Nahuatl dialects

Nahuatl dialects
Spoken in Mexico: México (state), Distrito Federal, Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Morelos, Oaxaca, Michoacán and Durango
Native speakers over 1.5 million  (date missing)
Language family
  • Southern
    • Corachol–Aztecan
      • Aztecan
        • General Aztec
          • Nahuatl
Official status
Official language in None
Regulated by Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas
Language codes
ISO 639-2 nah
ISO 639-3 variously:
nci – Classical Nahuatl
nhn – Central Nahuatl
nch – Central Huasteca Nahuatl
ncx – Central Puebla Nahuatl
naz – Coatepec Nahuatl
nln – Durango Nahuatl
nhe – Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl
ngu – Guerrero Nahuatl
azz – Highland Puebla Nahuatl
nhq – Huaxcaleca Nahuatl
nhk – Isthmus-Cosoleacaque Nahuatl
nhx – Isthmus-Mecayapan Nahuatl
nhp – Isthmus-Pajapan Nahuatl
ncl – Michoacán Nahuatl
nhm – Morelos Nahuatl
nhy – Northern Oaxaca Nahuatl
ncj – Northern Puebla Nahuatl
nht – Ometepec Nahuatl
nlv – Orizaba Nahuatl
ppl – Pipil language
nhz – Santa María la Alta Nahuatl
nhs – Southeastern Puebla Nahuatl
nhc – Tabasco Nahuatl
nhv – Temascaltepec Nahuatl
nhi – Tenango Nahuatl
nhg – Tetelcingo Nahuatl
nhj – Tlalitzlipa Nahuatl
nuz – Tlamacazapa Nahuatl
nhw – Western Huasteca Nahuatl

The many dialects of the Nahuatl language belong to the Nahuan branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, and is a group linguistic varieties spoken in central Mexico. Some authorities, such as the Mexican government and The Ethnologue consider the modern Nahuan varieties as separate languages, because of the fact that they are often mutually unintelligible and represent distinct ethnic identities. As of 2008, the Mexican government recognizes thirty varieties that are spoken in Mexico (see the list in this article).

Researchers distinguish between several dialect areas that each have a number of shared features: One classification scheme distniguishes innovative central dialects, spoken around Mexico city from conservative peripheral ones spoken north, south and east of the central area, while another scheme distinguishes a basic split between western and eastern dialects.



The differences among the dialects are not trivial, and in many cases result in low mutual intelligibility: people who speak one dialect cannot understand or be understood by those from another. Thus by this criterion they could be considered different languages. The ISO divisions referenced below respond to intelligibility more than to historical or reconstructional considerations.[1] Like the higher-level groupings, they also are not self-evident, and are subject to considerable controversy.

Nevertheless these variants all are clearly related, and more closely related to each other than to Pochutec, and they and Pochutec are more closely related to each other than to any other Uto-Aztecan languages (such as Cora or Huichol, Tepehuán and Tarahumara, Yaqui/Mayo, etc.)

Historical linguistic research

Little work has been done in the way of the historical linguistics of Nahuatl proper or the Aztecan (nowadays often renamed Nahuan) branch of Uto-Aztecan.

Campbell and Langacker (1978), in a paper whose focus was the internal reconstruction of the vowels of Proto-Aztecan (or Proto-Nahuan), made two proposals of lasting impact regarding the internal classification of the Aztecan branch. They introduced the claim, which would quickly be received as proven beyond virtually any doubt, that the well known change of Proto-Uto-Aztecan */ta-/ to */t͡ɬa-/ was a development in Proto-Aztecan (Proto-Nahuan), not a later development in some dialects descended from Proto-Aztecan. Second, they adduced new arguments for dividing the branch in two subdivisions: Pochutec, whose sole member is the Pochutec language, which went extinct sometime in the 20th century, and General Aztec, which includes the Pipil language and all dialects spoken in Mexico which are clearly closely related to the extinct literary language, Classical Nahuatl. This binary division of Aztecan (Nahuan) was already the majority opinion among specialists, but Campbell and Langacker's new arguments were received as being compelling.[2] Furthermore, in "adopt[ing] the term 'General Aztec' ", they may in fact have been the ones to introduce this designation. Part of their reconstruction of the Proto-Aztecan vowels was disputed by Dakin (1983).

