Oto-Manguean languages

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Currently Mexico; previously Mesoamerica and Central America
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5: omq
Glottolog: otom1299[1]
The Oto-Manguean languages within Mexico. The extinct Manguean languages of Central America are not included.

Oto-Manguean languages (also Otomanguean) are a large family comprising several families of Native American languages. All of the Oto-Manguean languages that are now spoken are indigenous to Mexico, but the Manguean branch of the family, which is now extinct, was spoken as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Oto-Manguean is widely viewed as a proven language family. However, this status has been recently challenged (Brown 2015).

The highest number of speakers of Oto-Manguean languages today are found in the state of Oaxaca where the two largest branches, the Zapotecan and Mixtecan languages, are spoken by almost 1.5 million people combined. In central Mexico, particularly in the states of Mexico, Hidalgo and Querétaro, the languages of the Oto-Pamean branch are spoken: the Otomi and the closely related Mazahua have over 500,000 speakers combined. Some Oto-Manguean languages are moribund or highly endangered; for example, Ixcatec and Matlatzinca each has fewer than 250 speakers, most of whom are elderly. Other languages particularly of the Manguean branch which was spoken outside of Mexico have become extinct; these include the Chiapanec language, which has only recently been declared extinct. Others such as Subtiaba, which was most closely related to Me'phaa (Tlapanec), have been extinct longer and are only known from early 20th century descriptions.

The Oto-Manguean language family is the most diverse and most geographically widespread language family represented in Mesoamerica. The internal diversity is comparable with that of Indo-European, and the Proto-Oto-Manguean language is estimated to have been spoken some time before 2000 BCE.[2] This means that at least for the past 4000 years Oto-Manguean languages have coexisted with the other languages of Mesoamerica and have developed many traits in common with these, to such an extent that they are seen as part of a sprachbund called the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. However Oto-Manguean also stands out from the other language families of Mesoamerica in several features. It is the only language family in North America, Mesoamerica and Central America whose members are all tonal languages. It also stands out by having a much more analytic structure than other Mesoamerican languages. Another typical trait of Oto-Manguean is that its members almost all show VSO (verb–subject–object) in basic order of clausal constituents.

History of classification

Internal classification and reconstruction

Inclusion in macro-family hypotheses

Some early classifications such as that by Brinton, considered that Oto-Manguean languages might be related to Chinese, because like Chinese the languages were tonal and mostly monosyllabic. This idea was quickly abandoned as the fact that tonal languages are common was discovered, and advances in the historical study of Chinese language were made (including the discovery that Old Chinese was non-tonal).[9] Edward Sapir included Subtiaba–Tlapanec in his Hokan phylum, but didn't classify the other Oto-Manguean languages in his famous 1929 classification. In his 1960 classification, Joseph Greenberg considered Oto-Manguean so aberrant from other Native American languages that it was the only accepted family (aside from the Purépecha isolate) which he made a primary branch of his Amerind family. However, in his 1987 revision he linked it with Aztec-Tanoan in a "Central Amerind" branch, apart from Tlapanec which, although it had by then been unequivocally linked to Oto-Manguean, he continued to classify as Hokan.[10] No hypotheses including Oto-Manguean in any higher-level unit have been able to withstand scrutiny.


The Oto-Manguean family has existed in southern Mexico at least since 2000 BCE and probably several thousand years before,[11] some estimates using the controversial method of glottochronology suggest an approximate splitting date of Proto-Otomanguean at ca. 4400 BCE.[12] This makes the Oto-Manguean family the language family of the Americas with the deepest time depth, as well as the oldest language family with evidence of tonal contrast in the proto-language.[13]

The Oto-Manguean urheimat has been thought to be in the Tehuacan valley in connection with one of the earliest neolithic cultures of Mesoamerica, and although it is now in doubt whether Tehuacán was the original home of the Proto-Otomanguean people, it is agreed that the Tehuacán culture (5000 BCE–2300 BCE) were likely Oto-Mangue speakers.[12]

The long history of the Oto-Manguean family has resulted in considerable linguistic diversity between the branches of the family. Terrence Kaufman compares the diversity between the main branches of Oto-Manguean with that between the main branches of Indo-European.[2] Kaufman also proposes that Oto-Manguean languages are an important candidate for being the source of many of the traits that have diffused into the other languages in the Mesoamerican linguistic area.

