Uto-Aztecan Language

Uto-Aztecan Language Family

Alternate Names: Uto, AztekanUto-Aztecan is a native american language family and is one of the largest (both in geographical extension and number of languages) and most well-established linguistic families of the Americas.

Uto-Aztecan languages are found from the Great Basin of the Western United States (Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona), through western, central and southern Mexico (including Sonora, Chihuahua, Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Puebla, Veracruz, Morelos, Estado de México, and the Federal District), and into parts of Central America (Pipil in El Salvador; extinct varieties in Guatemala and Honduras).

Utah is named after the indigenous Uto-Aztecan Ute people. Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and its modern relatives are part of the Uto-Aztecan family.The similarities between the Uto-Aztecan languages were noted as early as 1859 by J.C.E. Buschmann.

However, Buschmann failed to recognize the genetic affiliation between the Aztecan branch and the Northern Uto-Aztecan languages, instead ascribing the similarities between the two groups to Aztec contact influence.

Brinton included the Aztecan languages in the linguistic family 1891 and coined the term Uto-Aztecan. The idea nonetheless remained controversial, and was rejected in Powell’s 1891 classification.

The Uto-Aztecan family was established through systematic work in the early 1900s by linguists such as Alfred L. Kroeber, who established the relations between the Shoshonean languages, and especially Edward Sapir, who proved the unity between Powell’s Sonoran and Shoshonean languages in a series of groundbreaking applications of the comparative method to unwritten Native American languages.

Most issues related to Uto-Aztecan subgrouping are uncontroversial. Six groupings are universally accepted as valid–the Numic, Takic, Pimic, Taracahitic, Corachol, and Aztecan branches–along with two ungrouped languages–Tübatulabal and Hopi. Higher level relations between these groups remain controversial.

The Sonoran branch (including Pimic, Taracahitic and Corachol) and Shoshonean branch (including Numic, Takic, Tübatulabal and Hopi) first postulated in the 19th century, in particular, are not accepted by a number of scholars.

Uto-Aztecan has been included in some long range proposals of linguistic super-families. A hypothesis proposed by Benjamin Lee Whorf relating Uto-Aztecan to Kiowa-Tanoan, in an Aztec-Tanoan family formerly had modest support, but Lyle Campbell (1997) and the great majority of modern specialists consider this hypothesis possible, but unproven (Mithun 1999).

Joseph Greenberg included Uto-Aztecan in his widely criticized and highly controversial Amerind macro-family along with all Native American linguistic families except for Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene.The Uto-Aztecan homeland is generally thought to have been somewhere in the Southwestern United States – Arizona, New Mexico or northern Mexico where the first split between Northern and Southern branches took place.

The homeland of the Numic branch has been placed near Death Valley, California and the Southern Uto-Aztecan languages are thought to have spread out from a place in north-western Mexico in southern Sonora or northern Sinaloa.

Northern Uto-Aztecan

Many recent linguists have not accepted the validity of the division between Northern and Southern Uto-Aztecan as a genuine genetic branching. They have either recognized seven to nine independent branches of Uto-Aztecan or accepted Southern Uto-Aztecan but recognized four independent branches in the place of Northern Uto-Aztecan.


     Central Numic languages          


          Timbisha (a dialect chain with main regional varieties being Western,Central, Eastern)                   

          Shoshone (a dialect chain with main regional varieties being          Western, Gosiute, Northern, and Eastern)
          Southern Numic languages
          Colorado River (a dialect chain with main regional varieties being        Chemehuevi, Southern Paiute, and Ute)

          Western Numic languages

          Mono (two main dialects: Eastern and Western)

          Northern Paiute (a dialect chain with main regional varieties being   Southern Nevada,  Northern Nevada, Oregon, and Bannock)





        Kitanemuk †

       Gabrielino-Fernandeño †






       Southern Uto-Aztecan

       Pimic (Tepiman)

