San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Vestiges of Ancient Indigenous Language Still Found Today in Matagalpa’s Northern Highlands

In the late 1800s, U.S. ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton concluded that he had discovered a new indigenous language originating from northern Nicaragua, which he called “Matagalpan” after the indigenous natives who first inhabited the central highlands of this country.

The discovery can be traced back to German medical doctor Karl Hermann Berendt, who obtained a list of 97 words of an unknown indigenous dialect from Victor Jesus Noguera, curate priest of Matagalpa in the 1850s. Berendet then passed the document on to his U.S. colleague, Daniel Garrison Brinton, who researched the list of words for the Philadelphia Philosophical Society, where the list can still be found today.

Brinton determined that the words had no close relation to the languages spoken by other Nicaraguan indigenous peoples – the Chorotega, Nahuatl, Subtiaba, Mosquito or Sumo. So in 1892, he declared that he had found a completely new language, naming it “Matagalpan,” because Matagalpa was the major historical and most populated indigenous town in that area.

The Matagalpa Indians are believed to be the same as those called “Chontales” by the Spanish chronicler Fernandez de Oviedo, in 1580s. They inhabited the Nicaraguan highlands at altitudes of 1300 – 5,000 feet above sea level, geographically starting in southern El Salvador and extending through what is today southwestern Honduras and the central plateau of Nicaragua.

Linguists believe the Matagalpa language belongs to the Macro-Chibcha group of languages, also spoken by the Talamancan indigenous people in Costa Rica, as well as the native people of northern Colombia.

Karl Sapper observed in the 1920s that the language was still spoken at that time the areas of Cacaopera and Lislique, in El Salvador.

In 1909,Walter Lehmann looked, without success, for vestiges of the Matagalpa language in areas like Jinotega, he found only a list of words collected by Nicaraguan linguist Alfonso Valle Valle (Goetz von Howald.

Mayagna. Fundación Vida 2003, p. 109.) But German immigrants Enrique Möller and Bruno Mierisch found that as of 1940, the language was still spoken in the limits of the provinces of Jinotega and Matagalpa, close to the mouth of the TumaRiver, in the farm of Luis Sierra.

And according to local people who travel in remote areas, the language may still be spoken in high mountains like Azancor, Musun, Pancasan region, in the province of Matagalpa.

People in these remote areas still use indigenous words such as: güina = people, li = river, cayan = mountain, moro = meseta (plateau), apan = stone, ji = cuesta (uphill road).

Some other words still in usage are: chuisli = little river, boluka = chicken or turkey, dapan = cotton tree.

Some 500 examples of the Matagalpan language may still be in use in the area today for names of rivers, ranges, valleys. Examples include: Ucumulali = rio grandee, Samulali, Yalagüina, Palacagüina, Molagüina, Moropotente, Cushmacayan = cero de la zopilota, Esteli.

Eddy Kuhl is a member of the NicaraguanAcademy Geography and History. He can be reached at


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