Nahuan languages

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RegionEl Salvador and Mexico: México (state), Distrito Federal, Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Morelos, San Luis Potosi, Oaxaca, Michoacán and Durango
Official status
Regulated byInstituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas
Language codes
ISO 639-2nah
ISO 639-3Variously:
nci – Classical Nahuatl
nhn – Central Nahuatl
nch – Central Huasteca Nahuatl
ncx – Central Puebla Nahuatl
naz – Coatepec Nahuatl
nln – Durango Nahuatl
nhe – Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl
ngu – Guerrero Nahuatl
azz – Highland Puebla Nahuatl
nhq – Huaxcaleca Nahuatl
nhk – Isthmus-Cosoleacaque Nahuatl
nhx – Isthmus-Mecayapan Nahuatl
nhp – Isthmus-Pajapan Nahuatl
ncl – Michoacán Nahuatl
nhm – Morelos Nahuatl
nhy – Northern Oaxaca Nahuatl
ncj – Northern Puebla Nahuatl
nht – Ometepec Nahuatl
nlv – Orizaba Nahuatl
ppl – Pipil language
nhz – Santa María la Alta Nahuatl
npl – Southeastern Puebla Nahuatl
nhc – Tabasco Nahuatl
nhv – Temascaltepec Nahuatl
nhi – Tenango Nahuatl
nhg – Tetelcingo Nahuatl
nuz – Tlamacazapa Nahuatl
nhw – Western Huasteca Nahuatl
nsu – Sierra Negra Nahuatl
xpo – Pochutec
Nahuatl dialects map.png
Map showing the areas of Mesoamerica where Nahuatl dialects are spoken today (white) and where it is known to have been spoken historically (grey)[1]

The Nahuan or Aztecan languages are those languages of the Uto-Aztecan language family that have undergone a sound change, known as Whorf's law, that changed an original *t to /tɬ/ before *a.[2] Subsequently, some Nahuan languages have changed this // to /l/ or back to /t/, but it can still be seen that the language went through a /tɬ/ stage.[3] The best known Nahuan language is Nahuatl. Nahuatl is spoken by about 1.7 million Nahua peoples.[4]

Some authorities, such as the Mexican government, Ethnologue, and Glottolog, consider the varieties of modern Nahuatl to be distinct languages, because they are often mutually unintelligible and their speakers have distinct ethnic identities. As of 2008, the Mexican government recognizes thirty varieties that are spoken in Mexico as languages (see the list below).

Researchers distinguish between several dialect areas that each have a number of shared features: One classification scheme distinguishes innovative central dialects, spoken around Mexico City, from conservative peripheral ones spoken north, south and east of the central area, while another scheme distinguishes a basic split between western and eastern dialects. Nahuan languages include not just varieties known as Nahuatl, but also Pipil and the extinct Pochutec language.


The differences among the varieties of Nahuatl are not trivial, and in many cases result in low or no mutual intelligibility: people who speak one variety cannot understand or be understood by those from another. Thus, by that criterion, they could be considered different languages. The ISO divisions referenced below respond to intelligibility more than to historical or reconstructional considerations.[5] Like the higher-level groupings, they also are not self-evident and are subject to considerable controversy.

Nevertheless, the variants all are clearly related and more closely related to each other than to Pochutec, and they and Pochutec are more closely related to each other than to any other Uto-Aztecan languages (such as Cora or Huichol, Tepehuán and Tarahumara, Yaqui/Mayo, etc.)

Historical linguistic research[edit]

Little work has been done in the way of the historical linguistics of Nahuatl proper or the Aztecan (nowadays often renamed Nahuan) branch of Uto-Aztecan.

Lyle Campbell and Ronald W. Langacker (1978), in a paper whose focus was the internal reconstruction of the vowels of Proto-Aztecan (or Proto-Nahuan), made two proposals of lasting impact regarding the internal classification of the Aztecan branch. They introduced the claim, which would quickly be received as proven beyond virtually any doubt, that the well known change of Proto-Uto-Aztecan */ta-/ to */t͡ɬa-/ was a development in Proto-Aztecan (Proto-Nahuan), not a later development in some dialects descended from Proto-Aztecan. Second, they adduced new arguments for dividing the branch in two subdivisions: Pochutec, whose sole member is the Pochutec language, which became extinct sometime in the 20th century, and General Aztec, which includes the Pipil language and all dialects spoken in Mexico which are clearly closely related to the extinct literary language, Classical Nahuatl. This binary division of Aztecan (Nahuan) was already the majority opinion among specialists, but Campbell and Langacker's new arguments were received as being compelling.[6] Furthermore, in "adopt[ing] the term 'General Aztec' ", they may in fact have been the ones to introduce this designation. Part of their reconstruction of the Proto-Aztecan vowels was disputed by Dakin (1983).