      Pima-Papago (Upper Piman)

      Pima Bajo (Lower Piman)

      Tepehuán languages (Northern and Southern)

      Tepecano †




      Guarijío (Varihio)

      Tubar †

      Cahita (Yaqui, Mayo Cahita)


      Ópata †

      Eudeve †? (Heve, Dohema)





     Nahuan (Aztecan, Nahua, Nahuatlan)




     Pipil (Nahuate, Nawat)

     Nahuatl (Mexicano, Aztec )

In addition to the above languages for which linguistic evidence exists, there were several dozen extinct languages with little or no documentation in Northern Mexico, many of which were probably Uto-Aztecan (Campbell 1997).

† = extinct



Article Index:

Alliklik Language

The Alliklik language belonged to the Californian group of the Shoshonean division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock, their closest relatives probably being the Serrano.

Are you related to the Aztecs?

For five centuries, North Americans have been fascinated and intrigued by stories of the magnificent Aztec Empire. This extensive Mesoamerican Empire was in its ascendancy during the late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries. The Aztec Empire of 1519 was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time.

This multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realm stretched for more than 80,000 square miles through many parts of what are now central and southern Mexico. This enormous empire reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. Fifteen million people, living in thirty-eight provinces and residing in 489 communities, paid tribute to the Emperor Moctezuma II.


However, by the time that Hernán Cortés and his band of Spanish mercenaries arrived on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz in 1519, omens of impending doom had begun to haunt Emperor Moctezuma II and his advisors in their capital city, Tenochtitlán. With an incredible coalition of indigenous forces, Cortés and his lieutenants were able to bring about the fall of one of the greatest indigenous American empires in only two years.

The Empire that the Aztecs amassed makes them unique among Amerindian peoples. But, in at least one respect, they are far from unique. The Aztecs and other Náhuatl-speaking indigenous peoples of Mexico all belong to the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Group. Spoken in many regions of the western U.S. and Mexico, the Uto-Aztecan languages include a wide range of languages, stretching from Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all the way down to El Salvador in Central America. And the Aztecs represent only a small – but significant – part of this linguistic group.

While the Aztecs of the Sixteenth Century lived in the south central part of the present-day Mexican Republic, a wide scattering of peoples who presently live in the United States could probably be described as “distant cousins” to the Aztecs. If you belong to the Shoshone, Ute, Paiute, or Gabrielino Indians, you may very well share common roots with the famous Aztecs of central Mexico.

How is it that we can conclude that these relationships exist? Studies in historical linguistics have analyzed the Uto-Aztecan tongues – and the Náhuatl language in particular – have determined that Náhuatl was actually not native to central Mexico. Instead, it was carried south from lands that are believed to have been in the northwestern region of the present-day Mexican Republic and – before that – the United States. Most of us have already heard the story of Aztlán and the Aztec journey from that mythical homeland to central Mexico.

Legend states that the Aztec and other Náhuatl-speaking tribal groups originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Atzlan-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is said to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlan (The Place of Herons). According to legend, the land of Aztlan was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake.

For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlan. Some people refer to Aztlan as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed. However, many historians believe that Aztlan did indeed exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlan lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlan might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlan. Many anthropologists have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.

The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlan is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics are considered. “The north-to-south movement of the Aztlan groups is supported by research in historical linguistics,” writes the anthropologist, Professor Michael Smith of the University of New York, in The Aztecs, “The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages.” As a matter of fact, “Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion” into central Mexico.

On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans – occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico – included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is very possible that the legendary Aztlan ­ or another ancestral home of the Aztecs – was located in the Southwestern United States.

It is important to note, however, that the Aztlan migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, “when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlan and Chicomoztoc.” It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. “Led by priests,” continues Professor Smith, “the migrants… stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals.”

