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Title: Uto-Aztecan  
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Subject: Puebloan peoples, Indian Territory, Tongva people, Indigenous languages of the Americas, Great Basin, Yaqui people, Big Bend National Park, Pine nut, Santa Ana River, Washo language
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Western United States, Mexico
Linguistic classification: Uto-Aztecan
Proto-language: Proto-Uto-Aztecan
Ethnologue code: ISO 639-5: azc

Pre-contact distribution of Northern Uto-Aztecan languages (note: this map does not show the total distribution in Mexico).

Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Aztekan /ˈjuːt.æzˈtɛkən/ is a Native American language family consisting of over 30 languages. Uto-Aztecan languages are found almost entirely in the Western United States and Mexico. The name of the language family was given to show that it joins the Ute language of Utah (also named for the Ute people) and the Aztecan languages of Mexico. Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and its modern relatives are part of the Uto-Aztecan family. The Pipil language, an offshoot of Nahuatl, spread to Central America by a wave of migration from Mexico, formerly had many speakers there. Now it has gone extinct in Guatemala and Honduras and it is nearly extinct in western El Salvador.

Proto-language and Uto-Aztecan homeland

The Proto–Uto-Aztecan language is the hypothetical common ancestor of the Uto-Aztecan languages. Authorities on the history of the language group have usually placed the Proto-Uto-Aztecan homeland in the border region between the USA and Mexico, namely the upland regions of Arizona and New Mexico and the adjacent areas of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuaua, roughly corresponding to the Sonoran Desert and the western part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The proto-language would have been spoken by Mesolithic foragers in Aridoamerica, about 5,000 years ago. The homeland of the Numic languages has been placed in Southern California near Death Valley, and the homeland of the proposed Southern Uto-Aztecan group has been placed on the coast of Sonora.[1]

A contrary proposal of a location much farther south for the territory of Proto-Uto-Aztecan was published in 2001 by Jane H. Hill based on her reconstruction of maize related vocabulary in Proto-Uto-Aztecan. This would make the assumed speakers of Proto-Uto-Aztecan maize cultivators in Mesoamerica who were gradually pushed north, bringing maize cultivation with them, during the period of roughly 4,500 to 3,000 years ago, the geographic diffusion of speakers corresponding to the breakup of linguistic unity.[2][3] This hypothesis has been criticized on several grounds, and is not generally accepted by Uto-Aztecanists.[4][5][6][7][8] A survey of agriculture related vocabulary by Merrill (2012) found that the agricultural vocabulary can only be reconstructed for Southern Uto-Aztecan, supporting a conclusion that the proto-Utoaztecan speech community did not practice agriculture but only adopted it as they entered Mesoamerica from the North.[9]

Geographic distribution

Uto-Aztecan languages are spoken in the North American mountain ranges and adjacent lowlands of the western United States (in the states of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona) and of Mexico (states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Puebla, Veracruz, Morelos, Estado de México, and the Federal District).

Present day locations of living Uto-Aztecan languages in Mexico and Mesoamerica

Classification of Uto-Aztecan languages

History of classification

Uto-Aztecan has been accepted by linguists as a language family since the early 1900s, and six subgroups are accepted as valid: Numic, Takic, Pimic, Taracahitic, Corachol, and Aztecan. This leaves two ungrouped languages—Tübatulabal and Hopi (sometimes termed "isolates within the family"). As to higher level groupings, disagreement has persisted since the 19th century. Presently there is also disagreement as to where to draw language boundaries within dialect continua.

The similarities between the Uto-Aztecan languages were noted as early as 1859 by J.C.E. Buschmann, who however failed to recognize the genetic affiliation between the Aztecan branch and the rest, instead ascribing the similarities between the two groups to diffusion. Brinton added the Aztecan languages to the family in 1891 and coined the term Uto-Aztecan. John Wesley Powell, however, rejected the claim in his own classification of North American indigenous languages (also published in 1891). Powell recognized two language families: "Shoshonean" (encompassing Takic, Numic, Hopi, and Tübatulabal) and "Sonoran" (encompassing Pimic, Taracahitan, and Corachol). In the early 1900s Alfred L. Kroeber filled in the picture of the Shoshonean group, while Edward Sapir proved the unity between Aztecan, "Sonoran", and "Shoshonean".