The most comprehensive study of the history of Nahuan languages is Una Canger's "Five Studies inspired by Nahuatl verbs in -oa" (Canger 1980), in which she explores the historical development of grammar of the verbs ending in -oa and -ia. Canger shows that verbs in -oa and -ia are historically and grammatically distinct from verbs in -iya and -owa, although they are not distinguished in pronunciation in any modern dialects. She shows the historical basis for the five verb classes, based on how they form the perfect tense-aspect, and she shows that all of the different forms of the perfect tense-aspect derives from a single -ki morpheme that has developed differently depending on the phonological shape of the verb to which it was suffixed. She also explains the historical development of the applicative suffix with the shape -lia and -lwia as coming from a single suffix of the shape -liwa.

In 1984 Canger and Dakin published an article in which they showed that Proto-Nahuan had become /e/ in some Nahuan dialects and /i/ in others, and they proposed that this split was among the oldest splits of the Nahuan group.

Dakin has proposed a historical internal classification of Nahuan, e.g., Dakin (2000). She asserts two groups of migrations in central Mexico and eventually southwards to Central America. The first produced Eastern dialects. Centuries later, the second group of migrations produced Western dialects. But many modern dialects are the result of blending between particular Eastern dialects and particular Western dialects.

Campbell in his grammar of Pipil (1985) discussed the problem of classifying Pipil. Pipil is either a descendant of Nahuatl (in his estimation) or still to this day a variety of Nahuatl (in the estimation of for example Lastra de Suárez (1986) and Dakin (2001)).

Dakin (1982) is a book-length study (in Spanish) of the phonological evolution of Proto-Nahuatl. Dakin (1991) suggested that irregularities in the modern Nahuatl system of possessive prefixes might be due to the presence in Proto-Nahuan of distinct grammatical marking for two types of possession.

In the 1990s, two papers appeared addressing the old research problem of the "saltillo" in Nahuatl: a lost paper by Whorf (1993), and Manaster Ramer (1995).

Modern Nahuan languages and their classification[edit]

A Center-Periphery scheme was introduced by Canger in 1978, and supported by comparative historical data in 1980. Lastra de Suarez's (1986) dialect atlas that divided dialects into center and peripheral areas based on strictly synchronic evidence. The subsequent 1988 article by Canger adduced further historical evidence for this division.(Dakin 2003:261).

Studies of individual dialects[edit]

Until the middle of the 20th century, scholarship on Nahuan languages was limited almost entirely to the literary language that existed approximately 1540–1770 (which is now known as Classical Nahuatl, although the descriptor "classical" was never used until the 20th century[7]). Since the 1930s, there have appeared several grammars of individual modern dialects (in either article or book form), in addition to articles of narrower scope.[8]


The history of research into Nahuan dialect classification in the 20th century up to 1988 has been reviewed by Canger (1988). Before 1978, classification proposals had relied to a greater or lesser degree on the three way interdialectal sound correspondence /t͡ɬ ~ t ~ l/ (the lateral affricate /t͡ɬ/ of Classical Nahuatl and many other dialects corresponds to /t/ in some eastern and southern dialects and to /l/ in yet other dialects). Benjamin Lee Whorf (1937) had performed an analysis and concluded that /t͡ɬ/ was the reflex of Proto-Uto-Aztecan */t/ before /a/ (a conclusion which has been borne out). But in 1978 Campbell and Langacker made the novel proposal—which met with immediate universal acceptance—that this sound change had occurred back in Proto-Aztecan (the ancestor dialect of Pochutec and General Aztec) and that therefore the corresponding /t/ or /l/ in Nahuatl dialects were innovations.

As a geographical note: the northern part of the State of Puebla is universally recognized as having two subgroupings. The northern part of the State of Puebla is a long north to south lobe. In the middle of it from east-northeast to west-southwest runs the Sierra de Puebla (as Nahuanist linguists call it) or Sierra Norte de Puebla (as geographers call it). The "Sierra de Puebla" dialects are quite distinct from the "northern Puebla" dialects, which are spoken in northernmost Puebla State and very small parts of neighboring states.

