In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mesoamerican Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archives
  • Linguistic Classification and History
  • Language Contact
  • Linguistic Area
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Typological Studies
  • Uto-Aztecan
  • Mixe-Zoquean
  • Isolates
  • Colonial Documents

Linguistics Mesoamerican Languages
Nora C. England, Roberto Zavala Maldonado
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0080


Mesoamerica as a linguistic area extends from central Mexico south and east through Guatemala and Belize and into western Honduras and El Salvador. Five large language families are found in Mesoamerica—Uto-Aztecan (only those languages of the Aztec group), Otomanguean, Totonacan, Mixe-Zoquean, and Mayan—and five small language families or language isolates: P’orhépecha (Tarascan), Huave, Chontal of Oaxaca, Xinca, and Cuitlatec (extinct). More modern linguistic work on Mesoamerican languages has been done on Mayan languages than on the others, but most of the latter are currently receiving significant scholarly attention that should help redress the imbalance. All Mesoamerican languages are endangered in the sense that there are at least some families or some communities where children are not learning the language; some are severely endangered, and some have no speakers. In spite of the degree of endangerment, there are still at least two languages with about a million speakers (Nahua or Nahuatl, and K’iche’), and many with between 200,000 and 750,000 speakers (for instance, Otomi, Mixtec, Zapotec, Totonac, Tsotsil, Tseltal, Mam, Yucatec, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi’). The names of Mesoamerican languages, especially Mayan languages, have a variety of spellings. We indicate some of the variation and in general use the spelling preferred by the community, where we know it. In the individual annotations we generally use the spelling preferred by the author, and sometimes indicate variant spellings in parentheses.

General Overviews

The identification of the linguistic families of Mesoamerican languages has been amply discussed since the 19th century. In the early 21st century, most scholars agree on the position occupied by the individual languages within the families and on the main genetic subdivisions, although there are minor controversies regarding the inclusion of individual languages in specific family divisions. The genetic classification of the languages is based on comprehensive research on the phonology, morphology, and lexicon of the individual languages. Kaufman 1974a and Kaufman 1974b present the most widely accepted modern classification of the languages. Campbell 1979 is a comprehensive review of the classification, and Campbell 1997 summarizes it. The languages of Mesoamerica exhibit great typological diversity in all structural aspects (phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon).

  • Campbell, Lyle. 1979. Middle American languages. In The languages of Native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Edited by Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, 902–1000. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    A comprehensive summary of the classification, language history, and main linguistic features of the different language families spoken in Mesoamerica. It also offers a survey of the main features that distinguish Mesoamerica as a linguistic area.

  • Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Includes a summary of the main features of the different language families spoken in Mesoamerica.

  • Kaufman, Terrence. 1974a. Idiomas de Mesoamérica. Seminario de Integración Social 33. Guatemala City, Guatemala: Editorial José de Pineda Ibarra.

    The first comprehensive modern work on the genetic classification, language prehistory, and linguistic areal features of the different languages spoken in Mesoamerica.

  • Kaufman, Terrence. 1974b. Meso-American Indian languages. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. Vol. 11. Edited by Warren E. Preece, 956–963. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

    An abbreviated English version of Idiomas de Mesoamérica.

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