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Slightly Geeky Guide to
Pronouncing Classical Nahuatl
Without Knowing Any Classical Nahuatl
(Generally More Than You Actually Need To Know)
The Absolute Minimum to Remember:
Nahuatl had no U sound, only O.
UC and CU are both pronounced "kw."
UH and HU are both pronounced "w."
X is pronounced "sh."
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 chili 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.
Spelling & Pronunciation
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:
- Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U) regardless of final consonants. (It's Teotihuácan, not Teotihuacán, and Chapultépec, not Chapúltepec.)
- X is pronounced like English SH.
- LL is pronounced like a long L (not as in Spanish).
- TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
- U does not occur as an independent vowel. The only Nahuatl vowels are A, E, I, and O, although each of them can be long or short.
- CU and UC are both pronounced KW. (UC is sometimes spelled CUH.)
- HU and UH are both pronounced W.
- H without an adjacent U represents a "silent" glottal stop (as in "go_over" or "uh_oh"); in modern Nahuatl it sometimes has a sound similar to an English H and may have had that value in some dialects of Classical Nahuatl as well. (For an English speaker, pronouncing the H like an English H is not really wrong and has the advantage that it helps one remember that it is there.)
- C before E or I is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
- Z is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
However over the centuries there has been considerable instability in the spelling of Nahuatl. Some common variations:
- The letters U and O may be used interchangeably to represent the sound of O.
- The letter U alone may be used instead of UH or HU to represent the sound of W.
(At the time of the Conquest, the written letters V and U were usually reversed in Spanish from their modern values, so U indeed had the value of a modern English W.)
- The letter H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written. (The Spanish, like English speakers, tended not to hear it, so it was often omitted.)
- Vowel length may or may not be marked. Usually not.
- The consonant Y may be written with the letter I.
- The vowel I may be written with the letter Y.
- The letter Ç (C with a cedilla under it) may be used in place of Z to represent the sound of S.
In this century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish (and "coincidentally" more English). Thus:
- W may be used in place of HU or UH for the sound of W.
- K may be used in place of QU/C for the sound of K.
- S may be used in place of Z/C for the sound of S.
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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