Eastern–Western division[edit]

Dakin (2003:261) gives the following classification of Nahuatl dialects (in which the word "north" has been replaced by "northern"), based on her earlier publications, e.g., Dakin (2000).

Most specialists in Pipil (El Salvador) consider it to have diverged from Nahuatl to the point it should no longer be considered a variety of Nahuatl. Most specialists in Nahuan do not consider Pochutec to have ever been a variety of Nahuatl.

Center–Periphery division[edit]

Canger (1978; 1980) and Lastra de Suarez (1986) have made classification schemes based on data and methodology which each investigator has well documented. Canger proposed a single Central grouping and several Peripheral groupings. The Center grouping is hypothesized to have arisen during the Aztec Empire by diffusion of the defining feature (an innovative verb form) and other features from the prestigious dialect of the capital. The dialects which adopted it could be from multiple genetic divisions of General Aztec.[9] As for the various Peripheral groupings, their identity as Peripheral is defined negatively, i.e., by their lack the grammatical feature which, it is proposed, defines the Central grouping. Canger recognized the possibility that centuries of population migrations and other grammatical feature diffusions may have combined to obscure the genetic relationships (the branching evolution) among the dialects of Nahuatl.

Some of the isoglosses used by Canger to establish the Peripheral vs. Central dialectal dichotomy are these:

Central Peripheral
#e- initial vowel e #ye- epenthetic y before initial e
mochi "all" nochi "all"
totoltetl "egg" teksistli "egg"
tesi "to grind" tisi "to grind"
-h/ʔ plural subject suffix -lo plural subject suffix
-tin preferred noun plural -meh preferred noun plural
o- past augment – absence of augment
-nki/-wki perfect participle forms -nik/-wik perfect participle forms
tliltik "black" yayawik "black"
-ki agentive suffix -ketl/-katl agentive suffix

Lastra de Suárez in her Nahuatl dialect atlas (1986) affirmed the concept of the Center/Periphery geographic dichotomy, but amended Canger's assignment of some subgroupings to the Center or the Periphery. The three most important divergences are probably those involving Huastec dialects, Sierra de Zongolica dialects,[10] and northwestern Guerrero dialects. Lastra classifies these as Peripheral, Central, and Central, respectively, while in each case Canger does the opposite.

The dialectal situation is very complex and most categorizations, including the one presented above, are, in the nature of things, controversial. Lastra wrote, "The isoglosses rarely coincide. As a result, one can give greater or lesser importance to a feature and make the [dialectal] division that one judges appropriate/convenient" (1986:189). And she warned: "We insist that this classification is not [entirely] satisfactory" (1986:190). Both researchers emphasized the need for more data in order for there to be advances in the field of Nahuatl dialectology. Since the 1970s, there has been an increase in research whose immediate aim is the production of grammars and dictionaries of individual dialects. But there is also a detailed study of dialect variation in the dialect subgroup sometimes known as the Zongolica (Andrés Hasler 1996). A. Hasler sums up the difficulty of classifying Zongolica thus (1996:164): "Juan Hasler (1958:338) interprets the presence in the region of [a mix of] eastern dialect features and central dialect features as an indication of a substratum of eastern Nahuatl and a superstratum of central Nahuatl.[11] Una Canger (1980:15–20) classifies the region as part of the eastern area, while Yolanda Lastra (1986:189–190) classifies it as part of the central area."

As already alluded to, the nucleus of the Central dialect territory is the Valley of Mexico. The extinct Classical Nahuatl, the enormously influential language spoken by the people of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, is one of the Central dialects. Lastra in her dialect atlas proposed three Peripheral groupings: eastern, western, and Huasteca.[12] She included Pipil in Nahuatl, assigning it to the Eastern Periphery grouping. Lastra's classification of dialects of modern Nahuatl is as follows (many of the labels refer to Mexican states):

  • Western Periphery
    • West coast
    • Western México State
    • Durango–Nayarit
  • Eastern Periphery
  • Huasteca
  • Center
    • Nuclear subarea (in and near Mexico, D.F.)
    • Puebla–Tlaxcala (areas by the border between the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala)
    • Xochiltepec–Huatlatlauca (south of the city of Puebla)
    • Southeastern Puebla (this grouping extends over the Sierra de Zongolica located in the neighboring state of Veracruz)
    • Central Guerrero (so called; actually northern Guerrero, specifically the region of the Balsas River)
    • Southern Guerrero

List of Nahuatl dialects recognized by the Mexican government[edit]

This list is taken from the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (INALI)'s Catálogo de Lenguas Indígenas Nacionales.[14] The full document has variations on the names especially “autodenominaciones” ("self designations", the names these dialect communities use for their language), along with lists of towns where each variant is spoken.

