An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Uto-Aztecan is a large Meso-American family divided into the northern languages of North America and the southern languages of Mexico and Central America. It extends from Oregon in the north to El Salvador in the south. The highest concentration of speakers is in northern and central Mexico. Nahuatl, spoken in central Mexico by more than one and a half million people, is by far the largest Uto-Aztecan member. It was the tongue of the Aztec Empire. Other Mexican languages are the Tarahumara complex of the state of Chihuahua, Tepehua in Durango and Chihuahua, Yaqui in Sonora (also in Arizona, USA), and Huichol in Nayarit. Pipil is spoken in western Salvador. Among the North American languages, concentrated in the Great Basin, southern California and southern Arizona, are Hopi, Comanche, Shoshoni and Paiute.

Distribution. Uto-Aztecan languages are found in three broad regions:

  1. a)Western USA: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, Oklahoma.

  1. b)Northern Mexico (including also southern Arizona): Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, Nayarit.

  1. c)Meso-America: central Mexico (Guerrero, Hidalgo, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz), plus an outlier in western El Salvador.

Speakers. around 1,8 million of which 10,500 in USA and the rest in Mexico. Very few speakers left in El Salvador.

Classification. The Uto-Aztecan family is composed of circa thirty languages, extant and extinct, grouped into eight branches of which the first four belong to Northern Uto-Aztecan (in USA) and the other four to Southern Uto-Aztecan (in South Arizona, Mexico and El Salvador). Number of speakers are shown between brackets; a cross indicates extinction. 

Northern Uto-Aztecan (10,500)

  1. 1)Numic (3,800)

  1. a) Central Numic

  2. Comanche (100) in western Oklahoma.

  3. Panamint or Timbisha (nearly extinct) in southeast California.

  4. Shoshone (2,000) in Nevada, Idaho, Utah.

  1. b) Southern Numic

  2. Kawaiisu (nearly extinct) in south California.

  3. Ute-Southern Paiute (1,000) in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada.

  1. c) Western Numic

  2. Mono (nearly extinct) in California.

  3. Northern Paiute (700) in north Nevada and adjacent areas of Oregon, California, and Idaho.

  1. 2)Tubatulabal (nearly extinct) in south-central California.

  1. 3)Hopi (6,700) in northeast Arizona and Utah.

  1. 4)Takic (nearly extinct) in southern California.

  1. a) Serrano-Gabrielino

  2. Serrano ♰

  3. Kitanemuk♰

  4. Gabrielino-Fernandeño♰

  1. b) Cupan

  2. Cahuilla (nearly extinct)

  3. Cupeño♰

  4. Luiseño-Juaneño (nearly extinct)

Southern Uto-Aztecan (1,800,650)

  1. 5)Pimic (40,650)

  1. O’odham or Pima-Papago (14,000) in USA (south-central Arizona).

  2. Lower Pima (650) in Sonora-Chihuahua border.

  3. Northern Tepehuan (6,000) in southwest Chihuahua.

  4. Southern Tepehuan (20,000) in south Durango.

  1. 6)Taracahitic (145,000)

  1. a) Tarahumaran

  2. Tarahumara languages (85,000) in Chihuahua.

  3. Huarijío (3,000) in west-central Chihuahua.

  1. b) Cahitic

  2. Yaqui-Mayo (57,000) in Sonora and Sinaloa. Some speakers in USA (Arizona).

  1. 7)Corachol (65,000)

  1. Cora (20,000) in Nayarit.

  2. Huichol (45,000) in Nayarit and Jalisco.

  1. 8)Aztecan (1,550,000)

  1. a) Nahuatl

  2. Nahuatl languages (1,550,000) in central Mexico.

  3. Pipil (nearly extinct) in El Salvador.

  1. b) Pochutec

  2.   Pochutec♰, formerly spoken on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Syllables have simple patterns and no consonantic groups. They are generally: CV, CVC, CVVC.

  1. -Proto-Uto-Aztecan sounds. The reconstructed phonetic system of the ancestor of all Uto-Aztecan languages includes five vowels (i, ɨ, a, u, o) with contrastive length, and exclusively voiceless stops, affricates and fricatives.


  1. -Uto-Aztecan Vowels. Most modern languages have four to six basic vowels. Some of them have short and long vowels. In the southern languages (except Pimic) ɨ has evolved into e. For example, Nahuatl of Mecayapan has short and long a, e, i, o, while Huichol vowels are short  i, ɨ, u, e, a. Huichol is the only Uto-Aztecan language that has developed tones; it has two (low and high).

