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Intro & Index, Lesson 2

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Lesson 1: Pronunciation

Classical Nahuatl pronunciation is relatively simple and follows the spelling closely. There are four complications for English speakers:
  1. Spelling has not been stable over time, so the spelling you see may not be the spelling you need when you look something up in a dictionary.
  2. Most spelling systems are based on Spanish, not English, usage.
  3. We are not used to distinguishing long and short vowels.
  4. We are not used to treating TL and KW as single consonants.

Sounds

Vowels are a, e, i, and o, and may be long or short. (There is no vowel corresponding to u. When you see the letter used as though it were a vowel, it stands for o or w.)

Long and short vowels differ in pronunciation only in how long one keeps the vowel going. This mattered a lot to the speakers of Classical Nahuatl, who listened for this distinction, but it was difficult for the Spanish to hear, and they rarely recorded it. Modern reconstructions do not all agree in detail about vowel length. Perhaps under the influence of Spanish, vowel length distinctions do not seem to occur in modern Nahuatl.

In this text a long vowel is indicated by writing it with a diaresis (umlaut) over it: ë, ä. It is more usual to indicate a long vowel by a macron ("long mark") over the vowel or by two dots after the vowel: xāco = xäco = xa:co.

(It actually works reasonably well to double the vowel to show greater length, since double vowels were extremely rare in Nahuatl, and can be separated should occasion require with an apostrophe. However I resist that convention here, since it would be met nowhere else.)

Some suffixes lengthen the previous vowel. In those cases I have used a colon as the first letter of the suffix when it is listed separately. When two or more identical vowels come together they form a long vowel. If one (or more) of them is already long vowel, the result is still only one long vowel: ï + ïxpan = ïxpan.

Stress is on the second syllable from the end except when addressing a man by name (the "masculine vocative"). (Today these cases are usually marked with the accent mark ´ as a reminder that the stress is unusual.)

Spelling

Most letters are used more or less as in English, Spanish, or other languages you may know. Here are a few special points to remember: Study the following table:
Sound My Spelling Usual Modern Spelling Early Spanish Spellings
h or glottal stop h h or ` (medial) or ^ (final) h or unwritten
k qu before e or i,
c elsewhere
qu before e or i,
c elsewhere
qu before e or i,
c elsewhere
kw uc at end of syllable,
cu elsewhere
uc at end of syllable,
cu elsewhere
uc at end of syllable,
cu elsewhere
long l ll ll ll
long vowel : or umlaut : or long mark length not indicated
s c before e or i,
z elsewhere
c before e or i,
z elsewhere
c before e or i,
z elsewhere; also ç
sh x x x
w uh at end of syllable,
hu elsewhere
uh at end of syllable,
hu elsewhere
uh at end of syllable,
hu elsewhere; or u

Pronunciation Examples:

cuach.tli = KWACH-tli cua.huitl = KWA-witl
te.huatl = TE-watl teuc.tli = TEKW-tli
më.xih.cah = më-SHIH-kah ci.cuil.li = si-KWIL-li
cui.litl = KWI-litl ah.quëm.man = ah-KEEM-man
ci.hua.co.atl = si-wa-KO-atl tö.tah = TO-tah
tic.niuh = TIK-niw to.tah.tzin = to-TAH-tsin
mo.teuc.zo.mah = mo-tekw-SO-mah ci.yä.hui.li.a = si-yä-wil-I-a

Mutations

Nahuatl also manifests "mutation of consonants." For example: These are the most important cases, but you will notice others occasionally.

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Challenge A: How many consonant sounds are there in each of the following words?

Challenge B: How does the spelling change on each of the following words when you drop the final vowel?

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