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Content created: 2001-01-06
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Brief Notes on Classical Nahuatl

  1. Material on This Page
    1. What's Nahuatl?
    2. Nahuatl Pronunciation
  2. Material on Other Pages of This Site
    1. Inadequate On-Line Lessons in Classical Nahuatl
    2. Inadequate Reference Grammar of Classical Nahuatl
    3. Inadequate Chrestomathy of Bilingual Practice Readings in Nahuatl
    4. Selected Bibliography of Useful Books
    5. The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (A history of the Aztecs)
  3. Selected On-line Nahuatl Resources on Other Web Sites
    1. Dictionnaire de la Langue Nahuatl Classique, easily the best on-line collection of Classical Nahuatl resources, including an easily consulted Nahuatl-French Dictionary, grammar, lists of proper names, maps, etc. (In French with some Spanish translations.)
    2. Nahuatl (Aztec) Language (jumpsite)

What is Nahuatl?

Nahuatl is a language spoken in south-central Mexico. It was the administrative language of the Aztec empire, and accordingly was of great interest to the Spanish immigrants who later inherited the administration of Mexico. The kind of Nahuatl respresented in early Colonial texts is referred to as "Classical," in contrast to Nahuatl as it has been spoken in more recent times.

Because a knowledge of Nahuatl was so important to the early Spanish, it was an object of scholarly concern already by the mid-XVIth century. Accordingly we have a long record of it, and in some ways this makes it one of the most interesting of the indigenous American languages to study. Indeed Nahuatl can become a consuming passion.

Although there are still speakers of Nahuatl, it is probably safe to say that all but the most elderly among them are bilingual in Spanish; and in general, later Nahuatl shows influence of Spanish as well as a continuing evolution of trends that were already going on in early Nahuatl. (Click here for historian John Schmal's informative page about continuities in the use of Nahuatl in Mexico.)

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Spelling & Pronunciation of Classical Nahuatl Words

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:

Beginning in the XXth century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish (and "coincidentally" more English). Thus:

In some cases other 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.*

*-Weird letters are an occupational hazard of being a linguist. Ordinary mortals find them hard to understand and harder yet to type.

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Unsolicited translations of this page are available as follows. Note that because they seem to have been produced as translation exercises for English classes, the translated pages are not normally updated.

French by David Wardell
(Linked 2019-03-26)
Uzbek by Fodor
(Linked 2019-03-07)

The background design is patterned on the famous "Coyolxauhqui Stone," a magnificent bas-relief found at the foot of Huitzilopochtli's pyramid at the Templo Mayor in Mexico city. It represents the dismembered goddess, hacked to bits by her brother.