As of about 2000, the most widely accepted view divides the family into "Northern Uto-Aztecan" and "Southern Uto-Aztecan". The former is Powell's "Shoshonean", while the latter is all the rest, i.e., Powell's "Sonoran" plus Aztecan. But since about 1980, there have been dissenters. They reject either both nodes or the Northern node alone.[10][11][12] Although Kaufman recognizes similarities between Corachol and Aztecan, he explains them by diffusion instead of genetic evolution.[13] Most scholars view the breakup of Proto-Uto-Aztecan as a case of the gradual disintegration of a dialect continuum.[14]

Present scheme

Below is the current most prevalent classification as synthesized from Campbell (1997), Mithun (1999), and Goddard (1999). For most of the individual languages and proposed nodes, links are provided to a selected bibliography of grammars, dictionaries, and linguistic researches. ( = extinct)

Northern Uto-Aztecan

Hopi[A 1]

Tübatulabal[A 2]

Numic[A 3]

Takic[A 22]

Serrano[A 23]
Kitanemuk [A 24]
Cahuilla[A 25]
Cupeño[A 26]
Luiseño–Juaneño[A 27]

Southern Uto-Aztecan

Pimic (Tepiman)

Pima–Papago[A 28] (Upper Piman)
Pima Bajo[A 29] (Lower Piman)
Tepehuán languages (Northern[A 30] and Southern[A 31])
Tepecano[A 32]


Tarahumara[A 33]
Guarijío[A 34] (Varihio)
Tubar[A 35]
Cahita[A 36] (Yaqui[A 37]Mayo[A 38]–Cahita)
Ópata[A 39]
Eudeve[A 40] ? (Heve, Dohema)


Cora[A 41]
Huichol[A 42]


Pochutec[A 43]
Nahuan[A 44] (Aztecan, Nahua, Nahuatlan)
Core Nahua
Pipil (Nahuate, Nawat)[A 45]
Nahuatl (Mexicano, Aztec)[A 46][A 47]

In addition to the above languages for which linguistic evidence exists, it is suspected that among dozens of now extinct, undocumented or poorly known languages of northern Mexico, many were Uto-Aztecan.[15]

Extinct languages

Campbell (1997:133-135) lists the following extinct Uto-Aztecan languages of uncertain genetic affiliation from various colonial and academic sources.