The most comprehensive study of the history of Nahuan languages is Canger's "Five Studies inspired by Nahuatl verbs in -oa" (Canger 1980) in which she explores the historical development of grammar of the verbs ending in -oa and -ia. She shows that verbs in -oa and -ia are historically and grammatically distinct from verbs in -iya and -owa, although they are not distinguished in the pronunciation in any modern dialects. She shows the historical basis for the five verb classes, based on how they form the perfect tense-aspect, and she shows that all of the different forms of the perfect tense-aspect derives from a single -ki morpheme that has developed differently depending on the phonological shape of the verb to which it was suffixed. She also explains the historical development of the applicative suffix with the shape -lia and -lwia as coming from a single suffix of the shape -liwa.

In 1984 Canger and Dakin published an article in which they showed that proto-nahuan *ɨ had become /e/ in some Nahuan dialects and /i/ in others, and they proposed that this split was among the oldest splits of the Nahuan group.

Dakin has proposed a historical internal classification of Nahuan, e.g., Dakin (2000). She asserts two groups of migrations in central Mexico and eventually southwards to Central America. The first produced Eastern dialects. Centuries later, the second group of migrations produced Western dialects. But many modern dialects are the result of blending between particular Eastern dialects and particular Western dialects.

Campbell in his grammar of Pipil (1985) discussed the problem of classifying Pipil. Pipil is either a descendant of Nahuatl (in his estimation) or still to this day a variety of Nahuatl (in the estimation of for example Lastra de Suárez (1986) and Dakin (2001)).

Dakin (1982) is a book length study (in Spanish) of the phonological evolution of Proto-Nahuatl. Dakin (1991) suggested that irregularities in the modern Nahuatl system of possessive prefixes might be due to the presence in Proto-Nahuan of distinct grammatical marking for two types of possession.

In the 1990s, two papers appeared addressing the old research problem of the "saltillo" in Nahuatl: a lost paper by Whorf (1993), and Manaster Ramer (1995).

Modern dialects of Nahuatl and their tentative classification

A Center-Periphery scheme, strictly synchronic, without historical pretensions, was introduced by Canger in 1978 and supported by Lastra de Suarez (1986). An Eastern-Western scheme making the claim to genetic validity was used by Dakin (2003:261).

In the decade up to 1986 there was a spate of research published on the classification of the modern dialects, culminating in the isogloss atlas by Lastra (Lastra de Suárez 1986). Since then there has been little research published as to the classification of Nahuatl dialects.

Studies of individual dialects

Until the middle of the 20th century, scholarship on Nahuatl was limited almost entirely to the literary language that existed approximately 1540-1770 (which is now known as Classical Nahuatl, although the descriptor "classical" was never used until the 20th century[3]). Since the 1930s, there have appeared several grammars of individual modern dialects (in either article or book form), in addition to articles of narrower scope.[4]


The history of research into Nahuatl dialect classification in the 20th century up to 1988 has been reviewed by Canger (1988). Before 1978, classification proposals had relied to a greater or lesser degree on the three way interdialectal sound correspondence /t͡ɬ ~ t ~ l/ (the lateral affricate /t͡ɬ/ of Classical Nahuatl and many other dialects corresponds to /t/ in some eastern and southern dialects and to /l/ in yet other dialects). Benjamin Lee Whorf (1937) had performed an analysis and concluded that /t͡ɬ/ was the reflex of Proto-Uto-Aztecan */t/ before /a/ (a conclusion which has been borne out). But in 1978 Campbell and Langacker made the novel proposal—which met with immediate universal acceptance—that this sound change had occurred back in Proto-Aztecan (the ancestor dialect of Pochutec and General Aztec) and that therefore the corresponding /t/ or /l/ in Nahuatl dialects were innovations.