Oto-Mangue speakers have been among the earliest to form highly complex cultures of Mesoamerica: the archeological site of Monte Albán with remains dated as early as 1000 BCE is believed to have been in continuous use by Zapotecs. The undeciphered Zapotec script is one of the earliest forms of Mesoamerican writing.

Other Mesoamerican cultural centers which may have been wholly or partly Oto-Manguean include the late classical sites of Xochicalco, which may have been built by Matlatzincas, and Cholula, which may have been inhabited by Manguean peoples. And some propose an Oto-Pamean presence in Teotihuacán. The Zapotecs are among the candidates to have invented the first writing system of Mesoamerica – and in the Post-Classic period the Mixtecs were prolific artesans and codex painters. During the postclassic the Oto-Manguean cultures of Central Mexico became marginalized by the intruding Nahuas and some, like the Chiapanec–Mangue speakers went south into Guerrero, Chiapas and Central America, while others such as the Otomi saw themselves relocated from their ancient homes in the Valley of Mexico to the less fertile highlands on the rim of the valleys.

Geography and demographics

Western branch


Map of the different dialect areas of Otomí in central Mexico

The languages of the Oto-Pamean branch are spoken in central and western Mexico. The group includes the Otomian languages: Otomi spoken primarily in the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Puebla and Veracruz (ca. 293,000 speakers) and Mazahua spoken in the western part of the State of Mexico (ca. 350,000 speakers), and the endangered Matlatzincan languages including Matlatzinca (ca. 1000 speakers in the town of San Francisco Oxtotilpa) and Tlahuica (also called Ocuilteco) (ca. 400 speakers in the municipio of Ocuilan) both spoken in the State of Mexico; And the Pamean group composed of the two living Pame languages of San Luís Potosí, Northern Pame [1] being spoken in communities from the north of Río Verde on the border with Tamaulipas (ca. 5500 speakers), and Central Pame [2] spoken in the town of Santa María Acapulco (ca. 4000 speakers), the extinct Southern Pame language, and the Chichimeca Jonaz language spoken in Misión de Chichimecas near San Luis de la Paz in the state of Guanajuato (ca. 200 speakers).

Otomi is traditionally described as a single language, although its many dialects are not all mutually intelligible. The language classification of the SIL International's Ethnologue considers Otomi to be a cover term for nine separate Otomi languages and assigns a different ISO code to each of these nine varieties. Currently Otomi varieties are spoken collectively by circa 239,000 speakers — some 5 to 6 percent of whom are monolingual. Because of recent migratory patterns, small populations of Otomi speakers can be found in new locations throughout Mexico and in the United States. The Otomi languages are vigorous in some areas, with children acquiring the language through natural transmission (e.g. in the Mezquital Valley of Hidalgo and in the Highlands). However three varieties are now considered moribund: those of Ixtenco (Tlaxcala state), Santiago Tilapa and Acazulco (Mexico state), and Cruz del Palmar (Guanajuato state).[14] In some municipalities the level of monolingualism in Otomi is as high as 22.3% (Huehuetla, Hidalgo) or 13.1% (Texcatepec, Veracruz). Monolingualism is normally significantly higher among women than among men.[15]


The Chinantecan languages are spoken by ca. 93,000 people in Northern Oaxaca and Southern Veracruz in the districts of Cuicatlán, Ixtlán de Juárez, Tuxtepec and Choapan. The Ethnologue recognizes 14 separate varieties with separate ISO codes.


The Tlapanec language is spoken by ca. 75,000 people in Guerrero. There are four principal varieties named after the communities where they are spoken: Acatepec, Azoyú, Malinaltepec and Tlacoapa. Recent labor migrations have introduced Tlapanec speaking communities to the state of Morelos. It was closely related to the Subtiaba language which was spoken in Nicaragua but which is now extinct.

The Manguean languages are all extinct. They included the Mangue and Chorotega languages that were spoken in Nicaragua and Costa Rica at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Chiapanec language which was spoken in Chiapas, Mexico by a handful of speakers in the 1990s, but is now extinct.

