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The Indigenous Languages of Latin America

AILLA houses resources about the indigenous languages spoken from the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) in the north to the southernmost tip of Chile in the south, including the islands of the Caribbean. The Rio Grande forms the border between Mexico and the U.S., so we are using a political boundary, not a social or linguistic one.

One of the northernmost languages that falls into our area is Yaqui, spoken by people who live on both sides of the border between Sonora and Arizona. One of the southernmost languages is Kawésqar, which is spoken by people who live on the Isle of Wellington, off the southern coast of Chile.

How many languages are there?

There are hundreds of indigenous languages still spoken today in Latin America, although there were probably as many as 1,750 before the beginning of the European invasions (Sherzer, 1991). Campbell (1997) reports between 550 and 700 languages for the whole region, citing sources from the mid-1990's.

There are some 56 language families and 73 isolates (a language with no known relatives) in Latin America (Kaufman, 1994a&b). For comparison, there are only two language families in Europe - Indo-European and Finno-Ugric - and one isolate, Basque. [Look at the language families tables.]

Linguists divide the languages of the Americas into three groups:

  • North America - this group includes the languages of northern Mexico, like Yaqui and Tarahumara. We follow Kaufman 1994a in including these languages in the Meso-American lists for convenience.
  • Meso-America - this region extends from central Mexico into Costa Rica, and includes the Otomanguean and Mayan language families. There 11 families and 3 isolates in this group.
  • South America - this region includes all of South America, lower Central America, and the Antilles. There are 48 families and 70 isolates in this group.

Some of the families in Latin America are very large and complex, like the Oto-Manguean family of Meso-America, which is a super-family (stock) on the order of Indo-European. It has eight sub-families that are as different from each other as the Germanic languages (English) and the Romance languages (Spanish and Portuguese). Otomí is a member of the Otomanguean family. Other families are smaller, like Jívaro-Cahuapano, a family in South America with only two branches and two languages on each branch. Achuar is a member of this family. Isolates like Kamsá (Colombia) can be found scattered throughout the region.

It is very hard to count languages, because the distinction between language and dialect is more socio-political than linguistic. Linguists consider two varieties of language to be dialects if their speakers can understand one another; that is, if they are mutually intelligible By this standard, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian would all be dialects of the same language. We consider them separate languages because they belong to separate nations and because their speakers want to distinguish them. The dialect rule is also complicated when there are many similar varieties of a language spoken over a large or highly varied region, as is often the case in Latin America. In these situations, we may find a dialect chain, in which neighboring communities understand each other, but the ones at opposite ends of the chain do not. If we always decide that such chains form single languages, we would have to consider Spanish and Portuguese to be a single language. If we decide a lack of mutual intelligibility across the whole chain means that we have to divide it into separate languages, we would be forced to divide English into many sub-languages: Indian English, Australian English, Brooklyn English, etc. Politics, history, and the existence of standard dialects in which newspapers are published have determined which linguistic varieties are considered languages and which dialects.

For example: Quechua is a language family with many varieties, some of which are mutually intelligible and some of which are not. This was the language of the Inca Empire, which was the largest nation on earth in 1500. It is one of the official languages of Peru (the other is Spanish), and is spoken by approximately 8.5 million people today. Kaufman (1994) divides the Quechuan group into 4 branches, two of which have family trees descending from them:

Quechua Central Quechua North Central Quechua 4 languages
    Wanka 2 languages
  Peripheral Quechua Yúnqay 2 languages
    Quichua 4 languages
    Southern Quichua 4 languages
  Yauyos Quechua    
  Classical Quechua    


The Ethnologue divides Quechuan into 4 subgroups with a total of 46 languages/dialects. The moral of this story is that you should keep the elastic nature of the terms language and dialect in mind, and remember that they are just as flexible for global languages like Spanish, English, and Portuguese as they are for indigenous languages like Quechua and Zapotec.

How many people speak these languages?