  1. -Uto-Aztecan Consonants. Consonantal systems are simple. Huichol, for example, has only thirteen consonants including a couple of retroflex sounds, which are all voiceless like in the proto-language:


  1. Many Nahuatl languages (or dialects) are like Huichol, having only a few more phonemes.  Central Nahuatl (shown below) has a lateral affricate (tɬ) which is not present in the proto-language.


  1. The Tepehuan languages have the most consonants, e.g., Northern Tepehuan has twenty-one including series of voiced and palatalized stops. Other Uto-Aztecan languages of northern Mexico, like Lower Pima, Tarahumara and Yaqui, have developed also voiced stops, but there are fewer voiced consonants than voiceless ones.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. -Gender is not overtly marked.

  1. -Singular and plural marking (by suffixation and/or reduplication) is usually restricted to animate nouns. In Northern languages (outside Takic) a dual category exists as an innovation.

  1. -An 'absolutive' noun suffix, is typical of Uto-Aztecan. It appears on nouns in citation forms but may be dropped when the noun is possessed or carries a postposition or in plural inflections (and sometimes in accusative inflections too), when there is a derivational suffix or reduplication, as well as in compounds (when the noun is a non-final member). Huichol lacks an absolutive suffix, and some languages have more than one (e.g. Classical Nahuatl, Shoshone).

  1. -All of the northern languages have accusative marking but in most southern ones it has been lost except in Yaqui. Accusative inflection is not limited to nouns and can appear in noun modifiers, pronouns and postpositions. It may not only mark the direct object but also the indirect one. The nominative is usually unmarked; genitives and vocatives are rare.

  1. -Possession may be marked on the noun by a particle preceding the possessed noun (in Taracahitic and parts of Numic) or by an enclitic particle (in Southern Numic and Tubatulabal), or by prefixes in the rest of Uto-Aztecan (though for the third person it may be a suffix).

  1. -Personal pronouns may be independent, clitics or prefixes incorporated into the verb. Independent pronouns express an emphatic subject and may be omitted, dependent pronouns may express the subject or object. Independent pronouns exist for the first and second persons; the third person is usually represented by demonstratives. They distinguish between singular and plural; besides Numic and Tubatulabal distinguish a dual number, and contrast between inclusive and exclusive in the non-singular first persons.

  1. -In classical Nahuatl there were numeral classifiers in the form of affixes attached to numerals, to indicate the characteristics of the noun counted (round, long, flat, a person, etc).

  1. Verbal

  2. -Verb morphology is agglutinative and varies in complexity in different languages. In some, like Serrano, there are comparatively few verbal affixes. In contrast, Huichol has up to 15 slots for prefixes and 5 for suffixes. Most Uto-Aztecan languages are quite complex, resembling Huichol in this respect, but in them suffixation predominates over prefixation. Boundaries between affixes are clear and there is little fusion.

  1. -The subject of the verb is marked by affixes as well as the object (direct or indirect) of transitive verbs.

  1. -Aspect and tense are not easily separated. Most languages have an unmarked tense/aspect that has present or past value. Several types of marked past are found, including simple past, remote past, habitual past and perfect past. An habitual or repetitive action might be indicated by reduplication.

  1. -Some languages, like Cora and Huichol, have directional affixes differentiating between two movements: subject moving towards the speaker or away from the speaker. Some languages distinguish a "circular motion", "motion across a surface and towards the speaker", "motion downhill", "uphill", "down the river", "upstream", "towards an extreme point", and "in a circuit".  This directional system is accompanied by many deictic particles and adverbs that express near, far, inside, outside, etc.

  1. Syntax

  2. -The proto-language was verb final with predominance of postpositions over prepositions, and with relative clauses preceding their heads. The neutral order was Subject-Object-Verb. It has been preserved in the Northern Uto-Aztecan languages (Shoshone, Hopi) and Yaqui. Southern languages have drifted towards verb-initial sentences and in many modern Nahuatl dialects, as well as in Papago, the order is Verb-Subject-Object.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. L. Campbell. Oxford University Press (1997).

  2. -The Mesoamerican Indian languages. J. A. Suárez. Cambridge University Press (1983).

  3. -An Overview of Uto-Aztecan Grammar. R. W. Langacker. Studies in Uto-Aztecan grammar (Volume I). Summer Institute of Linguistics and University of Texas at Arlington (1977).

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