Eastern branch


The Popolocan language group includes the seven different varieties of Popoloca which are spoken in southern Puebla state near Tehuacán and Tepexi de Rodríguez (ca. 30,000 speakers), and the closely related Chocho language (ca. 700 speakers) spoken in Northern Oaxaca state, and the 8 different Mazatecan languages spoken in northern Oaxaca (ca. 120,000 speakers), and the nearly extinct Ixcatec language spoken in Santa María Ixcatlán (< 8 speakers). The Popolocan languages should not be confused with the languages called Popoluca spoken in the state of Veracruz, which belong to the unrelated Mixe–Zoquean language family. The Mazatecan languages are known for their prolific use of whistled speech.


The location of Zapotec dialect groups within the state of Oaxaca.

The Zapotecan subgroup is formed by the Zapotec languages (ca. 785,000 speakers of all varieties) and the related Chatino languages (ca. 23,000 speakers). They are all traditionally spoken in central and southern Oaxaca, but have been spread throughout Mexico and even into the United States through recent labor related migrations.

Zapotec languages and dialects fall into four broad geographic divisions: Zapoteco de la Sierra Norte (Northern Zapotec), Valley Zapotec, Zapoteco de la Sierra Sur (Southern Zapotec), and Isthmus Zapotec. Northern Zapotec languages are spoken in the mountainous region of Oaxaca, in the Northern Sierra Madre mountain ranges; Southern Zapotec languages and are spoken in the mountainous region of Oaxaca, in the Southern Sierra Madre mountain ranges; Valley Zapotec languages are spoken in the Valley of Oaxaca, and Isthmus Zapotec languages are spoken in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Ethnologue recognizes 57 varieties of Zapotec and 6 varieties of Chatino by distinct ISO codes.


Mixtec languages (in green) and its surrounding languages including Triqui, Cuicatec and Amuzgo within the state of Oaxaca.

The Mixtecan branch includes the many different, mutually unintelligible varieties of Mixtec spoken by about 511,000 people as well as the Trique (or Triqui) languages, spoken by about 24,500 people and Cuicatec, spoken by about 15,000 people.[16] The Mixtecan languages are traditionally spoken is the region known as La Mixteca, which is shared by the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero. Because of migration from this region the Mixtecan languages have expanded to Mexico's main urban areas, particularly the State of México and the Federal District, to certain agricultural areas such as the San Quintín valley in Baja California and parts of Morelos and Sonora, and even into the United States. The Mixtec language is a complex set of regional varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The varieties of Mixtec are sometimes grouped by geographic area, using designations such as those of the Mixteca Alta, the Mixteca Baja, and the Mixteca de la Costa. However, the dialects do not actually follow the geographic areas, and the precise historical relationships between the different varieties have not been worked out.[17] The number of varieties of Mixtec depends in part on what the criteria are for grouping them, of course; at one extreme, government agencies once recognized no dialectal diversity. Mutual intelligibility surveys and local literacy programs have led SIL International to identify more than 50 varieties which have been assigned distinct ISO codes.[18]

Four Amuzgo varieties are spoken in the Costa Chica region of the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca by about 44,000 speakers.[19] The four varieties recognized by the Mexican government are: Northern Amuzgo (amuzgo del norte, commonly known as Guerrero or (from its major town) Xochistlahuaca Amuzgo), Southern Amuzgo (amuzgo del sur, heretofore classified as a subdialect of Northern Amuzgo); Upper Eastern Amuzgo (amuzgo alto del este, commonly known as Oaxaca Amuzgo or San Pedro Amuzgos Amuzgo); Lower Eastern Amuzgo (amuzgo bajo del este, commonly known as Ipalapa Amuzgo). These varieties are very similar, but there is a significant difference between western varieties (Northern and Southern) and eastern varieties (Upper Eastern and Lower Eastern), as revealed by recorded text testing done in the 1970s.[20]


Common phonological traits

All Oto-Manguean languages have tone: some have only two level tones while others have up to five level tones. Many languages in addition have a number of contour tones. Many Oto-Manguean languages have phonemic vowel nasalization. Many Oto-Manguean languages lack labial consonants, particularly stops and those that do have labial stops normally have these as a reflex of Proto-Oto-Manguean */kʷ/.[21]

