Endangered Language Alliance


an Eastern Oto-Manguean language of Mexico


Amuzgo, also called Nomndaa or Ñomndaa, is spoken in the coastal areas of Guerrero and Oaxaca, two states in southern Mexico known for their cultural and linguistic diversity. A 2010 census in Mexico found approximately 44,000 speakers of the language, overwhelmingly in the three municipalities within Guerrero: Xochistlahuaca, Tlacoachistlahuaca, and Ometepc. There is some degree of literacy in the modern Amuzgo alphabet, a Latin-based script, including an Amuzgo New Testament as well as educational materials.


Amuzgo is a member of the Oto-Manguean language family, a highly diverse group of languages spoken by several million people across southern Mexico and formerly in parts of Central America. Many Oto-Manguean languages have disappeared or are spoken today only by very small numbers of people. Amuzgo’s place in the language family’s Eastern Oto-Manguean branch is uncertain, but it clearly shares many similarities through inheritance or contact with the Mixtecan languages, another focus of ELA research.


Some Amuzgo speakers, especially those in Guerrero, are reported to be monolingual, but many are also frequent and fluent Spanish speakers. Although Amuzgo as a whole is comparatively robust, especially the Guerrero (or Northern) dialect, the varieties spoken in Oaxaca–San Pedro Amuzgos (Upper Eastern) and Ipalapa (Lower Eastern)–are increasingly endangered. Mexico’s official Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (INALI) also recognizes a fourth, little-studied Southern dialect spoken in and around Ometepec. In a few areas with a high density of speakers, there are now bilingual Amuzgo-Spanish schools and a radio station, Radio Ñomndaa, which broadcasts in the language. Still, the language is not used in any real official capacity and older monolingual Amuzgos face serious difficulties in obtaining services in the language. A journalist reports that the local hospital of Xochistlahuaca lacks an Amuzgo interpreter and thus patients are often prescribed the wrong medicine due to miscommunications:

…en el hospital básico de Xochistlahuaca hace falta una traductora de lengua indígena para atender bien a los indígenas, “porque sucede muchas veces que, como el médico no les entiende bien cuál es el padecimiento, les da otra medicina que termina por enfermar más a las pacientes”. (Contralinea 18, Dec. 1 2008)

Efforts at the promotion of indigenous rights are often met with brutality and the radio station survives only by virtue of the bravery of its staff and supporters (see video below). In one of the poorest and most dangerous regions in Mexico, the Amuzgo people struggle to maintain their livelihood, culture and language without institutional support.

Academic Work

The first description of Amuzgo was by Francisco Belmar in 1901 but it would nearly half a century before work on this language was continued. Three Amuzgo-Spanish dictionaries have been published in recent years, focused on the San Pedro Amuzgas dialect–two of them by the linguist L. Fermín Tapia García and one by Cloyd and Ruth Stewart of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. A fourth dictionary, of the Xochistlahuaca dialect, is currently being prepared by Marjorie Buck. It is available, together with a relatively large number of SIL literacy publications in the Xochistlahuaca dialect, here. A native speaker linguist, Moises Zeferino de Jesus Garcia, has also recently completed a thesis documenting the extremely complex verbal paradigms of the language.

The phonology of Amuzgo has been its most discussed aspect. Bauernschmidt’s (1965) paper introduced the notion of the “ballistic” syllable by way of a general description of Amuzgo syllable structure. The uniqueness of the ballistic/controlled distinction has been disputed in more recent works (Hererra 2000) but its relatedness to more familiar phenomena such as breathy voice remains an open question. Recent work has also tackled the complex tone system and its interaction with the phonation distinction (Smith-Stark & Garcia 1984, Williams 2005, Kim 2011).

Selected Bibliography

Bauernschmidt, Amy. 1965. Amuzgo syllable dynamics. Language 41. 471-83.

Belmar, Francisco. 1901. Investigación sobre el idioma amuzgo, que se habla en algunos pueblos del distrito de Jamiltepec; se toma para dichas investigaciones el idioma que se habla en el pueblo de Ipalapa. Lenguas del Estado de Oaxaca, Oaxaca.

Buck, Marjorie J. 2000. Gramática amuzga de San Pedro Amuzgos, Oaxaca. In C. Stewart & R. Stewart, Diccionario amuzgo de San Pedro Amuzgos, Oaxaca, Coyoacán, pp. 361-480. D.F.: ILV.

Cuevas Suárez, Susana. 1985. Fonología generativa del amuzgo. Colección Científica 141, Serie Linguistica. México, D.F.: INAH.

De Jesús García, Moisés Zeferino. 2004. La morfología verbal del amuzgo de Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero. Masters Thesis. Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, México.

Hart, Helen Long. 1957. Hierarchical structuring of Amuzgo grammar. IJAL 23:3.141-64.

Herrera Z., Esther. 2000. Amuzgo and Zapotec: Two more cases of laryngeally complex languages. Anthropological Linguistics 42:4, pp. 545-563.

Kim, Yuni. 2011. Algunas evidencias sobre representaciones tonales en amuzgo de
San Pedro Amuzgos. Proceedings of CILLA V.

Longacre, Robert E. 1966. The linguistic affinities of Amuzgo. En Pompa y Pompa, editor, Summa antropologica en homenaje a Roberto J. Weitlaner, pp. 541-60. México, D.F.: INAH.

Longacre, Robert E. and René Millon. 1966. Proto-Mixtecan and Proto-Amuzgo- Mixtecan vocabularies; a preliminary cultural analysis. Anthropological Linguistics 3:4.1-44.

Rensch, Calvin R. 1976. Phonological developments in Amuzgo. In Comparative Otomanguean Phonology, pp. 117-26. Language Science Monograph 14. Bloominton, Indiana: Indiana University Publications.

Smith Stark, Thomas C. and Fermín Tapia García. 1984. Los tonos del amuzgo de San Pedro Amuzgos, Anales de Antropología 21, pp. 199-220. Fonética y Fonología y Tipología.

Smith Stark, Thomas C. and Fermín Tapia García. 2002. El amuzgo como lengua activa. In II Volumen de Investigaciones lingüísticas en Mesoamérica. Paulette Levy (ed.), pp. 81-129. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México.

Tapia García, L. Fermín. 1999. Tzon ‘tzikindyi jño ndá Tzjón Noa yo jño tzko. Diccionario amuzgo-español. El amuzgo de San Pedro Amuzgos, Oaxaca. México: CIESAS, Plaza y Valdés.

Williams, Cindy. 2005. An analysis of Amuzgo nominal tone. In Rosemary Beam de Azcona and Mary Paster (eds.), pp. 147-161. Survey of California and other Indian languages 13.

See the Glottolog entry on Amuzgoan.

ELA’s Work

Along with other Mexicans of indigenous descent, Amuzgo speakers have started arriving in New York over the past few decades. We have been working with one local speaker of Amuzgo, Jesus Santana, over the past three years, to further document aspects of Amuzgo grammar. We are particularly interested in the grammar, which has not been described in any detail as well as Amuzgo’s relations to Mixtecan.

Work in progress includes a topological survey, a preliminary version of which is can be seen below, as well as analysis of the agreement system, first described for the San Pedro dialect by Smith-Stark & Garcia (1986/2002). As with all of our other projects, text collection is a continuing priority and some results can be seen in the above videos.

The recordings below demonstrate Amuzgo tones: