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Detalle del códice Nuttall
The confusing name “Chontal”
Oaxaca Chontal and Tabasco Chontal

Two languages are called Chontal. The Chontal spoken in the state of Oaxaca is thought to be part of the Hokan stock, whereas the Chontal spoken in the state of Tabasco is Mayan. The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

Map for languages called Chontal

Oaxaca Chontal, in its highland and lowland varieties (ISO codes clo and chd, respectively), is the last surviving representative of the Tequistlatecan family. Although this family is considered part of the Hokan stock, its relationship to the other Hokan languages (the Yuman languages, perhaps Seri) is so distant that some even doubt whether it should be included in that stock, or should be considered a linguistic isolate.

Tabasco Chontal (ISO code chf) is a language of the Mayan family, spoken in the state of Tabasco by about 45,000 people. It forms a sub-family together with Ch'ol, Tzeltal and Tzotzil (spoken in Chiapas) and Chortí, which is spoken in Guatemala.

The etymology of “Chontal”

The Nahuatl word chontalli (whose root is chontal) means ‘foreigner’. The fact that both the Chontales of Oaxaca and those of Tabasco were foreigners to the Nahuatl-speakers explains both why these two languages could be called by the same name, and why the enormous linguistic differences between them could be ignored in so doing. The wonder is that there are not more languages called Chontal today, since all the non-Nahuatl languages would have been as good candidates as these two.

The image at the beginning of this page is a detail from Codex Nuttall, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen, and is used by permission.