"There are about 40 million indigenous people in Latin America, or about 10 percent of the total population. In some countries, the majority of the population is indigenous. In Bolivia, for example, more than half of the total population is indigenous." (Human Resources Development and Operations Policy, 1993.)

It's a tremendous job to take a census of all the speakers and the languages they speak, because the region spans many countries, and many indigenous people live in places that are very hard to reach. Also, not all indigenous people speak an indigenous language, and in places like Peru and Paraguay there may be many non-indigenous people who do. Some of the governments in this region ask about language on their census forms, while others do not. The missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics make an effort to maintain statistics about the numbers of languages and speakers around the world in their Ethnologue, but some of the figures that you find on their website ( may be 10-20 years out of date.

Languages that were moribund - no longer being learned by children - twenty years ago may be extinct today. Tehuelche, one of the languages recorded in the archive, has become extinct since these recordings were made in the 1960's. (A language dies when the last person who speaks it dies.) Most of the indigenous languages in Latin America are spoken by fewer than 5,000 people - many fewer, in many cases. Oluteco, a Mixe language of Veracruz, Mexico, is only spoken by about a dozen elderly people.

Some such languages are in very stable situations, like Huave in Mexico with approximately 10,000 speakers. Children are still learning the language and it is used in all aspects of life in the community. This can change very quickly, however, if the government decides to build a highway through the area or the young people find it necessary to move to the city to find work.

Some Latin American indigenous languages have very large numbers of speakers. Two are official languages of countries, along with Spanish: Quechua in Peru, and Guaraní in Paraguay. Some of the largest are shown in the table below (from Kaufman, 1994:35 and Kaufman, 1994:46ff). Remember that these figures include speakers of all the sub-varieties of these languages.

Language Family Countries # speakers
Quechua Quechuan Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia 8.5 million
Guaraní Tupí-Guaraní Paraguay 3 million
Kekchí Mayan Guatemala 1.3 million
Nahua Uto-Aztecan México 1.3 million
Otomí Oto-Manguean México 261,000
Totonaco Totonacan México 215,000
Miskitu Misumalpan Nicaragua, Honduras 200,000
Jívaro Jívaro-Cahuapanano Ecuador, Peru 50,000
Kuna Chibchan Panama 50,000
Emberá Chocó Panama, Colombia 40,000
Ticuna Jurí-Ticuna Peru, Colombia, Brazil 21,000

Most of the indigenous languages of Latin America are severely endangered, even some languages with large numbers of speakers.This means that unless the situation changes, they are not likely to survive into the next century. The speakers are under tremendous pressure to shift to the dominant European languages of their countries. People across the Americas seem to have the peculiar idea that a person can only speak one language well, so they'd better make sure that all the children learn only the national language. But human beings are perfectly capable of speaking more than one language fluently. The Vaupés of the Amazon River basin, who normally speak 4 or 5 languages, consider fluency in many languages to be an essential part of proper social behavior. Many indigenous people in Latin America are bilingual, speaking both their native language and the national language by necessity.

Language can function as the keystone in an arc of community traits and values; when the language is lost, this arc disintegrates. Anthony Woodbury, writing about reasons for protecting endangered languages, said:

"Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary, to everyday greetings, leave-takings, conversational styles, humor, ways of speaking to children, and unique terms for habits, behavior, and emotions. When a language is lost, all this must be refashioned in the new language--with different word categories, sounds, and grammatical structures--if it is to be kept at all. Linguists' work in communities when language shift is occurring shows that for the most part such refashioning, even when social identity is maintained, involves abrupt loss of tradition. More often, the cultural forms of the colonial power take over, transmitted often by television." (Woodbury, 1997).

We hope the archive will help to support the efforts of indigenous people to pass their native languages on to their children, by preserving literature and histories that can be used in classes at all levels, and incorporated into modern creative works. We also hope that the non-indigenous visitors to our web site will learn to respect and value these languages and the people who speak them.

