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Nahuatl was the administrative language of the Aztec empire and was easily the most influential and widespread of the languages encounted by the Spanish when they began to colonize Central America. (The other major language of this area was a group of dialects collectively called Maya.)
An English speaker encounters Nahuatl in modern and historical place names (like Chapultepec), as well as in names of people (like Moteuctzoma), in works dealing with Aztec life (like chilli and atlatl), and sometimes in Aztec words used in English (like tomato from Aztec tomatl).
Nahuatl is still spoken in parts of Mexico, mostly in the south central region around Mexico city, and many spoken dialects have been distinguished. This page is focused on the "Classical" language represented in texts preserved from the period just after the Spanish brought a writing system to Nahuatl speakers.
To learn more about Classical Nahuatl (including a small introductory interactive textbook), click here.
Because the spelling of Nahuatl was originally based on spelling conventions in XVIth-century Spanish, Nahuatl texts are generally "pronounced like Spanish," with the following exceptions and points to note:
However over the centuries there has been considerable instability in the spelling of Nahuatl. Some common variations:
In this century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish (and "coincidentally" more English). Thus:
In some cases weird letters, available on no keyboard and included in very few type fonts, are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds. (Willingness to use weird letters is an occupational hazard of being a linguist. Ordinary mortals find them hard to understand and harder yet to type.)
Nahuatl distinguished between long and short vowels (the same vowels, held for a longer or shorter time). Vowel-length difference sometimes was all that distinguished different words, and it matters to us because it affects our analysis of compounds. You will rarely if ever see it marked, but it may explain why English authors sometimes disagree about Aztec etymologies.
Now you know.
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