As a geographical note: the northern part of the State of Puebla is universally recognized as having two subgroupings. The northern part of the State of Puebla is a long north to south lobe. In the middle of it from east-northeast to west-southwest runs the Sierra de Puebla (as Nahuanist linguists call it) or Sierra Norte de Puebla (as geographers call it). The "Sierra de Puebla" dialects are quite distinct from the "northern Puebla" dialects, which are spoken in northernmost Puebla State and very small parts of neighboring states.

Eastern–Western division

Dakin (2003:261) gives the following classification of Nahuatl dialects (in which the word "north" has been replaced by "northern"), based on her earlier publications, e.g., Dakin (2000).

  • Eastern Nahuatl
    • La Huasteca
    • Guerrero Central
    • Sierra de Puebla
    • Tehuacán–Zongolica
    • Isthmus
    • Pipil
  • Western Nahuatl
    • Central Nahuatl
      • "Classical" Nahuatl
      • Nahuatl of the center (D.F., Morelos, Tlaxcala, State of Mexico, etc.)
      • northern Puebla Nahuatl
    • Nahuatl of the western periphery
      • Colima-Durango
      • northern State of Mexico (Almomoloya, Sultepec)
      • Jalisco–Nayarit
      • northern Guerrero
      • Michoacán
      • Pochutec

Most specialists in Pipil (El Salvador) consider it to have diverged from Nahuatl to the point it should no longer be considered a variety of Nahuatl. Most specialists in Nahuan do not consider Pochutec to have ever been a variety of Nahuatl.

Center–Periphery division

Canger (1978; 1980) and Lastra de Suarez (1986) have made classification schemes based on data and methodology which each investigator has well documented. Both the proposals are tentative to a certain extent. They are "shallow", claiming only synchronic validity as opposed to representing an evolutionary tree of how the dialects emerged. Canger proposed a single Central grouping and several Peripheral groupings. The Center grouping is hypothesized to have arisen during the Aztec Empire by diffusion of the defining feature (an innovative verb form) and other features from the prestigious dialect of the capital. The dialects which adopted it could be from multiple genetic divisions of General Aztec.[5] As for the various Peripheral groupings, their identity as Peripheral is defined negatively, i.e., by their lack the grammatical feature which, it is proposed, defines the Central grouping. Canger recognized the possibility that centuries of population migrations and other grammatical feature diffusions may have combined to obscure the genetic relationships (the branching evolution) among the dialects of Nahuatl.

Some of the isoglosses used by Canger to establish the Peripheral vs. Central dialectal dichotomy are these:

Central Peripheral
#e- initial vowel e #ye- epenthetic y before initial e
mochi "all" nochi "all"
totoltetl "egg" teksistli "egg"
tesi "to grind" tisi "to grind"
-h/ʔ plural subject suffix -lo plural subject suffix
-tin preferred noun plural -meh preferred noun plural
o- past augment – absence of augment
-nki/-wki "perfect participle forms" -nik/-wik "perfect participle forms"
tliltik "black" yayawik "black"
-ki agentive suffix -ketl/-katl agentive suffix

Lastra de Suárez in her Nahuatl dialect atlas (1986) affirmed the concept of the Center-Periphery geographic dichotomy, but amended Canger's assignment of some subgroupings to the Center or the Periphery. The three most important divergences are probably those involving Huastec dialects, Sierra de Zongolica dialects,[6] and northwestern Guerrero dialects. Lastra classifies these as Peripheral, Central, and Central, respectively, while in each case Canger does the opposite.