Latin American indigenous languages are tremendously varied, in terms of sounds, grammar, and styles of speaking, which makes them of great importance in understanding how the human capacity for language works. South America is one of the most diverse regions in the world, linguistically speaking. By Nichols' (1992:233) count it encompasses 43% of the world's 249 independent linguistic stocks.

For comparison: In Mexico, a country with c.87 million people in 2 million square kilometers, there are 243 languages. In Spain, roughly half that size with 39.7 million people in 504,784 square kilometers, there are 13 languages, all but one of which (Basque) are members of the Romance family (Ethnologue, 2001).

Why is Latin America so diverse? Before the arrival of the Europeans, there were few major empires in the New World to spread linguistic homogeneity across the territory, and the complex topography of the region helped to maintain the distinctiveness of different communites over time.Kaufman (1994:34) says:

"... the linguistic diversity in the New World in 1500 was comparable to that of Africa and Oceania of the same period, that is, extremely diverse and at the same time normal" (italics his).

The point that Kaufman is making is that across most of the planet, and throughout most of human history, people have lived in smallish communities that are quite distinct from their neighbors, the way that many indigenous people in Latin America live today. Perhaps there is something healthy for human beings in this arrangement that the inhabitants of large homogenous societies could learn from? Enlightened self-interest may be a sufficient reason to support the efforts of indigenous peoples to retain their distinctive languages and cultures in the face of increasing globalization.

A short tour of Latin American languages

Let's look at some of the things that make these languages so interesting.


Some Latin American languages have many more speech sounds than are found in European languages, which is one of the things that makes it difficult to write them using European alphabets. For example, the Yuwe language of Colombia has 37 consonants and twenty vowels (5 sets of 4: oral, nasal, glottalized, aspirated, and long). Spanish has only around 20 consonants and 5 vowels.

Many Mayan languages have glottalized consonants, which are produced by closing and reopening the vocal chords simultaneously with pronunciation of the consonant. Glottalized consonants are written with a ' after the letter, as you can see in the names of the languages K'ekchi' and Q'anjob'al that appear on our search pages. (The letter q indicates a voiceless uvular consonant. An apostrophe after a vowel, as in Popti', indicates a glottal stop.)

Oto-Manguean languages have tones, like Chinese - variations in pitch that make the language sound musical, which are part of the regular structure of the language. You can hear these tones in the Otomí narrative in the archive.


One important factor in the typology of languages is the order in which words appear in clauses. The major constituents considered in this typology are the verb (V), its subject (S), and its object (O). These 3 constituents give us 6 theoretically possible orders: SOV, SVO, OSV, OVS, VSO, VOS. The most common types are SVO (Huave, English: 'dog bites cat'), SOV (Miskito, Japanese: 'dog cat bites'), and VSO (Popti', Irish: 'bites dog cat'). It was thought that Object-initial languages were impossible, until linguists learned about Hixkaryana, a Caribano language spoken in Brazil. Hixkaryana has OSV ('cat dog bites') order. Without knowledge of this language, scientists would have underestimated the full range of human cognitive ability.

Another important feature in the typology of languages is the way in which words can be formed. Synthetic (inflectional) languages, like Spanish and Portuguese, use affixes on the verb to indicate tense, aspect, person, and number. Some Latin American languages work this way too, like Zapotec. In polysynthetic languages, many affixes and stems can be joined together to form a single complex word, that may express a complete clause. An example from Classical Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, is the word "Akma'aksta'aqapi:tzaqaniqu:kamputuma:w", which meant "We were wanting to make him finish washing his ears" (Suarez, 1983:64). Modern Nahua languages are also polysynthetic, as are Zoque, Kuna, and others.

