Nahuatl - The Lingua Franca of the Aztec Empire

The Language of the Aztec/Mexica is Spoken Today by 1.5 Million People

Stations of the Cross in Nahuatl, Published in 1717
Stations of the Cross in Nahuatl, Published in 1717. Jim McIntosh

Náhuatl (pronounced NAH-wah-tuhl) was the language spoken by the people of the Aztec Empire, known as the Aztec or Mexica. Although the spoken and written form of the language has substantively changed from the prehispanic classical form, Nahuatl has persevered for half a millennium. It is still spoken today by approximately 1.5 million people, or 1.7% of the total population of Mexico, many of whom call their language Mexicano (Me-shee-KAH-no).

The word "Nahuatl" is itself one of several words that mean to one extent or another "good sounds", an example of encoded meaning that is central to the Nahuatl language. Mapmaker, priest, and leading Enlightenment intellectual of New Spain José Antonio Alzate [1737–1799] was an important advocate for the language. Although his arguments failed to gain support, Alzate vigorously objected to Linnaeus's use of Greek words for New World botanical classifications, arguing that Nahuatl names were uniquely useful because they encoded a storehouse of knowledge that could be applied to the scientific project.

Náhuatl's Origins

Náhuatl is part of the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the largest of the Native American language families. The Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Nahuan family includes many North American languages such as Comanche, Shoshone, Paiute, Tarahumara, Cora, and Huichol. The Uto-Aztecan main language diffused out of the Great Basin, moving where the Nahuatl language probably originated, in the upper Sonoran region of what is now New Mexico and Arizona and the lower Sonoran area in Mexico.

Nahuatl speakers are first believed to have reached the Central Mexican highlands sometime around AD 400/500, but they came in several waves and settled among different groups such as Otomangean and Tarascan speakers. According to historical and archaeological sources, the Mexica were among the last of the Náhuatl speakers to migrate from their homeland in the north.

Náhuatl Distribution

With the founding of their capital at Tenochtitlan, and the growth of the Aztec/Mexica empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, Náhuatl spread all over Mesoamerica. This language became a lingua franca spoken by merchants, soldiers, and diplomats, over an area including what is today northern Mexico to Costa Rica, as well as parts of Lower Central America.

Legal steps which reinforced its lingua franca status included the decision by King Philip II in 1570 to make Nahuatl the linguistic medium for clerics to use in religious conversion and for the training of ecclesiastics working with the native people in different regions. Members of the nobility from other ethnic groups, including Spaniards, used spoken and written Nahuatl to facilitate communication throughout New Spain.

Sources for Classical Nahuatl

The most extensive source on Náhuatl language is the book written in the mid-16th century by friar Bernardino de Sahagún called the Historia General de la Nueva España, which is included in the Florentine Codex. For its 12 books, Sahagún and his assistants collected what is essentially an encyclopedia of the language and culture of the Aztec/Mexica. This text contains parts written both in Spanish and Náhuatl transliterated into the Roman alphabet.

Another important document is the Codex Mendoza, commissioned by King Charles I of Spain, which combined a history of the Aztec conquests, the amount and types of tributes paid to the Aztecs by geographical province, and an account of Aztec daily life, beginning in 1541. This document was written by skilled native scribes and overseen by the Spanish clerics, who added glosses in both Nahuatl and Spanish.

Saving the Endangered Nahuatl Language

After the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, the use of Nahuatl as an official medium for documentation and communication disappeared. Intellectual elites in Mexico engaged in a creation of new national identity, seeing the indigenous past as an obstacle to the modernization and progress of Mexican society. Over time, Nahua communities became more and more isolated from the rest of Mexican society, suffering what researchers Okol and Sullivan refer to as a political dislocation arising from the lack of prestige and power, and a closely-related cultural dislocation, resulting from modernization and globalization.

Olko and Sullivan (2014) report that although prolonged contact with Spanish has resulted in changes in word morphology and syntax, in many places there persist close continuities between the past and present forms of Nahuatl. The Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas (IDIEZ) is one group working together with Nahua speakers to continue practicing and developing their language and culture, training the Nahua speakers to teach Nahuatl to others and to actively collaborate with international academics in research projects. A similar project is underway (described by Sandoval Arenas 2017) at the Intercultural University of Veracruz.

Náhuatl Legacy

There is today a wide variation in the language, both linguistically and culturally, that can be attributed in part to the successive waves of Nahuatl speakers who arrived in the valley of Mexico so long ago. There are three major dialects of the group known as Nahua: the group in power in the Valley of Mexico at the time of contact was that Aztecs, who called their language Nahuatl. To the west of the Valley of Mexico, the speakers called their language Nahual; and dispersed around those two clusters was a third who called their language Nahuat. This last group included the Pipil ethnic group who eventually migrated to El Salvador.

Many contemporary place names in Mexico and Central America are the result of a Spanish transliteration of their Náhuatl name, such as Mexico and Guatemala. And many Nahuatl words have passed into the English dictionary through Spanish, such as coyote, chocolate, tomato, chili, cacao, avocado and many others.

What does Nahuatl Sound Like?

Linguists can define the original sounds of classical Nahuatl in part because the Aztec/Mexica used a glyphic writing system based on Nahuatl that contained some phonetic elements, and the Spanish ecclesiastics matched the Roman phonetic alphabet to the "good sounds" they heard from the locals. The earliest extant Nahuatl-Roman alphabets are from the Cuernavaca region and date to the late 1530s or early 1540s; they were probably written by various indigenous individuals and compiled by a Franciscan friar.

In her 2014 book Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory, archaeologist and linguist Frances Berdan provides a pronunciation guide to classical Nahuatl, only a small taste of which is listed here. Berdan reports that in classical Nahuatl the main stress or emphasis in a given word is almost always on the next-to-last syllable. There are four main vowels in the language: a as in the English word "palm", e as in "bet", i as in "see", and o as in "so". Most consonants in Nahuatl are the same as those used in English or Spanish, but the "tl" sound is not quite "tuhl", it more of a glottal "t" with a little puff of breath for the "l". See Berdan for more information.

There is an Android-based application called ALEN (Audio-Lexicon Spanish-Nahuatl) in a beta form that has both written and oral modalities, and uses homemade illustrations, and word search facilities. According to García-Mencía and colleagues (2016), the app beta has 132 words; but the commercial Nahuatl iTunes App written by Rafael Echeverria currently has more than 10,000 words and phrases in Nahuatl and Spanish.

Sources

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

  • Berdan FF. 2014. Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dakin K. 2001. Nahuatl. In: Carrasco D editor. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p 363-365.
  • García-Mencía R, López-López A, and Muñoz Meléndez A. 2016. An Audio-Lexicon Spanish-Nahuatl: Using technology to promote and disseminate a native Mexican language. In: Bradley L, and Thouësny S, editors. CALL communities and culture – short papers from EUROCALL 2016: Research-publishing.net. p 155-159.
  • Maxwell JM. 2001. Languages at the Time of Contact. In: Evans ST, and Webster DL, editors. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. p 395-396.
  • Mundy BE. 2014. Place-Names in Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Ethnohistory 61(2):329-355.
  • Olko J, and Sullivan J. 2014. Toward a comprehensive model for Nahuatl language research and revitalization. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 40:369-397.
  • Sandoval Arenas CO. 2017. Displacement and revitalization of the Nahuatl language in the High Mountains of Veracruz, Mexico. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 16(1):66-81.
  • Various authors. 2011. Los Nahua. Cultura Viva, Arqueología Mexicana 19(109, May-June)