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)
|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|
|Tubatubal||6||South Central California|
Southern Uto-Aztecan (48 languages)
Aztecan (29 languages)
|Nahuatl (28 varieties)||1.6 million||Mexico|
Sonoran (19 languages)
|Cora, Santa Teresa||7,000||Mexico|
|Cora, El Nayar||8,000||Mexico|
|Tarahumara (5 varieties)||70,500||Mexico|
|Tohono O’odham||12,000||Arizona, Mexico|
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.
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.”|
|tamale||tamal, tamalli, a food made of Indian corn and meat|
|tomato||tomatl “tomato,” literally, “the swelling fruit,” from tomana “to swell.”|
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.
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/.
How difficult is it to learn Uto-Aztecan languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Uto-Aztecan languages for speakers of English.