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Mexican Language

Learn more about Mexican language.

Mexico is a pluricultural nation with 63 languages and has the second largest number of indigenous languages after China and behind India. Although the majority of Mexicans speak Spanish, the Mexican government has never legally recognized Spanish as the official language of Mexico. The Mexican Constitution protects the indigenous languages of Mexico and states that the indigenous peoples have the right to "preserve and enrich their languages.” In 2003, the Mexican Congress went a step further by recognizing the indigenous languages as national languages and determining that they have the same validity as Spanish. And while approximately six million people in Mexico speak an indigenous language, according to UNESCO, many are of these languages are in danger of disappearing.

The history of the Mexican language begins with the Spanish explorers who first came to Mexico in the early 1500s. Once colonization and the implementation of Christianity began, so too did the slow process of replacing the Mesoamerican native languages with the Spanish language. Although Philip II of Spain decreed in 1570 that Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec) would become the official language of New Spain, in 1696 Charles II made an opposite decree stating that only Spanish would be used throughout the Spanish Empire. From that point on, Spanish colonizers no longer learned the indigenous languages, and the native languages began to dwindle. At around the turn of the 2oth century, 38% of Mexicans still spoke an indigenous language. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, only 6% of Mexicans still speak a native language.

After Spanish, the most common Mexican language (actually a group of related languages and dialects) is Nahuatl, spoken by approximately 1.5 million inhabitants, primarily in central rural areas. Nahuatl was the language employed by the Aztec civilization when Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortez arrived in the New World in 1519 and has been spoken in Mesoamerica since at least 700 A.D. The Nahuatl dialect that was spoken in the Aztec capital city of Tenochititlan (modern day Mexico City) was considered a prestige dialect, and when it was combined with the Latin alphabet, the resulting dialect became known as Classical Nahuatl. While Nahuatl is still spoken, the current version has been so influenced by Spanish throughout the years that no modern day Mexicans speak Classical Nahuatl

The third most common Mexican language after Nahuatl is Yucatec Maya, a Mayan language spoken by approximately 800,000 indigenous peoples in the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. Mayan languages come from Proto-Mayan, a language that is at least 5,000 years old, and Yucatec Maya is one of only three Mayan languages that uses high and low tones to distinguish between vowels. It uses ejective consonants, sometimes called glottalized consonants, that are pronounced with a popping sound, and the language does not have a grammatical category of tense. It is also unique in that it does not employ temporal connectives such as 'before' and 'after.’ Originally written in Maya hieroglyphs, modern Yucatec Maya is written in the Latin script.

Mixtec is a language family, comprised of the Trique and Cuicatec languages, plus some variations, and is spoken by approximately 550,000 Mexican people. With this language of Mexico, speakers are found primarily in the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero, but Mixtec can also be heard in some urban areas. Somewhat similar to Yucatec Maya, Mixtec uses up to 16 distinct tones to distinguish between vowels and even some syllables. Nasalization, the process of letting air escape through the nose while the mouth pronounces a word, and glottalization are also characteristics of Mixtec. In the state of Oaxaca, Mixtec survives not only because modern Mexicans speak it, but because several towns, including San Bartolo Yucuañe, San Juan Ñumí and Santa Cruz Itundujia, still bear Mixtec names.

A related group of indigenous Mesoamerica languages spoken by Mexican Zapotec natives comprises the fourth most common Mexican language. Roughly 500,000 people, found primarily in the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero, speak Zapotec, although there is no one Zapotec language. Zapotec communities within close proximity may be able to speak the same language and understand one another, or they may not. One community may have thousands of speakers of a particular Zapotec language and the next may have as few as a dozen speakers of its Zopotec language, making the language’s survival tenuous in some cases. In fact, it has been reported that in the village of San Agustin Mixtepec Zapotec, only one Zapotec speaker remains.

These are just a few of the 63 indigenous languages of Mexico, some still flourishing and some on the edge of extinction. As if to highlight the fact that soon many of these languages will be gone forever, Awakateko, one of the least common Mexican languages, is spoken by just 27 people in the entire country.


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