Themes: Language

Language in Mexico and Central America

Mesoamerican languages and ancient writing systems

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they discovered a bewildering variety of indigenous peoples along with a complex diversity of languages and dialects.  Later scholarship also discovered the history of ancient writing systems in Mesoamerica, comparable to the famous hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, the best known being the classic Maya script. Aztec and Mixtec cultures never developed true writing systems, but did produce elaborate symbolic naming systems, represented by logographic glyphs.  In the colonial period, Náhuatl, along with many other native languages, was systematized so that it could be taught and written down.  Dictionaries were made and illuminated codices, using the local indigenous language but written in Latin script.


Language diversity today

Many of the indigenous languages of Mexico and Central America are still widely spoken today.  Náhuatl is one of the largest and most well known of these indigenous languages; it is an Aztec language, still spoken in various regions across central Mexico.  The English word ‘tomato’ derives from the Náhuatl ‘tomoatl’.  In Guatemala, Belize and Honduras the Mayan languages are widespread; the largest Mayan language, Yucatec-Maya, is spoken by perhaps as many as a million people in the Yucatan Peninsula.  In Oaxaca both Mixtec and Zapotec are also still widely spoken.  The survival of around 58 other indigenous languages is more precarious, with roughly half classed as endangered.  Different dialects can be found within language regions, and are strongly expressive of local identity.