The migrating groups included many Náhuatl-speaking peoples who became associated with the Aztec Empire: the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Culhua, Xochimilca, Tlahuica, Matlatzinca, and the Tlaxcalans – all of whom settled in the Valley of Mexico or adjacent valleys that are now in the surrounding states of Morelos, Tlaxcala, and Puebla.

SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) states that there are sixty-two existing Uto-Aztecan languages spread throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. 

The Northern Uto-Aztecans, inhabiting several American states, speak thirteen of the sixty-two languages. But the Southern Uto-Aztecans – almost all of whom make their homes south of the present-day U.S.-Mexican border – speak 49 languages.

The Northern Uto-Aztecans are best known as the “Great Basin peoples,” and the majority of them belong to the Numic subdivision of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. The Numic Division is divided into several branches. The Western Numic consists primarily of the Northern Paiute, who inhabit Oregon, California, and Nevada.

The Southern Numic Division includes the Southern Paiute and Ute Indians. The Southern Paiute originally inhabited southern Utah, southern Nevada and northern Arizona. The Ute tribe once lived over much of Utah – which was named after them – and all of western Colorado. It is believed that they even stretched into Nebraska and New Mexico.

The Central Numic family is made up of the Panamint, Shoshone, and Comanche tribes. The Shoshone Indian people traditionally lived on lands in the east-central area of California to the east of the Sierra Nevada range, including Owens Valley and the lands south of it, which includes Death Valley. The Shoshone language is very closely related to the Paiute language, and some Shoshone tribes today live as far north as Idaho and Montana, representing the northernmost stretches of the Uto-Aztecans.

The Numic Family also includes a great many California tribes: the Serrano, Cupan, Luiseno, Cahuilla, Cupeno, Kiowa and Gabrielino, among others. It is noteworthy that one of these tribes – the Gabrielino Indians, who were given their name by the Spaniards because they occupied the lands near the San Gabriel Mission – are the primary indigenous group that occupied the Los Angeles Basin. Because they speak a Uto-Aztecan language, they can be considered relatives to the Aztecs.

The Southern Uto-Aztecans have a very large representation spread over a large area. An important branch of the Uto-Aztecans is the Sonoran Family of Languages, mainly spoken by indigenous peoples of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango, and Arizona. This group is represented by several tribal groups that are well-known to most Americans. The Corachol Family is represented in the present day era by the Cora and Huichol Indians of Nayarit and Jalisco.

Another Sonora subdivision is the Tepiman Family (spoken by the Papago, Pima Bajo, and Tepehuán of Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango). And the most well-known Sonoran division is the Taracahitic Family (spoken by the Mayo, Yaqui and Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico). As you might expect, a family is a group of languages that are genetically and culturally related to one another.

When the Spaniards arrived in Sinaloa in 1523, a large number of Taracahitic peoples inhabited the coastal area of northwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, and Yaqui Rivers. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora are the best known tribe of this family. Numbering 16,000 people living in scattered locations throughout Sonora, the Yaquis continued to resist the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Republic well into the Twentieth Century. The Mayo Indians, closely related to the Yaquis, continued to resist central authority well into the Nineteenth Century and today number some 40,000 citizens, inhabiting the border regions of northern Sinaloa and southern Sonora.

The Aztecan or Náhuatl-speaking peoples of central and southern Mexico speak almost thirty languages and are the single largest linguistic group in Mexico. In the 2000 census, 1,448,936 individuals five years of age and older were classified as Náhuatl-speakers, representing 24% of the total indigenous-speaking population. Many dialects of Náhuatl are spoken throughout Mexico and all are believed to be derived from a common source, perhaps thousands of years into the past. 

Through time, all cultures and languages evolve. Sooner or later, a homogenous cultural group, responding to environmental and social pressures, will experience a cultural divergence of its component parts. As some members of an ethnic group begin to move away from the core group, their cultural and linguistic identity will change and undergo a transformation into a new cultural group. The dialects spoken by similar peoples – once they have been isolated from one another for a period of time – undergo a cultural diffusion until, eventually, the resulting groups reach a point where they speak mutually unintelligible languages.

