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.
- Classical Náhuatl contained four vowels: a (as in "father"), e (as in "bet"), i (like the "ee" in "greet"), and o (as in "go"). Each of these four vowels could be long or short, but most of the early Spanish writers couldn't hear the difference, and so the distinction was not usually incorporated into the words as written. (One result of losing track of this difference is that some writers produce misleading interpretations of Náhuatl words by linking them to incorrect roots.)
- There was no vowel corresponding to our letter U, and the Spanish routinely used the letter U to represent our W. More often they used HU before a vowel and UH after a vowel to represent our W. So "huauh" (or "uau") would have been pronounced "wow." [Note 39] (Some early Spanish writers heard the Náhuatl O as U some of the time, and wrote it that way. This is preserved in some modern place names.)
- The stress always went on the penult (the second-to-the-last syllable). Although the rule is regular, some words turn out to be counterintuitive for modern readers, so in this essay the stress is always marked. For example, Teotihuácan, Quetzal-cóatl. (That is done in no other source.) Today many place names ending in —lan or -tlan are pronounced in Mexico with the stress shifted to the end: Náhuatl Áztlan becomes Spanish Aztlán, for example.
- The letter X was used (as in the Spanish of that period) to represent a sound corresponding with English SH.
- The combination of two Ls (LL) was a long L, more or less as in English, not like the LL in Spanish.
- Náhuatl had a sound corresponding to English S. However, at that time Spanish did not use the letter S to represent that sound, and the standard spelling for Náhuatl S was therefore C before the vowels E and I, and Z or Ç everywhere else. (Today Ç is rarely used.)
- As in Spanish, the Náhuatl K sound was written QU before I or E and C elsewhere. For example, cecécatl ("cold water") was pronounced se-se-katl. Quiquíztli ("shell trumpet") was pronounced ki-kis-tli.
- Náhuatl had a sound that strikes our ear as KW. But it was understood to be a single consonant. The Spanish spelled it CU before a vowel, and UC after a vowel. So "cuauc" "would have been pronounced "kwakw." (Yes, the KW could occur as a final sound in a word.) If an A were added, the final UC would turn back into CU, and it would become "cuácua" ("to chew").
The word téuctli ("lord") is therefore pronounced tekw-tli. The two emperors whose names are often spelt "Montezuma" in English or "Moctezoma" in Spanish were actually named Moteuczóma, pronounced mo-tekw-soma.
- Náhuatl had a silent consonant that is made by briefly stopping all flow of air by constricting the throat. (Hence linguists call it a "glottal stop.") In American English we make such a non-sound when we say "uh-oh." The Spanish tended not to hear this, but when they did they spelled with an H (without an adjacent U) or sometimes they simply wrote a grave accent over the preceding vowel (À = AH). (For some reason they used a circumflex accent if it was a final vowel: Â = AH at the end of a word.)
This glottal stop made a huge difference to Náhuatl speakers because it frequently marked the plural. [Note 40] The "Mexica," as we saw earlier, are really the Mexícah. And the glottal stop counted as a full consonant in word formation: átlatl (spear thrower) is áh-tlatl, not át-latl or átl-atl. (Anthropologists have borrowed the word átlatl as a name for this object wherever it occurs in the world. In English, most of them pronounce it to rhyme with "bottle bottle.")
In some dialects of Náhuatl (possibly in most dialects in Aztec times), the glottal stop actually leaked a little air, and sounded a bit like an English H. Most English speakers find it easier to remember if they pronounce it like an English H.
In this essay, the H will be included, but the long and short vowel distinction will be marked only in the glossary.
- The combination TL was experienced by Náhuatl speakers as a single consonant (like KW), and it could occur anywhere in a word where any other consonant might occur, as we saw in the example of áh-tlatl. The "letter" TL is extremely common in Náhuatl words because the sound -tl was the most frequent suffix on nouns (including proper names) whenever they were neither possessed nor plural. (It mutates to -li or -tli depending on the word.)
For example, the word cíhuatl ("woman") is made up of cíhua+tl. The word cóatl ("snake") is made up of cóa+tl. "Female snake" (a very high title for the Aztec second-in-command) is "cihua-cóa-tl". [Note 41]
- The combination TZ was also understood as a single consonant, but it rarely gives English speakers much trouble. For example: tzíntli ("foundation, basis; buttocks').
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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