Another way in which languages can differ considerably is in how they express direction and location of actions. The Mayan languages are especially interesting in this domain. In Mam, for example, direction is indicated by means of suffixes (?) on the verb. Directionals encode both the starting and the endpoints of an action, so we have:

OK      'to go from here to there'
TZAJ   'to come from there to here'
KUB'   'to go up from down'
JAW    'to go down from up'
EL       'to go inside from outside'
OK      'to go out from inside'

Two directionals can be combined, to produce compact expressions of considerable detail:

O ja-x t-b'incha'n xjal twi' tjaa (JAW and XI)
La persona reparo su techo (de abajo para arriba hacia alla).
The person fixed their roof (from down there to up here).


The vocabularies of indigenous languages, like all human languages, reflect the local ecology, belief systems, and cultural practices. The Kunas of Panama "grouped words for plants and fruits into various classes according to a gradient system of ownership that took into account their economic value and significance in the diet [...], the food's place in the structure of the meal (e.g., as fruit, salad, or vegetable), or its size and shape (bush, tree, or shrub)" (Sherzer, 1991:256).

Sherzer notes a widespread use of metaphor in indigenous American languages, especially in Meso-America. He observes that "the ancient Mayan word kinh ... associated day, time, the sun, heat, festival, and destiny, all basic Mayan concepts. This web of associations enconded and expressed the central and significant roles of the sun and the heat in Mayan life, both for everyday and ritual purposes" (Sherzer, 1991:262).

Both Mayan and Mixe-Zoquean languages employ an extended metaphor expressing positional relations in terms of the human body. The word for mouth expresses before; the word for skin or eyes expresses in front of; the word for back expresses behind, etc. So a door is called the mouth of a house, and bark is called the skin of a tree.

Verbal art and indigenous literature

While many indigenous languages of the Americas do not have a tradition of written literature (not yet, anyway), many have important oral literatures: the collections of stories, ceremonial songs and speechs, myths, poems, and historical narratives that embody the cultural heritage of a people.

The verbal art of indigenous Latin America is as varied as the people who create it, but we can discover some common features or trends in the region. The use of metaphor noted above extends into the literature of Meso-America, in poetic forms used in both ceremonial and everyday contexts. Both Mayan and classical Nahuatl poetry made use of dualistic metaphors - a single idea expressed by a combination of two words:

water hill town
flower song poetry
jade quetzal plume beauty


In lowland South America, there is widespread use of dialog in a range of forms of verbal art, from the ritual insults of the Achuar to the ceremonial dialogs of the Xokleng and the Kuna. Ceremonial greetings among the Kuna and Shuar "are usually chanted and involve special, often metaphorical vocabulary and patterned overlap in voices" (Beier, etal. 2002).

Skill in oratory was of great importance in indigenous America. Leaders were chosen at least in part for their skill with words, in cultures ranging from the Iroquois in the north to the Incas in the south. "In the Central and South American lowlands, oratory continues to be esteemed to this day. Among the Kuna Indians of Panama ... chiefs and their spokesmen regularly chanted and spoke myths, legends, folktales, personal experiences, and counsel" (Sherzer, 1991:268).

"One of the most powerful functions of a language is that of repository for the culture and worldview of its speakers. Its grammar and lexicon store the shared experiences of past generations, and a language is the channel by which these images, emotions, knowledge and beliefs are transmitted to the next. A language does not just transmit messages: it decorates them aesthetically, and so facilitates their reception and retention.

"[L]iterature, both in spoken and written forms, is a key crossover point between the life of a language and the lives of its speakers. Literature gives a language prestige; and knowledge of its literature enriches a language's utility for its speakers. Both act to build the loyalty of speakers to their own language. All these effects then reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle." (McKenna Brown, 2002.)

AILLA's primary mission is to archive works of oral literature and make them available to the public and to the communities of speakers. We also want to support the development of written literatures for indigenous languages. You can help by visiting the websites of indigenous publishing groups on our Links page, buying their books, and encouraging your libraries to collect these important works as well.

AILLA is a joint effort of the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, the Department of Linguistics, and the Digital Library Services Division of the University Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin.
AILLA is also grateful for support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.
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