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The Uto-Aztecan language family is one of the largest linguistic families in the Americas in terms of number of speakers, number of languages, and geographic extension. The northernmost Uto-Aztecan language is Shoshoni, which is spoken as far north as Salmon, Idaho, while the southernmost is the Pipil language of El Salvador. Ethnologue gives the total number of languages in the family as 61, and the total number of speakers as 1,900,412. Speakers of Nahuatl languages account for almost four-fifths of these.
The homeland of the Uto-Aztecan languages is generally considered to have been in the Southwestern United States or possibly Northwestern Mexico. An alternative theory has proposed the possibility that the language family originated in southern Mexico, within the Mesoamerican language area, but this has not been generally considered convincing.
Uto-Aztecan-speaking communities in and around Mexico
History of classification
Uto-Aztecan has been accepted by linguists as a language family since the early 1900s, and six subgroups are generally accepted as valid: Numic, Takic, Pimic, Taracahitic, Corachol, and Aztecan. That leaves two ungrouped languages: Tübatulabal and Hopi (sometimes termed "isolates within the family"). Some recent studies have begun to question the unity of Taracahitic and Takic and computer-assisted statistical studies have begun to question some of the long-held assumptions and consensuses. As to higher-level groupings, disagreement has persisted since the 19th century. Presently scholars also disagree as to where to draw language boundaries within the dialect continua.
The similarities among the Uto-Aztecan languages were noted as early as 1859 by J. C. E. Buschmann, but he failed to recognize the genetic affiliation between the Aztecan branch and the rest. He ascribed the similarities between the two groups to diffusion. Daniel Garrison Brinton added the Aztecan languages to the family in 1891 and coined the term Uto-Aztecan. John Wesley Powell, however, rejected the claim in his own classification of North American indigenous languages (also published in 1891). Powell recognized two language families: "Shoshonean" (encompassing Takic, Numic, Hopi, and Tübatulabal) and "Sonoran" (encompassing Pimic, Taracahitan, and Corachol). In the early 1900s Alfred L. Kroeber filled in the picture of the Shoshonean group, while Edward Sapir proved the unity among Aztecan, "Sonoran", and "Shoshonean". Sapir's applications of the comparative method to unwritten Native American languages are regarded as groundbreaking.Voegelin, Voegelin & Hale (1962) argued for a three-way division of Shoshonean, Sonoran and Aztecan, following Powell.
As of about 2011, there is still debate about whether to accept the proposed basic split between "Northern Uto-Aztecan" and "Southern Uto-Aztecan" languages. Northern Uto-Aztecan corresponds to Powell's "Shoshonean", and the latter is all the rest: Powell's "Sonoran" plus Aztecan. Northern Uto-Aztecan was proposed as a genetic grouping by Jeffrey Heath in Heath (1978) based on morphological evidence, and Alexis Manaster Ramer in Manaster Ramer (1992) adduced phonological evidence in the form of a sound law. Terrence Kaufman in Kaufman (1981) accepted the basic division into Northern and Southern branches as valid. Other scholars have rejected the genealogical unity of either both nodes or the Northern node alone.Wick R. Miller's argument was statistical, arguing that Northern Uto-Aztecan languages displayed too few cognates to be considered a unit. On the other hands he found the number of cognates among Southern Uto-Aztecan languages to suggest a genetic relation. This position was supported by subsequent lexicostatistic analyses by Cortina-Borja & Valiñas-Coalla (1989) and Cortina-Borja, Stuart-Smith & Valiñas-Coalla (2002). Reviewing the debate, Haugen (2008) considers the evidence in favor of the genetic unity of Northern Uto-Aztecan to be convincing, but remains agnostic on the validity of Southern Uto-Aztecan as a genetic grouping. Hill (2011) also considered the North/South split to be valid based on phonological evidence, confirming both groupings. Merrill (2013) adduced further evidence for the unity of Southern Uto-Aztecan as a valid grouping.
Hill (2011) also rejected the validity of the Takic grouping decomposing it into a Californian areal grouping together with Tubatulabal.
Some classifications have posited a genetic relation between Corachol and Nahuan (e.g. Merrill (2013)). Kaufman recognizes similarities between Corachol and Aztecan, but explains them by diffusion instead of genetic evolution. Most scholars view the breakup of Proto-Uto-Aztecan as a case of the gradual disintegration of a dialect continuum.
Below is a representation of the internal classification of the language family based on Shaul (2014). The classification reflects the decision to split up the previous Taracahitic and Takic groups, that are no longer considered to be valid genetic units. Whether the division between Northern and Southern languages is best understood as geographical or phylogenetic is under discussion. The table contains demographic information about number of speakers and their locations based on data from The Ethnologue. The table also contains links to a selected bibliography of grammars, dictionaries on many of the individual languages.(+ = extinct)
In addition to the above languages for which linguistic evidence exists, it is suspected that among dozens of now extinct, undocumented or poorly known languages of northern Mexico, many were Uto-Aztecan.
A large number of languages known only from brief mentions are thought to have been Uto-Aztecan languages that became extinct before being documented.
Proto-Uto-Aztecan is the hypothetical common ancestor of the Uto-Aztecan languages. Authorities on the history of the language group have usually placed the Proto-Uto-Aztecan homeland in the border region between the United States and Mexico, namely the upland regions of Arizona and New Mexico and the adjacent areas of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, roughly corresponding to the Sonoran Desert and the western part of the Chihuahuan Desert. It would have been spoken by Mesolithic foragers in Aridoamerica, about 5,000 years ago.
