Uto-Aztecan Language Family


Uto-Aztecan stock is one of the largest language groups of North and Central America in terms of population, linguistic diversity and geographic distribution. The northernmost Uto-Aztecan language, Northern Paiute, is found as far north as Oregon and Idaho. In the south, varieties of Nahuatl are spoken as far south as Nicaragua and El Salvador. The most famous of these is Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire of central Mexico.

It is estimated that Proto-Uto-Aztecan from which all modern Uto-Aztecan languages are descended, was spoken about 5,000 years ago. The genetic relationship of the languages which are today known as belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family was recognized by the late 19th century and firmly established by the middle of the 20th century. However, the internal classification of the Uto-Aztecan languages continues to be debated.

Ethnologue lists 61 languages as belonging to the Uto-Aztecan stock. Several families of Uto-Aztecan languages are or were spoken in the western part of the United States. These include Comanche, Shoshoni, Tubatubal, Hopi and Tohono O’odham.

Northern Uto-Aztecan (13 languages)


Hopi 5,264 Arizona



Comanche 200 Western Oklahoma
Panamint 20 Southeastern California
Shoshoni 2,284 Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah

Ute-Southern Paiute 1,984 Ute in southwestern Colorado and southeastern and northeastern Utah; Southern Paiute in southwestern Utah, northern Arizona, and southern Nevada

Mono 40 South Central California
Kawaiisu 10 Mojave Desert, California


Cahuillo 7-20 Southern California
Luiseno 30-40 Southern California
Tubatubal 6 South Central California

Southern Uto-Aztecan (48 languages)
Aztecan (29 languages)
Nahuatl (28 varieties) 1.6 million Mexico
Pipil 20 El Savador

Sonoran (19 languages)


Mayo 40,000 Mexico
Opata 15 Mexico
Yaqui 16,000 Mexico


Cora, Santa Teresa 7,000 Mexico
Cora, El Nayar 8,000 Mexico
Huichol 20,000 Mexico


Huarijio 5,000 Mexico
Tarahumara (5 varieties) 70,500 Mexico


Tepehuan 26,000 Mexico
Tohono O’odham 12,000 Arizona, Mexico
Pima Bajo 1,000 Mexico





  • U.S.
    Several of Uto-Aztecan languages are extinct, and most are either severely endangered or on the brink of extinction. Only Hopi has over 5,000 speakers. Recently, attempts have been made by various Native peoples to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage. For example, the Hopi Language Education and Preservation Plan calls for a comprehensive, reservation-wide language instruction program.
  • Mexico
    In Mexico, the largest Uto-Aztecan language is Nahuatl which is spoken by 1.6 million people. There are also sizable populations of other Uto-Aztecan languages, such as Mayo, Huarijio, Tarahumara, Tepehuan, and Yaqui.



Uto-Aztecan words in English
Several common english words came from Nahuatl. Among them are these words:

avocado ahuakatl “testicle.” So called for its shape.
cocoa cacua, root form of cacahuatl “bean of the cocoa tree.”
chile/chili cilli, native name for the peppers
chocolate xocolatl, from xococ “bitter” + atl “water.”
coyote coyotl
tamale tamal, tamalli, a food made of Indian corn and meat
tomato tomatl “tomato,” literally, “the swelling fruit,” from tomana “to swell.”



Sound system

Most languages belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family have four (e.g., Nahuatl) to six vowels (Hopi) that can be either long or short. Their consonant systems have fairly small inventories of phonemes and few consonant clusters.

Click here to listen to the sounds of Cora.



Uto-Aztecan languages are polysynthetic, i.e., many different kinds of affixes (prefixes and/or suffixes) can be added to roots to form very long words. These words function as whole sentences in languages such as English. An example is the word Nemiechmotlajpalfia in Tetelcingo Nahuatl, which means “I greet you honored ones:



Below are some common words in 9 Uto-Aztecan languages.

one suukya’ sumu suu sumu supul ce seenu zewi bire
two looyo’ wahaatu waini wahat weh ome’ wooyi huuta ‘osa
three paayo’ pahiitu peini pahi paahey yeyi bahi haika bikiya
four naaloyo hayarokwetu wacuwini wacukwit wasa’ nahui naiki nauka nawo
five tsivot mo’obetu manigini manuki mahaar macuil mamni auzubi mari
man taaqa tenahpu tangwaci nawa ‘atax tlacatl tewi rihoy
woman wuuti wa’ipu mamaci huuhpi’ sungaal cihuatl huubi uimari ‘upi
sun taawa taabe tavaci tape timet tonaltzintli taa’a tau rayenari
moon muuyaw mua muatagoci tamua mooyla metztli meeca meceeri micaa
water kuuyi paa paa paya paala atl baa’am haa ba’wi



Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the New World, most Uto-Aztecan languages were unwritten with a few exceptions, such as Nahuatl. Starting in the 16th century, European missionaries took it upon themselves to devise writing systems for these indigenous languages. They encountered some difficulties in trying to represent sounds that were absent in their own Western European languages. As a result, several different orthographies are used to this day to represent these sounds, e.g., long vowels, /k/, and /kw/.



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Uto-Aztecan languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Uto-Aztecan languages for speakers of English.