Syllable structure

Proto-Oto-Manguean allowed only open syllables of the structure CV (or CVʔ). Syllable initial consonant clusters are very limited, usually only sibilant-CV, CyV, CwV, nasal-CV, ChV, or CʔV are allowed. Many modern Oto-Manguean languages keep these restrictions in syllable structure but others, most notably the Oto-Pamean languages, now allow both final clusters and long syllable initial clusters. This example with three initial and three final consonants is from Northern Pame: /nlʔo2spt/ "their houses".[22]

Phonemes of Proto-Oto-Manguean

The following phonemes are reconstructed for Proto-Oto-Manguean.[23]

Reconstructed consonant phonemes of Proto-Oto-Manguean
Labiovelar Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops *kʷ *t *k
Fricatives *s
Nasals *n
Glides *w *j
Reconstructed vowel phonemes of Proto–Oto-Manguean
Front Central Back
*i *u

Rensch also reconstructs four tones for Proto-Oto-Manguean.[24] A later revised reconstruction by Terrence Kaufman[25] adds the proto-phonemes */ts/, */θ/, */x/, *//, */l/, */r/, */m/ and */o/, and the vowel combinations */ia/, */ai/, */ea/, and */au/.

The Oto-Manguean languages have changed quite a lot from the very spartan phoneme inventory of Proto-Oto-Manguean. Many languages have rich inventories of both vowels and consonants. Many have a full series of fricatives, and some branches (particularly Zapotecan and Chinantecan) distinguish voicing in both stops and fricatives. The voiced series of the Oto-Pamean languages have both fricative and stop allophones. Otomian also have full series of front, central and back vowels. Some analyses of Mixtecan include a series of voiced prenasalised stops and affricates; these can also be analysed as consonant sequences but it would be the only consonant clusters known in the languages.

These are some of the most simple sound changes that have served to divide the Oto-Manguean family into subbranches:

*/t/ to /tʃ/ in Chatino
*/kʷ/ to /p/ in Chiapanec–Mangue, Oto-Pame, and Isthmus Zapotec
*/s/ to /θ/ in Mixtecan
*/s/ to /t/ in Chatino
*/w/ to /o/ before vowels in Oto-Pame
*/j/ to /i/ before vowels in Oto-Pame and Amuzgo

Tone systems

The Oto-Manguean languages have a wide range of tonal systems, some with as many as 10 tone contrasts and others with only two. Some languages have a register system only distinguishing tones by the relative pitch. Others have a contour system that also distinguishes tones with gliding pitch. Most however are combinations of the register and contour systems. Tone as a distinguishing feature is entrenched in the structure of the Oto-Manguean languages and in no way a peripheral phenomenon as it is in some languages that are known to have acquired tone recently or which are in a process of losing it. In most Oto-Manguean languages tone serves to distinguish both between the meanings of roots and to indicate different grammatical categories. In Chiquihuitlan Mazatec which has four tones the following minimal pairs occur: tʃa1 "I talk", tʃa² "difficult", tʃa³ "his hand" tʃa4 "he talks".[26]

The language with the most level tones is Usila Chinantec which has five level tones and no contour tones; Trique of Chicahuaxtla has a similar system.[26]


In Copala Trique, which has a mixed system, only three level tones but five tonal registers are distinguished within the contour tones.


Many other systems have only three tones levels, such as Tlapanec and Texmelucan Zapotec.


Particularly common in the Oto-Pamean branch are small tonal systems with only two level tones and one combination, such as Pame and Otomi. Some others like Matlatzinca and Chichimeca Jonaz only have the level tones and no combination.


In some languages stress influences tone, for example in Pame only stressed syllables have a tonal contrast. In Chatino where stress falls predictably on the last syllable of polysyllables, tone is also only distinguished on the last syllable. In Mazahua the opposite occurs and all syllables except the final stressed one distinguishes tone. In Tlapanec stress is determined by the tonal contour of the words. Most languages have systems of sandhi where the tones of a word or syllable are influenced by other tones in other syllables or words. Chinantec has no Sandhi rules but Mixtec and Zapotec have elaborate systems. For Mazatec some dialects has elaborate Sandhi systems (e.g. Soyaltepec) and others have not (e.g. Huautla Mazatec). Some languages (particularly Mixtecan) also have terrace systems where some tones are "upstep" or "downstep", causing a raise or drop in pitch level for the entire tonal register in subsequent syllables.

