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Although there is some variation, the word "Nahua" generally is used today for all of the speakers of Náhuatl, which itself is sometimes also called Nahua. (The word "Náhuatl" originally meant "person who speaks clearly." "Náhuah" was the plural.)
The vast majority of the Nahua already lived in southern Mexico before the Aztecs arrived, although there were legendary accounts of some of the other named groups in the Valley of Mexico having come from the north, just as the Aztecs did. As the lingua franca of the Valley of Mexico and surrounding areas, Náhuatl also became the most important second language of non-Nahua areas that the Aztecs conquered. This was probably not due to official policy, but simply the tendency of people to learn languages that make a difference to them. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, a critical task for them was to learn Náhuatl, and the prevalence of Náhuatl-based place names far outside of Náhuatl-speaking areas is modern testimony to the early Spanish use of Náhuatl and of Náhuatl-speaking translators.
Today the number of monolingual speakers of Náhuatl in Mexico is very small —probably about 1% of the population— but the language retains a certain prestige, and it is the object of revival efforts because of its proud heritage as the pre-Columbian lingua franca.
The people who moved south and established an empire dominating the Nahua —the Aztec empire— called themselves Mexícah (singular: Mexícatl). Modern writers routinely spell this "Mexica" (pronounced meh-SHEE-ka) and use it as the name of this group (or for any of its members). It is that name that is preserved in the modern word "Mexico" (literally, "place of the Mexica"). For early periods, the term "Mexica" easily contrasts with the names of the various other groups —mostly also Náhuatl speakers— whom the Mexica encountered, and who tended to name themselves after their locations. Some of those groups too had a tradition that they had migrated from further north.
As the Mexica conquered other groups (or pulled them willy-nilly into alliances), the whole empire could also be referred to as Mexica, even though in some sense it would have been appropriate to reserve the word Mexica to the core group of immigrants and their descendents who benefited from the incoming tribute.
The Spanish seem to have introduced the word "Aztecs" (Spanish: Aztecas). It is derived linguistically from the legendary homeland of the Mexica, a place called Áztlan ("place of herons"). Nobody knows where Áztlan may have been. Aztec tradition held that it was far to the north and very wet. Modern scholars suspect that it may have lain in the marshy delta of the San Pedro river in the modern state of Nayarit, perhaps near the modern town provocatively named Mexicaltitlan ("home of the Mexica") (Horcasitas 1979:17).
Many authors use the words "Aztec" and "Mexica" more or less interchangeably. In this essay, we shall usually use the word "Aztec" for the central participants in the system of tributary empire that the Mexica and their immediate allies imposed both upon themselves and upon allied and conquered territories, while the word "Mexica" will refer to the core group of people who migrated from the north and their descendents. Thus, other members of the Triple Alliance (see below) are Aztecs, although they are not strictly Mexica. The usage ignores intermarriage, which of course occurred continually, but it will do for present purposes. Because "Aztecs" refers to a political régime, it is no longer applicable after the fall of that government in 1521, although some Mexicans use it today to refer to the whole population of Mexico and its pre-Hispanic heritage(s).
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