For example, at some point in the distant past – probably a few thousand years ago – the ancestors of the Aztecs and the Yaquis were one and the same people, speaking a single language and practicing a single culture. However, in 1519, as Hernán Cortés sailed along the eastern seaboard with his small fleet, the Yaquis and Aztecs were two separate ethnic groups. They now spoke separate languages, practiced religions unknown to each other, and lived 1,300 kilometers away from each other. When two ethnic groups belong to the same linguistic grouping, we infer that they are in some way related.

So, the big question is “How and when did the Aztecs diverge from the Great Basin Indians and from the Yaquis and Mayos of Sonora?” Although studies have been done in attempt to determine the chronology of Uto-Aztecan cultural divergence, most of the experts do not agree on the numbers.

In the 1930s, the linguist Dr. Robert Mowry Zinng wrote that the Shoshone Indians of the present day Southwestern U.S.A. probably represent the closest thing we will ever find to the first Uto-Aztecans – the proto Uto-Aztecan culture – because they had not migrated as far as other Uto-Aztecan cultures, such as the Yaquis, Mayos, and Aztecs who are now far-removed from their probable ancestral homeland in the Great Basin of the United States.

Other authors have agreed with this analysis, stating that ultimately the roots of all Uto-Aztecan cultures will be found in the north. However, some theories have suggested that Southern California was the original home of the first Uto-Aztecans and that the Paiute and Shoshone diverged from the main group by migrating eastward into the Great Basin.

Some anthropologists suggest that Great Basin Prehistory may extend back more than 11,000 years before the present day. As the climate changed after this, the Great Basin witnessed the disappearance of many of its lakes. This caused many animal species to disappear, which led to reduced food resources. For this reason, the Great Basin inhabitants ­ the so-called proto Uto-Aztecans – evolved into a hunting and gathering semi-nomadic people who were able to deal with the diminishing resources of the region.

Half a century ago, both Sydney M. Lamb and Morris Swadesh hypothesized that about fifty centuries ago (circa 3000 B.C.), the Proto-Uto-Aztecan culture was becoming “dialectically differentiated, perhaps somewhere around the Arizona-Sonora border.” Utilizing the linguistic term “minimum centuries ago” as a tool for measuring divergence, Lamb stated that the Numic and Aztec languages probably diverged 47 minimum centuries ago (circa 2700 B.C.).

Once the Northern and Southern Uto-Aztecan Groups diverged, the ancestors of the present-day Aztecs, Yaquis and Mayos apparently made their way into the territory of the present-day Mexican Republic. Dr. Lamb hypothesized that the Cahita (Mayo and Yaqui) ancestral language diverged from the Aztec ancestral language 27 minimum centuries ago (circa 700 B.C.). However, the late Wick R. Miller concluded that glottochronological estimates placed the divergence of the Aztecan linguistic group from the Sonoran at before 4500 B.C. (much earlier than Lamb’s theory). It is important to recognize, however, that many linguists do not agree on the validity and accuracy of glottochronology and lexicostatistics in determining linguistic diffusion.

In the final analysis, however, nearly all experts agree that the Uto-Aztecan trunk is a widespread language grouping, boasting a tremendous diversity of language families spread over a large area. Studying and understanding who speak these languages and where they live provides us for clues in determining who may be related to the Aztecs.

Copyright © 2003, by John P. Schmal. Read more articles by John Schmal.

Cahuilla Language

The Cahuilla language belonged to the southern California group of the Shoshonean division of the Uto-Aztecan stock.

Chemehuevi Language
Fernandeno Language
Gabrielino Language
Juaneño Language
Kawaiisu Language
Kitanemuk Language
Koso Language
Luiseño Language
Nicoleño Language
Northern Paiute Language
Serrano Language
Tubatulabal Language of California
Vanyume Language