Mesoamerican language area

Mesoamerica is a linguistically diverse place, with languages from the Uto-Aztecan family (like Nahuatl), the Mayan languages, Oto-Manguean, Toto­na­can, Mixe-Zoque and a number of others all spoken there. However, despite being a big melting pot, the languages form a sprachbund and as such have a number of similarities to each other. The five key similarities said to characterise the Mesoamerican language area (and distinguish it from neighbouring languages that do not belong) are:

  • similar structure for describing possessives, i.e. “his dog the man” for “the man’s dog”
  • using nouns to serve the role prepositions have in English (with possessives where we would have objects), so structures like “my with” for “with me”
  • pied-piping with inversion: this basically seems to be that in sentences with wh-questions, the entire noun phrase moves to the front and the order of words within that noun phrase swaps, so “grabbed Juan her dog Mary” (Juan grabbed Mary’s dog) → “who her dog grabbed Juan” (whose dog did Juan grab?). That is, not only does the part of the sentence with the wh-question word get piped to the front, but in the statement the word order of the noun phrase goes “her dog Mary”, while in the question, it inverts to “who her dog”.
  • sentences cannot end with verbs, even though most of the languages bordering the Mesoamerican language area have verb-final orders
  • widespread calques. a lot of nouns in Mesoamerican languages are formed by compounding two other words, like “head-leg” for “knee” or “bird-stone” for “egg” or “deer-snake” for “boa constrictor”. Even though languages from unrelated families have unrelated words for these things, they still construct the words in the same way, so for e.g. each language family has its own words for “bird” and “stone”, but in all of them the combination of “bird-stone” means “egg”.

Another feature that all languages within the Mesoamerican sprachbund share is that they use a vigesimal counting system (i.e. base 20), but this is a feature that spread beyond the sprachbund’s borders as well.