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Overview. Oto-Manguean is a large Meso-American family of indigenous languages, composed of 25 members, spoken by about two million people in the Mexican highlands and formerly in parts of Central America. The Manguean branch of Chiapas, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica is now extinct. They are all tonal languages and more analytic (less agglutinating) than other Meso-American languages, having comparatively few morphemes per word. They are head-initial and the predominant word order in the sentence is Verb-Subject-Object. The largest languages are Mixtec and Zapotec, Otomi and Mazahua, Tlapanec, Mazatec and Chinantec.

Distribution. States of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Mexico, Hidalgo, Querétaro, and others in central Mexico.

Speakers. There are about two million in total, though a precise estimate is not possible. Speakers of each branch and language are given below.

Classification. Oto-Manguean languages are divided into eight branches: Oto-Pamean, Popolocan, Subtiaba-Tlapanec, Amuzgoan, Mixtecan, Chatino-Zapotecan, Chinantecan, and the extinct Chiapanec-Mangue. Numbers of speakers are shown between brackets; those marked with a cross are extinct.

  1. 1)Oto-Pamean (432,000)

  1. a) Otomian

  2. Otomi (285,000), in Central and Eastern highlands (Hidalgo, state of Mexico,

  3. Guanajuato, Querétaro).

  4. Mazahua (136,000), in the state of Mexico and Michoacán.

  5. Matlatzinca (650), in the state of Mexico.

  6. Ocuiltec (100), in the state of Mexico.

  1. b) Pamean

  2. North Pame (6,000), in the state of San Luis Potosí.

  3. South Pame♰

  4. Chichimec (4,000), in the states of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí.

  1. 2)Popolocan (267,000)

  1. a) Popoloc-Ixcatec

  2. Popoloc languages (41,000), in southern Puebla and Oaxaca.

  3. Chocho (540), in northern Oaxaca.

  4. Ixcatec (close to extinction), in northern Oaxaca.

  1. b) Mazatecan

  2. Mazatec languages (225,000), in northeastern Oaxaca and Veracruz.

  1. 3)Subtiaba-Tlapanec (120,000)

  1. Tlapanec (120,000), in Guerrero.

  2. Subtiaba♰, formerly in Nicaragua

  1. 4)Amuzgoan (35,000)

  1. Guerrero Amuzgo (30,600), in Guerrero.

  2. Oaxaca Amuzgo (4,400), in Oaxaca.

  1. 5)Mixtecan (524,000)

  1. a) Mixtec

  2. Mixtec languages (480,000), in Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero.

  1. b) Cuicatec

  2. Cuicatec (13,000), in Oaxaca.

  1. c) Trique

  2. Copala Trique (25,000), in Oaxaca.

  3. Chicahuaxtla Trique (4,000), in Oaxaca.

  4. San Martin Itunyoso (2,000 in 1983), in Oaxaca.

  1. 6)Chatino-Zapotecan (495,000)

  1. a) Chatino

  2. Chatino languages (45,000), in Oaxaca.

  1. b) Zapotecan

  2. Zapotec languages (450,000), in central and eastern Oaxaca.

  1. 7)Chinantecan (134,000)

  1. Chinantec languages (134,000), in northern Oaxaca, southern Veracruz.

  1. 8)Chiapanec-Mangue (extinct)

  1. Chiapanec♰, formerly in Chiapas.

  2. Mangue♰, formerly in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.


The Chiapanec-Mangue branch of Chiapas and Central America is extinct as well as South Pame and Subtiaba. Other languages are dying or spoken only by elderly people, like Ocuiltec, Chocho, Matlatzinca and Ixcatec. Many more are endangered. Only four languages, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomi and Mazatec have more than 200,000 speakers and a better outlook in spite of multiple pressures to abandon them in favor of Spanish.


  1. Phonology

This family has great internal phonemic diversity because its members have been diverging for a long time.

  1. -Syllable structure. Stems are monosyllabic or disyllabic. Considerable variety exists in syllable patterns but syllables are generally open (mainly CV) except those that end in a glottal stop (Oto-Pamean has, exceptionally, consonant clusters at the end of a syllable). Syllable-initial consonant clusters occur, and may have two or three members, but their combinations are restricted (except, again, in Oto-Pamean where the number of combinations is larger).