The dialectal situation is very complex and most categorizations, including the one presented above, are, in the nature of things, controversial. Lastra wrote, "The isoglosses rarely coincide. As a result, one can give greater or lesser importance to a feature and make the [dialectal] division that one judges appropriate/convenient" (1986:189). And she warned: "We insist that this classification is not [entirely] satisfactory" (1986:190). Both researchers emphasized the need for more data in order for there to be advances in the field of Nahuatl dialectology. Since the 1970s, there has been an increase in research whose immediate aim is the production of grammars and dictionaries of individual dialects. But there is also a detailed study of dialect variation in the dialect subgroup sometimes known as the Zongolica (Andrés Hasler 1996). A. Hasler sums up the difficulty of classifying Zongolica thus (1996:164): "Juan Hasler (1958:338) interprets the presence in the region of [a mix of] eastern dialect features and central dialect features as an indication of a substratum of eastern Nahuatl and a superstratum of central Nahuatl.[7] Una Canger (1980:15-20) classifies the region as part of the eastern area, while Yolanda Lastra (1986:189-190) classifies it as part of the central area."

As already alluded to, the nucleus of the Central dialect territory is the Valley of Mexico. The extinct Classical Nahuatl, the enormously influential language spoken by the people of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, is one of the Central dialects. Lastra in her dialect atlas proposed three Peripheral groupings: eastern, western, and Huasteca.[8] She included Pipil in Nahuatl, assigning it to the Eastern Periphery grouping. Lastra's classification of dialects of modern Nahuatl is as follows (many of the labels refer to Mexican states):

  • Western Periphery
    • West coast
    • Western México State
    • Durango–Nayarit
  • Eastern Periphery
  • Huasteca
  • Center
    • Nuclear subarea (in and near Mexico, D.F.)
    • Puebla–Tlaxcala (areas by the border between the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala)
    • Xochiltepec–Huatlatlauca (south of the city of Puebla)
    • Southeastern Puebla (this grouping extends over the Sierra de Zongolica located in the neighboring state of Veracruz)
    • Central Guerrero (so called; actually northern Guerrero, specifically the region of the Balsas River)
    • Southern Guerrero

List of Nahuatl dialects recognized by the Mexican government

This list is taken from the Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (INALI)'s Catálogo de Lenguas Indígenas Nacionales, published in the Diario Oficial on 14 January 2008,[2] pp. 106–129.) The full document has variations on the names especially “autodenominaciones” ("self designations", the names these dialect communities use for their language), along with lists of towns where each variant is spoken.

  1. Náhuatl de la Sierra, noreste de Puebla
  2. Náhuatl del noroeste central
  3. Náhuatl del Istmo
  4. Mexicano de la Huasteca veracruzana
  5. Náhuatl de la Huasteca potosina
  6. Náhuatl de Oaxaca
  7. Náhuatl de la Sierra negra, sur
  8. Náhuatl de la Sierra negra, norte
  9. Náhuatl central de Veracruz
  10. Náhuatl de la Sierra oeste
  11. Náhuatl alto del norte de Puebla
  12. Náhuatl del Istmo bajo
  13. Náhuatl del centro de Puebla
  14. Mexicano bajo de occidente
  15. Mexicano del noroeste
  16. Mexicano de Guerrero
  17. Mexicano de occidente
  18. Mexicano central de occidente
  19. Mexicano central bajo
  20. Mexicano de Temixco
  21. Mexicano de Puente de Ixtla
  22. Mexicano de Tetela del Volcán
  23. Mexicano alto de occidente
  24. Mexicano del oriente
  25. Mexicano del oriente central
  26. Mexicano del centro bajo
  27. Mexicano del centro alto
  28. Mexicano del centro
  29. Mexicano del oriente de Puebla
  30. Mexicano de la Huasteca Hidalguense

List of Nahuatl dialects recognized in ISO 639-3, ordered by number of speakers

(name [ISO subgroup code] – location(s) ~approx. number of speakers)

