Not Just Spanish—A Look at the Language of Mexico

  |  October 17, 2018

Spanish is only one, not the official, language of Mexico.

If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, the ability to hablar español will likely help, especially in tourist areas. But if you plan to explore the breadth of the country, you’ll find the language of Mexico divided into 287 different languages and dialects.

While many of these are only spoken by small, isolated pockets of the population, out of the indigenous languages of Mexico, 76 are commonly spoken—and 87 are considered developing.

For example, the Chontal Maya, spoken in the north-central and southern towns of Tabasco state in Eastern Central Mexico, is regularly used by over 37,000 people. Moreover, use of the Chol language, of Mayan derivation, is on the rise among better than 185,000 people.

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The Language of Mexico: Its History

Many of the indigenous languages of Mexico boast linguistic data at least 5,000 years old. As early as 2,000 BC, the three major language families of Mexico were already in use: Mayan, Mixe-Zoquean, and Oto-Manguean.

Around that time, the Olmec civilization was on the rise and great migrations took place, with the people carrying their languages with them.

The Oto-Manguean language spread across central Mexico, the Mayan language speakers migrated north, and the Olmecs, primarily speaking languages from the Mixe-Zoquean family, stabilized and settled.

As other civilizations began to flourish over the Olmecs, they brought their own language families, like Uto-Aztecan. Over time, the Aztec, Zapotec, and Mixtec civilizations spread their power far and wide, influencing the spoken languages within their region of influence.

The most widely spoken indigenous language of Mexico is Nahuatl. This language stems from the Uto-Aztecan language family, which researchers believe originated in the southwestern region of the United States. Speakers of the language migrated to Central Mexico around 500 AD.

Nearly 100 years later, Nahuatl became the most powerful language of the region, spoken fluently across the great Aztec civilization.

Today, it is spoken by only 1,376,026 people, primarily in the states of Guerrero, Puebla, Hidalgo, Veracruz, and San Luis Potosí.

The Yucatec Maya language, commonly called Maya, belongs to the Mayan language family and is principally spoken in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The speakers migrated there around 1,400 BC and, over time, developed a powerful civilization, co-existing with other major civilizations like the Olmec. Today, an estimated 759,000 people still speak the language, mainly in the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche.

The third most widely spoken indigenous language of Mexico is Mixtec, which belongs to the Oto-Manguean family. This language grew in and around the region of present-day Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero, also referred to as La Mixteca.

The Mixtec culture has existed since pre-Columbian times and was a main competitor of the Zapotec culture. Today, 423,216 people speak this language.

The Language of Mexico: Spanish and More

While the government and more than 120 million people use Spanish almost exclusively, it is not technically the official language of Mexico. In fact, the Constitution of Mexico defines the country as multilingual and recognizes the right of indigenous people to use and preserve their languages.

Additionally, the government enacted the Law of Linguistic Rights in 2003, recognizing 62 indigenous languages as co-official national languages. It also establishes bilingual education and promotes efforts to perpetuate the differing languages and dialects found all across Mexico.

Sadly, this effort to preserve and promote the indigenous languages of Mexico is struggling. This is mainly due to the fact that younger generations are more exposed to Spanish and English through global communications.

In today’s fast-paced and modern world, many choose to discard the language of their ancestors.  

The Language of Mexico: Dialects

Spanish is the main language used in Mexico, just as it is in over two dozen countries scattered across five continents. And in each of those countries, Spanish has multiple variations, called dialects, that are unique to various regions. Think of the variations in American English between Austin and Boston, and you get the picture.

Mexico is the 13th largest independent country in the world and is home to more than 120 million inhabitants. They will not all speak the same.

Those in the north, closer to the United States, speak a dialect strongly influenced by English. The gulf coast region  has similarities to Caribbean languages, while further south the voseo dialect has more than a hint of Guatemalan influence.

In all, Mexico has five distinct dialects that can each be divided into several sub-dialects:

  1. Northern
  2. Baja Californian
  3. Central
  4. Coastal
  5. Southern

Each has their own particular ways of handling verb tenses, vowels, and articles, and even contain completely different words.

So, depending on the region in which you are speaking, to get drunk is pistear in the North, and emborracharse elsewhere. Similarly, to bathe is pasarse in one region, bañarse in another.

International Language Services has been helping clients translate important materials for more than 35 years. You can be certain that we will find the right way to communicate your message, even across regional dialects.