  1. -Proto-Oto-Manguean sounds. The minimal sounds of the ancestral language may be hypothetically reconstructed as having four vowels (i, e, a, u) and the consonants shown in the table (all stops and affricates were voiceless):


  1. -Vowels. In modern languages the number of vowels varies from 4 (in some Zapotecan dialects) to 9 (in some dialects of Otomi). Some languages have phonemic long and/or nasal vowels.

  1. -Consonants. The number of consonants varies widely, from 14 to 30. In particular, the fricative inventories are very diverse, ranging from 2 to 12. Voiced stops and fricatives are usually absent (though they occur in many Mixtecan languages). Some branches, like Mixtecan and Amuzgoan, have prenasalized stops.  Several languages lack a p-sound.

  1. -Tones. All Oto-Manguean languages have tones. They can be register or contour tones. In register tone systems a syllable has a high, mid or low pitch. But in contour tones the syllable tone glides from one pitch to another, high to low, mid to high, etc. Tone systems range from two tones to five (in Usila Chinantec and Chicahuaxtla Trique).

  2.   Three-tone systems are the most common, being found in Popolocan, Tlapanec, Amuzgo,  Mixtecan, Zapotecan, and Chinantecan. Two-tone systems predominate in Oto-Pamean. Several tonal languages, of the Mazatec, Chinantec, and Zapotec groups, have whistled speech which reproduce in whistle the tone of words, word stress and sentence rhythm. Several sentences, even short conversations, can be whistled.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. -Noun morphology is reduced to marking person of possessor (gender and number are not marked). Nominal possession is expressed in almost all languages by means of a possessive pronoun joined to a possessed noun; e.g., “the man's dog” is expressed as “his-dog the man.”

  1. -Most languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, meaning, respectively, "you and I”, and “I and someone other than you”. In the second person, a polite versus familiar distinction is usually made.

  1. -Some Oto-Manguean languages, such as Zapotecan, Mazatecan, Mixtecan, and Amuzgo have noun classifiers that mark such categories as (in Amuzgo): human, familiar person, animate, house, fruit. They are comparatively few and resemble, to some extent, a gender system. These classifiers occur before the noun they classify and are therefore not like other noun modifiers (which follow the noun).

  1. -Locative words derived from body parts are commonplace: belly = in/inside,  face/eye = on surface, head = on top, butt = under, etc. This pattern is also found in other Meso-American languages.

  1. Verbal

  2. -In the verbal system, aspect is more relevant than tense. Valency and aspect (transitive, intransitive, causative, inchoative, iterative, imperfective, perfective,) are marked by prefixes or proclitics. The number and person of the subject, and sometimes also of the object, is expressed by suffixes or clitics.

  1. -Virtually all languages have a dependent verb form used in subordinate clauses.

  1. -Tense may be indicated by adverbs.

  1. -The copula (the verb 'to be') is not expressed in most  languages.

  1. -Verbal affixes or clitics indicating location in relation to the speaker, and sometimes direction toward or away from him, exist in several languages (Otomi, Popolocan, Zapotecan, Chinantecan).

  1. Syntax

  2. -In Oto-Manguean, the verb occupies the initial position in the sentence. In fact, the predominant order is Verb-Subject-Object. Languages are consistently left-headed, i.e., possessors, adjectives, determiners and relative clauses follow the noun. However, quantifiers precede it.

  1. -Prepositions are used. Yes/no questions are marked at the beginning of the clause, but there are some exceptions where the interrogative sentence is marked by final particles.


Lexical influence from non-Oto-Manguean languages such as Mixe-Zoquean and Mayan is noticeable. Numeral systems are vigesimal. Several languages have numeral classifiers which indicate the type of noun being counted.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Mesoamerican Indian Languages. J. A. Suárez. Cambridge University Press (1983).

  2. -'Oto-Mangean Languages'. T. Kaufman. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 819-825. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -'Oto-Manguean Linguistic Prehistory'. N. A. Hopkins. In Essays in Oto-Manguean Cultural History, 25–64. J. K. Josserand, M. Winter & N. A. Hopkins (eds).Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology No. 31. Vanderbilt University (1984).

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