  • Eastern Huasteca [nhe] – Hidalgo, Western Veracruz, Northern Puebla ~450,000
  • Western Huasteca [nhw] – San Luis Potosí, Western Hidalgo ~450,000
  • Guerrero [ngu] – Guerrero ~200,000
  • Orizaba [nlv] – Central Veracruz ~140,000
  • Southeastern Puebla [nhs] – Southeast Puebla ~135,000
  • Highland Puebla [azz] – Puebla Highlands ~125,000
  • Northern Puebla [ncj] – Northern Puebla ~66,000
  • Central [nhn] – Tlaxcala, Puebla ~50,000
  • Isthmus-Mecayapan [nhx] – Southern Veracruz ~20,000
  • Central Puebla [ncx] – Central Puebla ~18,000
  • Morelos [nhm] – Morelos ~15,000
  • Northern Oaxaca [nhy] – Northwestern Oaxaca, Southeastern Puebla ~10,000
  • Huaxcaleca [nhq] – Puebla ~7,000
  • Isthmus-Pajapan [nhp] – Southern Veracruz ~7,000
  • Isthmus-Cosoleacaque [nhk] – Northwestern Coastal Chiapas, Southern Veracruz ~5,500
  • Tetelcingo [nhg] – Morelos ~3,500
  • Michoacán [ncl] – Michoacán ~3,000
  • Santa María de la Alta [nhz] – Northwest Puebla ~3,000
  • Tenango [nhi] – Northern Puebla ~2,000
  • Tlamacazapa [nuz] – Morelos ~1,500
  • Coatepec [naz] – Southwestern México State, Northwestern Guerrero ~1,500
  • Durango [nln] – Southern Durango ~1,000
  • Ometepec [nht] – Southern Guerrero, Western Oaxaca ~500
  • Temascaltepec [nhv] – Southwestern México State ~300
  • Tlalitzlipa [nhj] – Puebla ~100
  • Pipil [ppl] – El Salvador ~100
  • Tabasco [nhc] – Tabasco


Nahuatl is an agglutinative language, where words use suffix complexes for a variety of purposes with several morphemes strung together.

See also

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  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Canger 1988:42-44
  3. ^ Canger 1988:49
  4. ^ Amith's career long dictionary project for the dialect of the Alto Balsas region of Guerrero is recounted in Wall Street Journal, 2006-02-27
  5. ^ Indeed, she clarifies, "I hypothesized that the loss of stem-final vowel in the perfect of some verbs, which is defining for the Central dialects, had started only after the Mexica entered the Valley of Mexico, i.e., sometime in the fourteenth century" (1988:47). That is, the feature being offered as defining "Central dialects" is claimed to have originated with a dialect which was in fact a late arrival in Central Mexico and is claimed to have spread to dialects of Nahuatl which are known to have arrived centuries earlier.
  6. ^ Spoken in the Sierra de Zongolica, state of Veracruz, which contains a town also named Zongolica, and in the adjacent southeastern part of the state of Puebla, in the vicinity of Tehuacán
  7. ^ A. Hasler is referring to J. Hasler's own definitions of "eastern Nahuatl" and "central Nahuatl".
  8. ^ Lastra de Suarez 1986, chapter 4; summarized in Martín, in press, p. 12
  9. ^ Which Lastra, Canger, and A. Hasler typically refer to as "Sierra de Puebla". This is a small mountain range in the northern lobe of the State of Puebla, running east to west.