Caballero, G. (2011). "Behind the Mexican Mountains: Recent Developments and New Directions in Research on Uto-Aztecan Languages". Language and Linguistics Compass. 5 (7): 485-504. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818x.2011.00287.x.
Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford University Press.
Campbell, Lyle (2003). "What drives linguistic diversification and language spread?". In Bellwood, Peter; Renfrew, Colin (eds.). Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis. Cambridge(U.K.): McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. pp. 49-63.
Campbell, Lyle; Poser, William J. (2008). Language classification, history and method. Cambridge University Press.
Cortina-Borja, M.; Stuart-Smith, J.; Valiñas-Coalla, L. (2002). "Multivariate classification methods for lexical and phonological dissimilarities and their application to the Uto-Aztecan family". Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. 9 (2): 97-124. doi:10.1076/jqul.126.96.36.19985. S2CID205390627.
Miller, Wick R. (1986). "Numic Languages". In Warren L. d'Azevedo (ed.). Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 11, Great Basin. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 98-106.
Miller, Wick R. (1983a). "A note on extinct languages of northwest Mexico of supposed Uto-Aztecan affiliation". International Journal of American Linguistics. 49 (3): 328-333. doi:10.1086/465793. S2CID144510097.
Miller, Wick R. (1983). "Uto-Aztecan languages". In Ortiz, Alfonso (ed.). Handbook of North American Indians. 10. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 113-124.
Miller, Wick R. (1984). "The classification of the Uto-Aztecan languages based on lexical evidence". International Journal of American Linguistics. 50 (1): 1-24. doi:10.1086/465813. S2CID144398421.
Mithun, Marianne (1999). The languages of Native America. Cambridge University Press.
Sapir, E. (1913). "Southern Paiute and Nahuatl, a study in Uto-Aztekan". Journal de la Société des Américanistes. 10 (2): 379-425. doi:10.3406/jsa.1913.2866.
Shaul, David L. (2014). A Prehistory of Western North America: The Impact of Uto-Aztecan Languages. University of New Mexico Press.
Steele, Susan (1979). "Uto-Aztecan: An assessment for historical and comparative linguistics". In Campbell, Lyle; Mithun, Marianne (eds.). The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 444-544.
Voegelin, C. F.; Voegelin, F.; Hale, K. (1962). Typological and Comparative Grammar of Uto-Aztecan: Phonology. Memoirs of the International Journal of American Linguistics. 17. Waverly Press.
Robinson, Lila Wistrand; Armagost, James (1990). Comanche dictionary and grammar. publications in linguistics (No. 92). Dallas, Texas: The Summer Institute of Linguistics and The University of Texas at Arlington.
Zigmond, Maurice L.; Booth, Curtis G.; Munro, Pamela (1991). Pamela Munro (ed.). Kawaiisu, A Grammar and Dictionary with Texts. University of California Publications in Linguistics. 119. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Nichols, Michael (1973). Northern Paiute historical grammar. University of California, Berkeley PhD dissertation.
McLaughlin, John E. (2012). Shoshoni Grammar. Languages of the World/Meterials 488. Muenchen: LINCOM Europa.
Press, Margaret L. (1979). Chemehuevi, A Grammar and Lexicon. University of California Publications in Linguistics. 92. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Sapir, Edward (1992) . "Southern Paiute, a Shoshonean Language". In William Bright (ed.). The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, X, Southern Paiute and Ute Linguistics and Ethnography. Berlin: Mouton deGruyter.
Seiler, Hans-Jakob (1977). Cahuilla Grammar. Banning, California: Malki Museum Press.
Hill, Kenneth C. (1967). A Grammar of the Serrano Language. University of California, Los Angeles, PhD dissertation.
Hill, Jane H. (2005). A Grammar of Cupeño. University of California Publications in Linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Miller, Wick R. (1996). La lengua guarijio: gramatica, vocabulario y textos. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas, UNAM.
Bascom, Burton W. (1982). "Northern Tepehuan". In Ronald W. Langacker (ed.). Studies in Uto-Aztecan Grammar, Volume 3, Uto-Aztecan Grammatical Sketches. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Arlington. pp. 267-393.
Lionnet, Andrés (1978). El idioma tubar y los tubares. Segun documentos ineditos de C. S. Lumholtz y C. V. Hartman. Mexico, D. F: Universidad Iberoamericana.
Casad, Eugene H. (1984). "Cora". In Ronald W. Langacker (ed.). Studies in Uto-Aztecan grammar 4: Southern Uto-Aztecan grammatical sketches. Summer Institute of Linguistics Publications in Linguistics 56. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Arlington. pp. 153-149.
Langacker, Ronald W., ed. (1979). Studies in Uto-Aztecan Grammar 2: Modern Aztec Grammatical Sketches. Summer Institute of Linguistics Publications in Linguistics, 56. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Arlington. ISBN978-0-88312-072-9.
Shaul, D. L. (2001). The Opatan Languages, Plus Jova. Festschrift. INAH.
Iturrioz Leza, José Luis; Ramírez de la Cruz, Julio (2001). Gramática Didáctica del Huichol: Vol. I. Estructura Fonológica y Sistema de Escritura. Departamento de Estudios en Lenguas Indígenas-Universidad de Guadalajara - Secretaria de Educación Pública.