  • San Nicolás (Nicoleño): spoken in California, thought to be a Takic language.
  • Giamina: Kroeber (1907) and Lamb (1964) believe Giamina may constitute a separate branch of Northern Uto-Aztecan, although Miller (1983) is uncertain about this. It was spoken in Southern California.
  • Vanyume: a Takic language of California
  • Acaxee (Aiage): closely related to Tahue, a Cahitan language, linked with Tebaca and Sabaibo.
  • Amotomanco (Otomoaco): uncertain classification, possibly Uto-Aztecan. (See Troike (1988) for more details.)
  • Cazcan (Caxcan): sometimes considered to be the same as Zacateca, although Miller (1983) would only consider these to be geographical classifications.
  • Baciroa: closely connected to Tepahue
  • Basopa
  • Batuc: possibly an Opata dialect
  • Cahuimeto
  • Cahuameto: probably belongs with Oguera and Nio
  • Chínipa: may be a Tarahumaran language close to Ocoroni, since colonial sources claim the two are mutually intelligible. It may also instead be a local name for a variety of Guarijío.
  • Coca: spoken near Lake Chapala.
  • Colotlan: a Pimic language closely related to Tepehuan, or Teul and Tepecano
  • Comanito: a Taracahitic language closely related to Tahue
  • Concho: probably a Taracahitic language (Troike 1988). Subdivisions include Chinarra and Chizo; Toboso is possibly related to Concho as well.
  • Conicari: a Taracahitic language closely related to Tahue
  • Guachichil: possibly a variant or close relative of Huichol
  • Guasave: possibly a Taracahitic language, or may instead be non-Uto-Aztecan language possibly related to Seri due to the speakers' maritime economy (Miller 1983). Dialects include Compopori, Ahome, Vacoregue, and Achire.
  • Guazapar (Guasapar): probably a Tarahumara dialect, or it may be more closely related to Guarijío and Chínipa. Guazapar, Jova, Pachera, and Juhine may possibly all be dialects of Tarahumara.
  • Guisca (Coisa)
  • Hio: possibly a Taracahitic language
  • Huite: closely related to Ocoroni, and may be Taracahitic
  • Irritila: a Lagunero band
  • Jova (Jobal, Ova): most often linked with Opata, although some scholars classify it as a Tarahumara dialect. Miller (1983) considers it to be "probably Taracahitan."
  • Jumano; also Humano, Jumana, Xumana, Chouman (from a French source), Zumana, Zuma, Suma, and Yuma. Suma is probably the same language, while Jumano is possibly Uto-Aztecan.
  • Lagunero: may be the same as Irritila, and may also be closely related to Zacateco or Huichol.
  • Macoyahui: probably related to Cahita.
  • Mocorito: a Tahue language, which is Taracahitic.
  • Naarinuquia (Themurete?): Uto-Aztecan affiliation is likely, although it may instead be non-Uto-Aztecan language possibly related to Seri due to the speakers' maritime economy (Miller 1983).
  • Nacosura: an Opata dialect
  • Nio: completely undocumented, although it is perhaps related to Ocoroni.
  • Ocoroni: most likely a Taracahitic language, and is reported to be mutually intelligible with Chínipa, and similar to Opata. Related languages may include Huite and Nio.
  • Oguera (Ohuera)
  • Patarabuey: unknown affiliation (Purépecha region near Lake Chapala, and is possibly a Nahuatl dialect.
  • Tahue: may also include Comanito, Mocorito, Tubar, and Zoe. It is possibly a Taracahitic language, and is definitely not Nahuan.
  • Tanpachoa: unknown affiliation (Troike 1988), and was once spoken along the Río Grande.
  • Tecuexe: speakers were possibly part of a "Mexicano" (Nahua) colony.
  • Teco-Tecoxquin: an Aztecan language
  • Tecual: closely related to Huichol. According to Sauer (1934:14), the "Xamaca, by another name called Hueitzolme [Huichol], all ... speak the Thequalme language, though they differ in vowels."
  • Témori: may be a Tarahumara dialect.
  • Tepahue: possibly a Taracahitic language. Closely related languages or dialects include Macoyahui, Conicari, and Baciroa.
  • Tepanec: an Aztecan language.
  • Teul (Teul-Chichimeca): a Pimic language, possibly of the Tepecano subgroup.
  • Toboso: grouped with Concho.
  • Topia: perhaps the same as Xixime (Jijime).
  • Topiame: possibly a Taracahitic language.
  • Totorame: grouped with Cora.
  • Xixime (Jijime): possibly a Taracahitic language. Subdivisions are Hine and Hume. Its links with Acaxee are uncertain.
  • Zacateco: often considered the same as Acaxee, although this is uncertain. It is possibly related to Huichol, although Miller (1983) leaves it as unclassified.
  • Zoe: possibly a Taracahitic language, with Baimena as a subdivision. It is possibly affiliated with Comanito.

The proto–Uto-Aztecan language


Proto-Uto-Aztecan is reconstructed as having an unusual vowel inventory: *i *a *u *o *ɨ. Langacker (1970) demonstrated that the fifth vowel should be reconstructed as as opposed to *e—there had been a long-running dispute over the proper reconstruction.[16][17][18]


Bilabial Coronal Palatal Velar Labialized
Stop *p *t *k *kʷ
Affricate *ts
Fricative *s *h
Nasal *m *n
Rhotic *r
Semivowel *j *w

*n and may have actually been *l and *n, respectively.



  • Miller, Wick R. (1983). "A note on extinct languages of northwest Mexico of supposed Uto-Aztecan affiliation." IJAL 49:328-333.
  • Troike, Rudolf C. (1988). "Amotomanco (Otomoaca) and Tanpachoa as Uto-Aztecan languages." IJAL 54:235-241.

Further reading

Grammars or linguistic researches for individual languages and Uto-Aztecan groupings

External links

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