The Oto-Manguean Language Families

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll look at the various language families under the umbrella of the Oto-Manguean language family, one of the largest language groups in Mesoamerica. Also, find out what features identify these related languages.

Language Families

You are probably familiar with at least one language family, most likely the Romance languages, those languages that developed from Latin and spread throughout Europe with the Romans. To determine language families, linguists piece together which languages are related and how they developed by studying the commonalities across languages in making sounds and forming meaning. Let's take a look at a very special language family that intrigues researchers today, the Oto-Manguean language family.

What is Oto-Manguean?

Did you know that the Oto-Manguean language family is the most diverse language group from Mesoamerica? There are over 170 languages still spoken in Mexico today. The proto-language was spoken since at least 4,000 B.C, and by this time, the eight major Oto-Manguean language families may have already formed as well. As a result of community migrations and social, political, and economic interactions among agricultural villages and city-centers, dialects and languages diversified. In history, this language family reacher as far south as Costa Rica, but today, live languages are only spoken in Mexico.

Map of Oto-Manguean speakers
otomanguean map

Subfamilies and Languages

Oto-Manguean languages are separated into Western and Eastern, which are then each split into two branches, and, in turn, each of these is then split into two families. This leaves us with eight language families, some of which then further branch off into ethnolinguistic groupings, or subfamilies. While there are too many languages and dialects of these languages to detail them individually, let's explore four key language families (out of eight families at this level of classification).

  • Mixtecan: This is one of the largest language families among the Oto-Manguean languages with three subfamilies beneath it: the Cuicatec, Mixtec, and Trique. In total, there are over 400,000 speakers in this subfamily and a grand total of an estimated 57 languages and dialects divided among them.
  • Oto-Pamean: This large language family has nearly 300,000 speakers and includes four additional subfamilies, the Chichimec, Matlatzincan, Otomi, and Pamean. The largest of these, the Otomi, has 275,000 speakers and includes approximately 11 languages and dialects. The smallest, Matlatzincan, is nearly extinct while the second smallest, Chichimec, only has 200 speakers left.
  • Popolocan: This language family has four subfamilies of its own, the Chocholtec, Popolocan, Ixcatecan, and Mazatecan. However, both the Chocholtec and Ixcatecan are close to extinction.
  • Zapotecan: This language family is largest in terms of speakers, boasting over 450,000 speakers, but it only has two subfamilies below it, the Chatino and the Zapotec. However, the Zapotec subfamily is huge. It accounts for around 420,000 speakers and includes an estimated 58 languages/dialects.

This young Chatina speaks a Zapotecan language.

How Do We Know?

How do we know which languages are considered to be Oto-Manguean? What similarities do they share that tell linguists that a particular language belongs to this group? Well, it's kind of like a linguistic DNA test. No two languages are going to perfectly match, but the more similarities they have, the closer they are. Let's look at some of the shared details that indicate these languages are related, whether they are siblings, cousins, or some distant relative your parents make you write letters to but no one can explain how they are part of your family.


Most of these languages have open syllables, meaning there is only one consonant sound per syllable and that consonant is not combined with other consonants to form sounds like we see in English with ''st,'' ''nd,'' or ''pr.'' Syllables may also end abruptly in a glottal stop, a sudden stopping of sound when the vocal cords cut the flow of air before starting the next paragraph. One of the very few examples in English is the term ''uh-oh.'' Try saying it. Do you hear that sudden stop between the two syllables?


All Oto-Manguean languages share the common trait of being tonal languages, languages where a change in vocal pitch can change the meaning of the words spoken. While some languages have more recognized tones than others, they tend to vary from two to five tones. In Mixtecan languages, the tones are so important to understand the words that their written language includes ways to indicate the tone implied for the written words.

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