List of Nahuatl dialects recognized in ISO 639-3, ordered by number of speakers[edit]

(name [ISO subgroup code] – location(s) ~approx. number of speakers)

Geographical distributions of Nahuan languages by ISO code:[15]

Language ISO 639-3 code State(s) Municipalities and towns
Nahuatl, Morelos nhm Morelos and Puebla Morelos state: Miacatlán municipality, Coatetelco; Puente de Ixtla municipality, Xoxocotla; Temixco municipality, Cuentepec; Tepoztlán municipality, Santa Catarina; Tetela del Volcán municipality, Hueyapan, Alpanocan; Puebla state: Acteopan municipality, San Marcos Acteopan and San Felipe Toctla
Nahuatl, Santa María la Alta nhz Puebla Atenayuca, Santa María la Alta; a few northwest of Tehuacán
Nahuatl, Zacatlán-Ahuacatlán-Tepetzintla nhi Puebla Ahuacatlán, Chachayohquila, Cuacuila, Cuacuilco, Cualtepec Ixquihuacán, San Miguel Tenango, Santa Catarina Omitlán, Tenantitla, Tepetzintla, Tetelatzingo, Tlalitzlipa, Xochitlasco, Xonotla, Yehuala, Zacatlán north of Puebla City, Zoquitla
Nahuatl, Coatepec naz México Acapetlahuaya, Chilacachapa, Coatepec Costales, Guerrero, Los Sabinos, Machito de las Flores, Maxela, Miacacsingo, Texcalco, Tlacultlapa, Tonalapa
Nahuatl, Isthmus-Cosoleacaque nhk Veracruz Veracruz-Llave, from Jáltipan de Morelos southeast to Rio Chiquito, north bank; other communities: Cosoleacaque, Oteapan, Hidalgotitlán, and Soconusco
Nahuatl, Isthmus-Mecayapan nhx Veracruz Mecayapan municipality, Mecayapan and Tatahuicapan towns
Nahuatl, Orizaba nlv Veracruz, Puebla, and Oaxaca Veracruz state: Orizaba; Puebla state: north of Lake Miguel Alemán; Oaxaca state: small area northwest of Acatlán
Nahuatl, Sierra Negra nsu Puebla 13 towns in south
Nahuatl, Western Huasteca nhw San Luis Potosí Tamazunchale center, Xilitla; Hidalgo state: Chapulhuacan, Lolotla, Pisaflores, portions of San Felipe Orizatlán, Tepehuacán de Guerrero, and Tlanchinol municipalities. 1,500 villages.
Nahuatl, Central nhn Tlaxcala and Puebla San Miguel Canoa, Huejotzingo, San Andrés Cholula, San Pedro Cholula, Puebla City, Zitlaltepec, Tlaxcala City, Santa Ana Chauhtempan and Amecameca.
Nahuatl, Central Huasteca nch Hidalgo Huejutla, Xochiatipan, Huauhtla, Atlapexco, Jaltocán, Calnali, Chalma, Platon Sanchez border area west of Cototlán and Veracruz-Llave; possibly San Luis Potosí
Nahuatl, Central Puebla ncx Puebla Atoyatempan, Huatlathauca, and Huehuetlán near Molcaxac, south of Puebla city, Teopantlán, Tepatlaxco de Hidalgo, Tochimilco
Nahuatl, Eastern Durango azd Durango and Nayarit Durango state: Mezquital municipality, Agua Caliente, Agua Fria, La Tinaja, and San Pedro Jicora; Nayarit state: Del Nayer municipality
Nahuatl, Eastern Huasteca nhe Hidalgo and Puebla Francisco Z. Mena municipality; Veracruz state: interior west of Tuxpan. 1500 villages.
Nahuatl, Guerrero ngu Guerrero Ahuacuotzingo, Alcozauca de Guerrero, Alpoyeca, Atenango del Río, Atlixtac, Ayutla de los Libres, Chiulapa de Álvarez, Comonfort, Copalillo, Cualac, Huamuxtitlán, Huitzuco de los Figueroa, Mártir de Cuilapan, Mochitlán, Olinalá, Quechultenango, Tepecoacuilco de Trujano, Tixtla de Guerrero, Tlapa de Xalpatláhuac, Xochihuehuetlán, Zapotitlan Tablas, and Zitlala municipalities, Balsas River area
Nahuatl, Highland Puebla azz Puebla near Jopala; Veracruz state: south of Entabladero
Nahuatl, Huaxcaleca nhq Veracruz inland area surrounding Córdoba
Nahuatl, Isthmus-Pajapan nhp Veracruz Pajapan municipality on Gulf of Mexico, Jicacal, San Juan Volador, Santanón, and Sayultepec towns
Nahuatl, Michoacán ncl Michoacán Maruata Pómaro on Pacific Ocean coast
Nahuatl, Northern Oaxaca nhy Oaxaca Apixtepec, Cosolapa, El Manzano de Mazatlán, San Antonio Nanahuatipan, San Gabriel Casa Blanca, San Martín Toxpalan, Santa María Teopoxco, Teotitlán del Camino; Ignacio Zaragosa, and Tesonapa (1 of the last 2 towns in Veracruz); Puebla state: Coxcatlán
Nahuatl, Northern Puebla ncj Puebla Naupan and Acaxochitlán.
Nahuatl, Ometepec nht Guerrero Acatepec, Arcelia, El Carmen, Quetzalapa de Azoyú, and Rancho de Cuananchinicha; Oaxaca state: Juxtlahuaca District, Cruz Alta, and San Vicente Piñas; Putla District, Concepción Guerrero
Nahuatl, Southeastern Puebla npl Puebla Tehuacán region: Chilac and San Sebastián Zinacatepec areas
Nahuatl, Tabasco nhc Tabasco Comalcalco municipality, La Lagartera and Paso de Cupilco
Nahuatl, Temascaltepec nhv México La Comunidad, Potrero de San José, San Mateo Almomoloa, and Santa Ana, southwest of Toluca
Nahuatl, Tetelcingo nhg Morelos Tetelcingo
Nahuatl, Tlamacazapa nuz Guerrero and Morelos Guerrero state: border area northeast of Taxco; Morelos state: west of Tequesquitengo Lake
Nahuatl, Western Durango azn Durango and Nayarit Durango State: Mezquital municipality, Alacranes, Curachitos de Buenavista, San Agustin de Buenaventura, San Diego, Tepalcates, and Tepetates II (Berenjenas); Nayarit state: Acaponeta municipality, El Duraznito, La Laguna, Mesa de las Arpas, and Santa Cruz