Whistled speech

Several Oto-Manguean languages have systems of whistled speech, where by whistling the tonal combinations of words and phrases, information can be transmitted over distances without using words. Whistled speech is particularly common in Chinantec, Mazatec and Zapotecan languages.


Genealogical classification of Oto-Manguean languages
Family Groups Languages Where spoken and approximate number of speakers
Oto-Manguean languages Western Oto-Mangue Oto-Pame–Chinantecan Oto-Pamean Otomis (Hñähñu) (several varieties) Central México (~212,000)
Mazahua (Hñatho) México (state) (~350,000)
Matlatzinca México (state). Two varieties: Ocuiltec–Tlahuica (~450) and Matlatzinca de San Francisco (~1,300)
Pame San Luis Potosí. Three varieties: Southern Pame (presumed to have no speakers), Central Pame (~5,000), Northern Pame (~5,000).
Chichimeca Jonaz Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí (~1,500)
Chinantecan Chinantec northern Oaxaca and southern Veracruz, (~224,000)
Tlapanec–Mangue Tlapanecan Tlapanec (Me'phaa) Guerrero (~75,000)
Subtiaba (†) Honduras
Manguean Chiapanec (†) Chiapas
Mangue (†) Nicaragua
Chorotega (†) Costa Rica
Eastern Oto-Mangue Popolocan–Zapotecan Popolocan Mazatec north-eastern Oaxaca and Veracruz (~206,000)
Ixcatec northern Oaxaca (< 100)
Chocho northern Oaxaca (< 1000)
Popolocan Southern Puebla, (~30,000)
Zapotecan Zapotec (around 50 variants) Central and eastern Oaxaca (~785,000)
Chatino Oaxaca (~23,000)
Papabuco Oaxaca
Soltec Oaxaca
Amuzgo–Mixtecan[27] Amuzgoan Amuzgo (around 4 variants) Oaxaca y Guerrero (~44,000)
Mixtecan Mixtecs (around 30 variants) central, southern and western Oaxaca; southern Puebla and eastern Guerrero (~511,000)
Cuicatec Cuicatlán, Oaxaca, (~18,500)
Trique (also called Triqui) western Oaxaca (~23,000)


  1. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Otomanguean". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kaufman & Justeson 2009:227
  3. Kaufman & Justeson 2009. (
    Kaufman, Terrence, 1983 New Perspectives on Comparative Otomanguean Phonology. Excerpts presented at the 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, 1983. Complete manuscript on file, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.
    1988 Otomangean Tense/Aspect/Mood, Voice, and Nominalization Markers. Manuscript on file, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.)
  4. Greenberg 1987
  5. Greenberg & Ruhlen 2008
  6. Marlett, Stephen. 2013. "Bibliografia del Me'phaa", SIL
  7. Longacre 1966
  8. Campbell 1997:161
  9. Campbell 1997:157
  10. Campbell 1997:211
  11. Kaufman & Justeson 2009
  12. 12.0 12.1 Campbell (1997, p.159)
  13. Sicoli 2005, p. 797.
  14. Lastra, Unidad y diversidad de la lengua, pp. 19–25.
  15. INEGI, Perfil sociodemográfico, p. 70.
  16. 2000 census; the numbers are based on the number of total population for each group and the percentages of speakers given on the website of the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, http://www.cdi.gob.mx/index.php?id_seccion=660, accessed 28 July 2008).
  17. See Josserand (1983) for one important attempt. Adaptations of Josserand's dialect maps are published in Macaulay 1996.
  18. "Ethnologue name language index", Ethnologue web site, accessed 28 July 2008.
  19. 2005 census; http://www.inegi.org.mx/est/contenidos/espanol/rutinas/ept.asp?t=mlen10&c=3337
  20. Egland, Bartholomew & Cruz Ramos, 1983:8.
  21. Sicoli 2005, p. 798.
  22. Suárez (1983, p.41)
  23. Reconstruction follows that given by Rensch (1977).
  24. Rensch (1977, p.68)
  25. Quoted from Campbell (1997, p.157)
  26. 26.0 26.1 Suaréz (1983, p.51)
  27. Evidence for this grouping has never been published.


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