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Oaxaca Languages

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Indigenous Languages of Oaxaca[edit | edit source]

With one million indigenous speakers, or 35 percen,t of the population speaking an indigenous language, Oaxaca is Mexico's "most indigenous state."[1] How is Oaxaca the home to so many groups of native people? Because of its topography, explains Mexico expert John P. Schmal. In Oaxaca there are many valleys, isolated from other people by imposing mountains. Because of that isolation, groups who once spoke the same language are separated; their languages evolve and adapt until they are no longer recognizable as the same tongue.[2]

The many and varied indigenous languages spoken in Oaxaca include:

  • Mixtec. Seven percent of Mexico's indigenous speakers speak one of 57 Mixtec languages. Mixtecs have migrated to every state in Mexico, but they are indigenous to Oaxaca (where 57 percent reside) and Guerrero (where 26 percent reside). Mixtec is part of the Oto-Manguean language group.[3]
  • Zapotec. 6.84% of speakers of indigenous languages speak one of 64 Zapotec languages. Like Mixtecs, Zapotecs can be found in all parts of Mexico. However, the vast majority--over 86 percent--live in Oaxaca. Zapotec is part of the Oto-Manguean language group.[4]
  • Mazateco. Mazateco speakers account for about three percent of Mexico's indigenous speakers. About eighty percent of Mazateco speakers live in Oaxaca, with significant numbers also living in Puebla, Veracruz, and the State of Mexico. Like Mixtec and Zapotec, Mazateco is part of the Oto-Manguean language group.[5]
  • Chinanteca. Chinanteca is also an Oto-Manguean language, and like Mixtec and Zapotec, its speakers are found in every part of Mexico. But the vast majority (about 82 percent) of Chinanteca speakers live in Oaxaca. Chinanteca speakers account for two percent of indigenous speakers in all of Mexico.[6]
  • Mixe. The Mixe is an isolated language native spoken by about 115,000 Mexicans; Mixe speakers live in Oaxaca and Chiapas.[7]
  • Zoque. Zoque speakers are an even smaller minority group, within barely 50,000 speakers. They are closely related to Mixe speakers; the majority of Zoque live in Chiapas, with a smaller number living in Oaxaca.[8]
  • Amuzgo. Speakers  of Amuzgo, also an Oto-Manguean language, live primarily in Guerrero, and about 11 percent live in Oaxaca.[9]

Indigenous Languages of Mexico[edit | edit source]

The official language of Mexico is Spanish, which is spoken by 90 percent of the people. Indian languages of the Aztecs, Mayans, and other tribes are still spoken throughout the country. Originally there may have been more than 200 roots of native languages.

In 1889, Antonio García Cubas estimated that 38% of Mexicans spoke an indigenous language, down from 60% in 1820. By the end of the 20th century, this figure had fallen to 6%.

In the early history of Mexico after the Spanish conquest, the spiritual leaders knew Latin, and where schools were established, Latin was a required subject, so you may find some Latin terms included in church records.

Hundreds of native languages and dialects existed although very few written records survived the European conquest. Of these the Náuatl language, spoken by the Aztecs of the Central Plateau region, is predominant, followed by the Mayan of the Yucatan Peninsula and Northern Central America. The Zapoteco, Mixteco, and Otomi languages follow in importance.

In the early records a great many Indian words, especially names and localities, found their way into the Spanish language. Many of them were modified to make them more pronounceable to the Spanish conquerors.

Spanish phonetics may affect the way names appear in genealogical records. For example, the names of your ancestor may vary from record to record in Spanish. For help in understanding name variations, see Mexico Names, Personal.

Language Aids[edit | edit source]

The Family History Library provides the following aids:

The following English-Spanish dictionaries can also aid you in your research. You can find these publications listed below and similar material at many research libraries:

Cassell’s Spanish-English, English-Spanish Dictionary New York: Macmillan, 1978. (FHL book 743.21 C272c 1978.)

Velázquez de la Cadena, Mariano. A New Pronouncing Dictionary of the Spanish and English Languages New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts, 1942. (FHL book 463.21 V541n.) y también volumen 2 del mismo.

Diccionario de Autoridades (Dictionary of Authorities). 3 vols. Madrid: Edit. Gredos, 1963. (FHL book 463 D56ld.)

Additional language aids, including dictionaries of various dialects and time periods, are listed in the "Place Search" section of the FamilySearch Catalog under:


They are also listed in the "Subject" section of the FamilySearch Catalog under:


And remember that a great free resource is always Google Translate.

  1. Tony Burton, "Did you know? Oaxaca is the most culturally diverse state in Mexico" (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,
  2. John P. Schaml, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico" (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,
  3. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 3
  4. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 4
  5. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 9
  6. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 12
  7. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 13
  8. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 18
  9. John P. Schmal, "Indigenous Languages of Mexico," (Mexconnect Mexico Culture and Arts,, point 19