In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Uto-Aztecan Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources
  • Broader Language Connections
  • Comparative Grammar
  • Family Subclassification
  • Cultural Prehistory
  • Unclassified Uto-Aztecan Languages

Linguistics Uto-Aztecan Languages
Jason D. Haugen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0094


The Uto-Aztecan languages make up one of the largest and most widespread language families of the Western Hemisphere. At the time of first European colonial contacts, which occurred during Hernán Cortéz’s invasion of the Valley of Mexico from 1519 to 1521, these languages were spoken in a broad swatch from California in the west to the Great Plains of Texas in the east and from as far north as southern Oregon and Idaho to a southern extreme of El Salvador. These languages and cultures have long been of particular interest to linguists and anthropologists because of their wide internal linguistic diversity and because the speakers of these languages have belonged to a wide range of disparate and distinct cultural areas of the so-called New World, including the cultural areas of the Great Basin (various languages of the Numic subgroup), California (various languages of the Takic subgroup as well as Tübatulabal), the Pueblos (Hopi), the Great Plains (Comanche), the Southwest (broadly construed to include northwestern Mexico, the entire area of which is represented by many Uto-Aztecan languages and groups), and Mesoamerica (various dialects of Nahuatl). Studies of various Uto-Aztecan languages have played major roles throughout the history of modern linguistic and anthropological theorizing that range from the interactions of language and culture in the thinking of linguistic anthropological luminaries such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf to the contemporary theoretical linguistic musings of linguists such as Mark Baker (whose theoretical syntactic work on the polysynthetic languages includes analyses of data from Nahuatl) and others. Given this, and the fact that colonial contact has involved the description of various languages over a period of time spanning hundreds of years, the literature on these languages is correspondingly vast. This article endeavors to include works discussing the Uto-Aztecan languages as members of a related language family, on works dealing with issues in the subclassification of language groupings within Uto-Aztecan, as well as on works dealing with specific Uto-Aztecan languages individually. Given the importance of Uto-Aztecan languages to major issues in current anthropological and archaeological thinking, this article will also consider the ramifications of Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics for understanding cultural prehistory in the various culture areas where Uto-Aztecan languages are (or once were) spoken.

General Overviews

One may find in-depth discussions of the entire Uto-Aztecan language family in various sources. The sources that seem to be of the most use include information pertaining to the classification of the various languages into subgroups within Uto-Aztecan as well as providing an overview of the general morphological properties of the languages. Steele 1979 and Miller 1983 are classic introductions and introduce the major issues surrounding Uto-Aztecan classification. The most up-to-date overview is provided by Caballero 2011, which presents areas of current research as well as potential directions for future work. Stubbs 2011 provides an overview of comparative phonology (including summaries of consonant and vowel correspondences) and gives an extensive comparative lexicon.

  • Caballero, Gabriela. 2011. Behind the Mexican mountains: Recent developments and new directions in research on Uto-Aztecan. Language and Linguistics Compass 5.7: 485–504.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2011.00287.x

    This work is particularly useful as the most up-to-date overview of the Uto-Aztecan languages, including a review of current controversies that have emerged since earlier surveys (e.g., various competing hypotheses about the Proto-Uto-Aztecan homeland). It also discusses in detail some of the most important current directions in the theoretical linguistic work involving these languages.

  • Miller, Wick R. 1983. Uto-Aztecan languages. In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest. Edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 113–124. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    This is probably the most concise overview available for the Uto-Aztecan language family. In addition to laying out the various family internal subgroups, it also contains a good discussion of comparative phonology (including consonant and vowel correspondences), which are accompanied by illustrative cognate sets.

  • Steele, Susan. 1979. Uto-Aztecan: An assessment for historical and comparative linguistics. In The languages of Native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Edited by Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, 444–544. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    A state-of-the-art survey when first published in 1979, this remains an important resource outlining differing views on Uto-Aztecan subclassification. Also particularly useful is its presentation of the linguistic implications of three important morphological constructions crucial for understanding the diachronic trajectories of the various Uto-Aztecan languages and subgroups: the so-called absolutive suffix (a marker of nonpossessed nominals), the auxiliary (AUX) construction, and reflexive marking.

  • Stubbs, Brian D. 2011. Uto-Aztecan: A comparative vocabulary. Blanding, UT: Rocky Mountain Books and Productions.

    Presented as a work-in-progress, this tome provides the largest available collection of comparative Uto-Aztecan vocabulary, organized into cognate and/or resemblant sets according to their English and Spanish glosses. Also provides one of the most detailed overviews of comparative Uto-Aztecan consonant and vowel correspondences.

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