Identification. The word "Chontal" is derived from the Nahuatl word for "foreigner" or "stranger," chontalli. This term was originally applied to the Tabascan Maya by the Aztec, whose language, Nahuatl, was used as a lingua franca in many parts of Mesoamerica before and after the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish adopted this term in spite of the fact that it was also applied to different peoples in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, and in Nicaragua whose languages and cultures were unrelated to that of the Chontal of Tabasco. In this article, the word "Chontal" is used to refer only to the Chontal of Tabasco.
Location. The Chontal-Mayan-speaking area of Mexico has shrunk since the pre-Columbian period from an area that included most of the state of Tabasco and western Campeche to just the central part of Tabasco.
Demography. The first Spanish chroniclers, such as Juan de Grijalva and Hernán Cortés, left us with only a vague idea of the population of the Chontal Maya; however, by extrapolating from the data that are available, scholars have estimated that between 135,000 and 240,000 Chontal Mayan speakers lived in Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. In examining tribute lists of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, scholars have discovered that Tabasco and Campeche suffered a rapid population decline during that period. Like other indigenous populations in the New World, the Chontal Maya were not resistant to European diseases such as smallpox and measles. Tabasco's population had fallen to only 8,500 by 1579, and by 1639 amounted to just 4,630. After this severe decline, the population of Tabasco began to recover slowly: by 1794, Tabasco had a population of 35,805 (55 percent Indian, 38 percent mestizo, and 7 percent European).
It was not until the twentieth century, however, that the population of Tabasco began to grow rapidly. Mexican census data from 1960 and 1970 indicated a Chontal-speaking population of approximately 20,000. In the 1990 census, Chontal Mayan speakers older than 5 years of age numbered 30,143 in Tabasco.
Linguistic Affiliation. Chontal is one of the approximately thirty related languages that form the Mayan Language Family. The parent language of all Mayan languages, Proto-Mayan, was last spoken approximately forty-one centuries ago. As time passed, two major language branches appeared: Western and Eastern Mayan. About nineteen centuries ago, Western Mayan split up into Greater Tzeltalan and Greater Kanjobalan. Greater Tzeltalan further divided into Proto-Cholan and Tzeltalan Proper. Chontal, together with Ch'ol, Ch'orti', and Cholti, descended from Proto-Cholan. These four languages form the Cholan Subgroup of the Mayan Language Family.
Chontal, or Yokot'an, as it is called by those who speak it, plays an important role in the sociocultural life of the Chontal community. Unlike many other Maya groups, the modern Chontal Maya cannot be distinguished from Ladinos (non-Indian Spanish speakers) in appearance, occupation, economic level, or place of origin. Knowledge of the Chontal language is therefore the most important social indicator of Chontal ethnic identity.
Chontal Mayan has many dialects. The oldest known dialect of Chontal is exemplified in the Maldonado-Paxbolon Papers (Scholes and Roys 1968; Smailus 1975), which were written between 1610 and 1612. Today, each Chontal-speaking community has its own variety of Chontal; these dialects are mutually intelligible.
Since 93.2 percent of Chontal speakers also speak Spanish, the relationship between Chontal and Spanish is an important one. Spanish, as the more prestigious language, is used in the domains of established religion and education and in the workplace. Chontal is spoken primarily with friends and at home.
Although almost all Chontal speakers are bilingual, the level of fluency varies among the population, based on age and gender. In general, the men and the younger generation (men and women under 50 years of age) speak better Spanish than the women and the older generation (men and women over 50). Just as knowledge of Spanish varies within the Chontal community, so does knowledge of the Chontal language—the children in many communities speak less Chontal and more Spanish than the adults do. As more children are taught Spanish rather than Chontal, Spanish is assuming a greater role in Chontal communities, replacing Chontal even at home and among friends. Chontal Mayan is a dying language.