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The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (22)

Critical Appendix II:
Classical Náhuatl: The Aztec Language

A brief introductory textbook of Nahuatl and accompanying reference grammar are available on this web site. (Link)

"Classical" Náhuatl refers to the language as we know it from the earliest texts, those dating from the 1500s and 1600s. Náhuatl dialects spoken today exhibit a great deal of influence from Spanish, as well as several hundred years of continuing linguistic evolution.

Náhuatl words were made by stringing together quite short elements to make very long compounds. For example, matzocuitlanéltic means "something dirty." It is made up of several parts: má(itl) = hand, tzo(tl) = filth, cuítla(tl) = dung, nel(óa) = to make a mess, ic = with.

The total number of short elements is probably fewer than 2,000, but as they fell into compounds, some elements were taken in metaphorical senses. And phonologically, various sound mutations occurred. This means that it is often difficult to be certain of the parts that made up a compound, and it is hard to know which compounds would have struck a Classical Náhuatl speaker as simply ordinary words, for which the underlying compounding was entirely out of conscious focus.

It also means that some Náhuatl words are extremely long. In this essay I have sometimes arbitrarily inserted a hyphen into long compounds in order to increase legibility. (You are grateful for this.)

Sometimes the Nahua sense of metaphor was quite different from our own. The word cuítlatl, for example, means dung, as in the example above. But the "dung of the gods" (teo-cuítlatl) was the usual term for gold. Gold could even be represented in Aztec glyphs by using a picture of a god with diarrhea. (That probably struck the Spanish conquistadors as a whole new way of thinking about the metal.) The tenth Aztec emperor was named Cuitláhuac, "dung spreader," that is, one who sees to the welfare of the people the same way a farmer cares for plants by fertilizing them. The glyph for his name showed a bowl of water with a blob of dung in the center. It is unlikely than an English speaker would name a young prince "Dungspreader."


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