SIL Mexico


Languages and cultures of present-day Mexico: the larger groupings

(stocks and families)


The indigenous languages of Mexico belong to five major groups, sometimes called "linguistic stocks", besides six "linguistic families" that are not related to other languages. Some of these groups include languages of Guatemala (the Mayan family), and others include languages of the United States and Canada (the Algic stock, the putative Hokan stock, and the Uto-Aztecan stock).

This website about the languages of Mexico is organized around twenty families of indigenous languages. There are also at least two signed languages used by Deaf people in Mexico.

Language stocks and families in Mexico

See also:

Algic stock

The following language family of Mexico belongs to the Algic stock:

Hokan stock

The following language family of Mexico belongs to the putative Hokan stock:

Some have proposed that the Serian [Seri] and Tequistlatecan [Oaxaca Chontal] families be included in this stock, but the evidence for their inclusion is weak.

The controversial Hokan stock includes languages of Mexico and the western part of the United States, especially in California. This group is somewhat famous because its validity as a group has been a topic of considerable dispute. The name "Hokan-Coahuiltecan" was also used previously because some linguists were proposing the inclusion of the Coahuiltec language (now extinct) from the state of Coahuila. The predominant view currently is more conservative and does not include it. For a complete list of the languages commonly classified as Hokan, see the Ethnologue.

The name "Hokan" comes from the word for 'two' that supposedly is one of the pieces of evidence for the genetic relationship of these languages: the root is [*xwak] in Proto-Yuman, [ookx] in Seri, and [ogéʔ] or [ukweʔ] in Oaxaca Chontal (Highland and Lowland, respectively.)

Sources of information about the Hokan stock

  • Researchers in these languages, including Viola Waterhouse (Oaxaca Chontal), Mary B. Moser and Stephen A. Marlett (Seri), and Margaret Langdon (Yuman languages).
  • Langdon, Margaret. 1974. Comparative Hokan-Coahuiltecan studies: A survey and appraisal. Mouton, The Hague.

Otomanguean stock

The following language families belong to the Otomanguean stock:

The genetic relationship of many of the languages which are today known as Otomanguean languages has been long recognized, beginning perhaps most explicitly with the proposals of Orozco y Berra in 1864. The inclusion of the families that are now considered to comprise this stock has come slowly and with considerable research, proposals, and refinements over the years. Tlapanec is the most recent addition, having been tentatively linked with Hokan languages earlier. The proposal to link Huave with this stock has not been widely recognized. For a complete list of the languages commonly classified as Otomanguean, see the Ethnologue.

Regardless of the details of family subgroupings, the Otomanguean stock, which includes languages from as far north as the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro (Otomi) and as far south as Nicaragua (Mangue, now extinct), is a group of languages whose potential for the study of language change over the centuries rivals that of Indo-European languages.

Sources of information about the Otomanguean stock

  • Rensch, Calvin R. 1977. Classification of the Otomanguean languages and the position of Tlapanec. In Calvin R. Rensch and David Oltrogge, eds., Two studies in Middle American comparative linguistics. Summer Institute of Linguistics and University of Texas at Arlington, Dallas.
  • Suárez, Jorge A. 1983. The Mesoamerican Indian Languages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Totozoquean stock

In recent years, strong evidence that the Totonacan and Mixe-zoquean families have a common ancestor has been presented.  

Source of information about the Totozoquean stock

  • Brown, Cecil H., David Beck, Grzegorz Kondrak, James K. Watters, and Søren Wichmann 2011. TotozoqueanInternational Journal of American Linguistics 77: 323–372.

Uto-Aztecan stock

The following families of languages indigenous to Mexico belong to the Uto-Aztecan stock:

The genetic relationship of the languages which are today known as the Uto-Aztecan language stock was recognized by the late 19th century and firmly established by the middle of the 20th century. The internal classification of the Uto-Aztecan languages continues to be debated.

Uto-Aztecan was one of the largest language stocks of Native America at the time of European contact in terms of population, linguistic diversity and geographic distribution. The northernmost Uto-Aztecan language, Northern Paiute, is found as far north as Oregon and Idaho. In the south, members of the Nahuatl family are spoken as far south as Nicaragua and El Salvador. The most famous of these is Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire of central Mexico.

Reasonable estimates of the time depth of the Uto-Aztecan stock range up to 5000 years. That is, about 5000 years ago Proto-Uto-Aztecan, from which all the modern Uto-Aztecan languages are descended, was spoken. This would place it at approximately the same time-depth as Indo-European. Uto-Aztecan is generally thought to be distantly related to the Kiowa-Tanoan family in the United States.

Several families of Uto-Aztecan languages are or were spoken in the western part of the United States. These include Numic (which includes languages such as Paiute, Mono, Shoshoni and Comanche), Tubatulabal, Hopi and Takic (including such languages as Serrano, Cahuilla and Luiseño). Some of the languages of the Tepiman family are spoken in the United States as well.

For a complete list of the languages commonly classified as Uto-Aztecan, see the Ethnologue.

Sources of information about the Uto-Aztecan stock

  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe. 1875. Myths and Languages, vol. 3 of The native races of the Pacific states of North America. Appleton, New York.
  • Lamb, Sydney. 1964. The classification of the Uto-Aztecan languages: A historical survey. In William Bright, ed., Studies in Californian linguistics. University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1977. An overview of Uto-Aztecan grammar, vol. 1 of Studies in Uto-Aztecan grammar. Summer Institute of Linguistics and University of Texas at Arlington, Dallas.
  • Steele, Susan. 1979. Uto-Aztecan: An assessment for historical and comparative linguistics. In Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, eds., The languages of Native North America. University of Texas, Austin.

Families and languages not grouped into stocks

There are several language families in Mexico which are not presently believed (by most linguists) to be related to other families. In some cases, proposals have been made to link them to others, but the evidence is not generally considered convincing.

For more information about these language families, see the separate pages on each one.

These language families, whether large and geographically extensive (like Mayan) or small (like Serian), may be the only surviving members of much larger language groups which were mostly absorbed by other language groups in centuries or millennia past.

Sources of general information

  • Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of native America. Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Campbell, Lyle and Marianne Mithun. 1979. The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Garza Cuarón, Beatriz and Doris Bartholomew. 1996. Languages of intercommunication in Mexico. In Atlas of languages of intercultural communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas, pp. 1253-1290. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.
  • Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig, eds. 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the world, 18th edition. Summer Institute of Linguistics: Dallas.
  • Singerman, Robert. 1996. Indigenous languages of the Americas: A bibliography of dissertations and theses. The Scarecrow Press, Lanham MD and London.