External links


Abbreviation: IJAL = International Journal of American Linguistics

Campbell, Lyle (1985). The Pipil Language of El Salvador. Mouton Grammar Library, no. 1. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-010344-1. OCLC 13433705. 
Campbell, Lyle; and Ronald Langacker (1978). "Proto-Aztecan vowels: Part I". International Journal of American Linguistics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 44 (2): 85–102. doi:10.1086/465526. OCLC 1753556. 
Canger, Una (1980). Five Studies Inspired by Náhuatl Verbs in -oa. Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague, Vol. XIX. Copenhagen: The Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen; distributed by C.A. Reitzels Boghandel. ISBN 87-7421-254-0. OCLC 7276374. 
Canger, Una (1988). "Nahuatl dialectology: A survey and some suggestions". International Journal of American Linguistics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 54 (1): 28–72. doi:10.1086/466074. OCLC 1753556. 
Canger, Una; Karen Dakin (1985). An inconspicuous basic split in Nahuatl. 51. 358–361. 
Canger, Una (1988). "Subgrupos de los dialectos nahuas". In J. Kathryn Josserand and Karen Dakin. Smoke and Mist: Mesoamerican Studies in Memory of Thelma D. Sullivan. British Archaeological Reports (BAR). BAR International Series. 2. Oxford. pp. 473–498. 
Dakin, Karen (1974). "Dialectología náhuatl de Morelos: Un estudio preliminar". Estudios de cultura náhuatl 11: 227–234. 
Dakin, Karen (1982). La evolución fonológica del Protonáhuatl. México D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas. ISBN 968-58-0292-0. OCLC 10216962.  (Spanish)
Dakin, Karen (1994). "El náhuatl en el yutoazteca sureño: algunas isoglosas gramaticales y fonológicas". In Carolyn MacKay and Verónica Vázquez (eds.). Investigaciones lingüísticas en Mesoamérica. Estudios sobre Lenguas Americanas, no. 1. México D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, Seminario de Lenguas Indígenas. pp. 3–86. ISBN 968-36-4055-9. OCLC 34716589.  (Spanish)
Dakin, Karen (1983). "Proto-Aztecan vowels and Pochutec: an alternative analysis". International Journal of American Linguistics 49: 196–203. 
Dakin, Karen (1991). "Nahuatl Direct and Mediated Possession: A Historical Explanation for Irregularities". International Journal of American Linguistics 57 (3): 298–329. 
Dakin, Karen (2000). "Proto-Uto-Aztecan *p and the e-/ye- isogloss in Nahuatl dialectology". In Eugene Casad and Thomas Willett. Uto-Aztecan : structural, temporal, and geographic perspectives: papers in memory of Wick R. Miller by the Friends of Uto-Aztecan. Hermosillo, Sonora: UniSon (Universidad de Sonora, División de Humanidades y Bellas Artes).. 
Dakin, Karen (2003). Henning Andersen. ed. Language contacts in prehistory: studies in stratigraphy. John Benjamins. pp. 259–288.,M1. 
Dakin, Karen, ed (2001). "Estudios sobre el náhuatl". Avances y balances de lenguas yutoaztecas. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, UNAM. ISBN 970-18-6966-4. 
Dakin, Karen, ed (1979). Dialectología del náhuatl de los siglos XVI y XVI. Rutas de intercambio en Mesoamérica y el Norte de Mexico, XVI. Round Table. II. Saltillo, September 9–15,. pp. 291–297. 
Hasler, Andrés (1996). El náhuatl de Tehuacan-Zongolica. Mexico: CIESAS. 
Lastra de Suárez, Yolanda (1986). Las áreas dialectales del náhuatl moderno. Serie antropológica, no. 62. Ciudad Universitaria, México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas. ISBN 968-8377-44-9. OCLC 19632019. (Spanish)
Lastra de Suárez, Yolanda (1981). "Stress in modern Nahuatl dialects". Nahuatl Studies in Memory of Fernando Horcasitas. Texas Linguistic Forum. 18. Austin: The University of Texas, Department of Linguistics. pp. 19–128. 
Manaster Ramer, Alexis (1995). "The Search for the Sources of the Nahuatl Saltillo". Anthropological linguistics 37 (1): 1–15. 
Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1937). "The origin of Aztec tl". American Anthropologist 39: 265–274. 
Whorf, Benjamin Lee; Frances Karttunen and Lyle Campbell (1993). "Pitch Tone and the "Saltillo" in Modern and Ancient Nahuatl". International Journal of American Linguistics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 59 (2): 165–223. doi:10.1086/466194. OCLC 1753556. 

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