish). Unless one happens to know it, it will be anything but clear that a reference to Huasteco in one place and a reference to Teenek in another are both talking about the same language. The first name is derived from Nahuatl, and the second is what the people call their own language. Similarly Tarascan is a traditional name for the language called Purépecha by its speakers, and increasingly by the outside world; the autonym Me'phaa is increasingly replacing Tlapaneco, and Otomi speakers are likely to prefer to have their language called something like Hñähnu or Hñöhño (with the pronunciation and spelling depending on the particular variant.) Nahuatl is variously called Nahuatl / Nahua / Nahuat / Nahual (all variants of a name preferred by linguists and increasingly common among Spanish speakers), Mexihka or Mexica and the corresponding Spanish form Mexicano (appropriate because it was spoken by the inhabitants of Mexico City) and such other autonymous names as Māsēwallahtolli ‘word of the indigenous people’, or names derived from different Nahuatl-speaking tribes and civilizations such as Aztec, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimeca-Nonoalca, and so forth.

Orthographic and pronunciation variants

Spelling and pronunciation variations add to this confusion, of course. Sometimes spelling variations come because Spanish offers more than one spelling for a particular sound, but more often they are because indigenous words have sounds that do not fit neatly into the Spanish alphabet, because different people at different times use different orthographies to write those words, or because the words are pronounced differently in different variants of the indigenous language. Thus a name like Huasteco might be spelled in some documents as Guazteco, Teenek is likely to be spelled Ténec, and Purépecha is perhaps more properly spelled P'urhepecha.

Nahuatl words (with some exceptions in certain variants) are all pronounced with penultimate stress, yet in borrowing into Spanish there has been a strong tendency for final stress to be imposed instead, at least on consonant-final words. (Most consonant-final nouns in Spanish receive final stress, though penultimate stress is common in Spanish generally.) Thus the place name Chapultepec ‘Grasshopper hill’ is pronounced /čapultépek/ in Nahuatl, but /čapultepék/ in Spanish, and Tehuacán ‘Place of sacred waters’ is /tewákan/ in Nahuatl but /tewakán/ in Spanish. This explains the accent difference of the similar (and confusing) names Tepehua and Tepehuán: the first is pronounced (in Spanish or English) with the Nahuatl accent pattern (/tepéwa/), and the second with the adjusted pattern (/tepewán/).

-teco and -teca(tl) and other endings

There is confusion (and difference of opinion and dialectal variation) as to whether the proper Nahuatl ending for the rather common ethnonyms ending in -tec (-tek) was -teco or -teca(tl), and differences of opinion as to whether and how that should affect the Spanish versions of the names. Final -o and -a on Spanish nouns usually mark grammatical gender, and most language names ending in either of those vowels have, in common usage at least, been reinterpreted as marked for gender. Thus one normally speaks of the lengua zapoteca ‘Zapotec (feminine) language (feminine)’ or of una zapoteca de Quioquitani ‘a (feminine) Zapotec (feminine) woman (feminine) from Quioquitani’, but of the idioma zapoteco ‘Zapotec (masculine) language (masculine)’, or of un zapoteco de Quioquitani ‘a (masculine) Zapotec (masculine) man (masculine) from Quioquitani’. But some will say, instead, el idioma zapoteca ‘the (masculine) Zapotec (genderless) language (masculine)’, taking the final -a as coming from the Nahuatl ending and as not marking gender. Obviously, different versions of such names occur as a result.

Adaptations of these names to other languages

When these already variant names from indigenous languages and Spanish are rendered in a language like English, yet more variations result. Accents are typically, but not always, dropped in English spelling, and language names are capitalized in English but not Spanish: thus the Spanish “purépecha” will usually, but not always, be given as “Purepecha” in English. Names that end in a vowel in Spanish are likely to be written or pronounced in English without that vowel. Thus one will almost always find “Aztec” used instead of “Azteca”, usually “Mixtec” instead of “Mixteco”, but less commonly “Huastec” instead of “Huasteco”, and probably never “Mexic” instead of “Mexica”.

English speakers also commonly form adjectives with the suffix -an and use them as language names, especially when referring to language families rather than to individual languages. Sometimes, though much less often, Spanish does the same with the cognate suffix -ano (masculine) or -ana (feminine). Thus Huastec might be called Huastecan, though it would not be called huastecano in Spanish, and Aztecan in English refers to the family of which Aztec (i.e. Nahuatl) is a member, and it is sometimes (but not often) called aztecano in Spanish. The Nahuatl suffix -huan, which sometimes loses its final n, can look like it ends in this suffix; this is probably the explanation for why those who speak Tepehuán (normal Spanish plural tepehuanes) are often called Tepehuanos, and their language is often called Tepehuano instead of Tepehuán.


When you mix all these factors together, the result of is, of course, that there is not one and only one right name for a given language or group of languages, and two or more languages can go by the same name. It’s no wonder we can get confused.

(Many of the most common variants, excepting minor spelling changes, can be found in this site’s language list.)

—David Tuggy

with help from:
Doris Bartholomew, Nancy Hagberg, Benjamin F. Elson,
Larry Hagberg, James K. Watters, Elizabeth Willett, Thomas Willett


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