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Based on Lastra de Suárez 1986; Fowler 1985.
  2. ^ Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1937). "The origin of Aztec tl". American Anthropologist. 39 (2): 265–274. doi:10.1525/aa.1937.39.2.02a00070.
  3. ^ Campbell, Lyle; Ronald Langacker (1978). "Proto-Aztecan vowels: Part I". International Journal of American Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 44 (2): 85–102. doi:10.1086/465526. OCLC 1753556. S2CID 143091460.
  4. ^ "Variantes lingüísticas por grado de riesgo" (PDF). Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas.
  5. ^ "About the Ethnologue". 2012-09-25.
  6. ^ Canger 1988:42–44
  7. ^ Canger 1988:49
  8. ^ Amith's career long dictionary project for the dialect of the Alto Balsas region of Guerrero is recounted in Wall Street Journal, 2006-02-27[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Indeed, she clarifies, "I hypothesized that the loss of stem-final vowel in the perfect of some verbs, which is defining for the Central dialects, had started only after the Mexica entered the Valley of Mexico, i.e., sometime in the fourteenth century" (1988:47). That is, the feature being offered as defining "Central dialects" is claimed to have originated with a dialect which was in fact a late arrival in Central Mexico and is claimed to have spread to dialects of Nahuatl which are known to have arrived centuries earlier.
  10. ^ Spoken in the Sierra de Zongolica, state of Veracruz, which contains a town also named Zongolica, and in the adjacent southeastern part of the state of Puebla, in the vicinity of Tehuacán
  11. ^ A. Hasler is referring to J. Hasler's own definitions of "eastern Nahuatl" and "central Nahuatl".
  12. ^ Lastra de Suarez 1986, chapter 4; summarized in Martín, in press, p. 12
  13. ^ The Sierra Norte de Puebla is a small mountain range in the northern lobe of the State of Puebla, running east to west. Lastra, Canger, and A. Hasler typically refer to it as "Sierra de Puebla"
  14. ^ Diario Oficial, 14 January 2008, pp. 106–129
  15. ^ Eberhard, David M.; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2019). "Mexico languages". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (22nd ed.). Dallas: SIL International.


External links[edit]