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Nahuatl language

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Nahuatl is a native language of central Mexico. It was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica for the millennium spanning from the 7th century through the late 16th century of the current era.

Also known as Mexican language, it was the language spoken by the people now known as Aztecs and their predecessors (the Colhua , Tecpanec , Acolhua , and the famous Toltecs in one interpretation of the term). Recently, there have begun to appear more and more suggestions, from several diverse fields of Mesoamerican research, that Nahuatl might have been one of the languages spoken at the legendary Teotihuacan.

Today, the term Nahuatl is frequently used in two different senses which are quickly becoming increasingly incompatible: to mean the Classical Nahuatl language described above (and which is no longer spoken on an everyday basis anywhere), and to mean any of a multitude of live dialects (some of them mutually unintelligible) that are still spoken by at least 1.5 million people in what is now Mexico. All of these dialects show influence from the Spanish language to various degrees, some of them much more than others, but it is important to note that some aspects of the essential nature of the Classical language have been lost in all of them (much as it happened to Classical Latin as it developed into the different Romance languages).

Nahuatl (Nahuatlahtolli)
Spoken in: Mexico
Region: Mexico (state), Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Guerrero
Total speakers: >1.5 million
Ranking: Not in top 100

 Southern Uto-Aztecan

Official status
Official language of: Mexico
Language codes
ISO 639-2: nah


Linguistic Summary

English loans

Nahuatl has provided English with some words for indigenous animals, fruits, vegetables, and tools:

"atlatl", "avocado", "axolotl", "chocolate", "cocoa", "cacao", "coyote", "ocelot", "peyote", "tomato", "tequila", "chil(l)i", "chiclet".

see also: List of English words of Native American origin

Spanish loans

Nahuatl has been an exceedingly rich source of words for Spanish, as the following samples show.

Some of them are restricted to Mesoamerica but others are common to all the Spanish dialects:

acocil, aguacate, ajolote, amate, atole, ayate, cacahuate, camote, capulín, chamagoso, chapopote, chayote, chicle, chile, chipotle, chocolate, cuate, comal, copal, coyote, ejote, elote, epazote, escuincle, guacamole, guachinango, guajolote, huipil, hule, jacal, jícara, jitomate, malacate, mecate, mezcal, milpa, mitote, mole, nopal, ocelote, ocote, olote, paliacate, papalote, pepenar, petaca, petate, peyote, pinole, piocha, popote, pulque, quetzal, tamal, tianguis, tiza, tomate, tule, zacate, zapote, zopilote.
Many well-known toponyms also come from Nahuatl, including Mexico (mëxihco), Guatemala (cuauhtëmallan), and Nicaragua (nicänähuac).


Before 1521: pictographic with rebus-style phonetics. After 1521: several alphabetic transcription schemes using different subsets of the Latin alphabet.


Nahuatl literature is extensive (probably the most extensive of all Amerindian languages), including a relatively large corpus of poetry (see also Nezahualcoyotl); the Nican Mopohua is an excellent early sample of transcribed Nahuatl.

Brief description

Classical Nahuatl makes use of 4 vowels (a,e,i,o) but distinguishes between a long and a short variant of each one of them. It uses two semivowels (/w/ and /j/), a glottal stop, and 10 other unvoiced consonants. It is an agglutinating, polysynthetic language that makes extensive use of compounding and derivation. It has very well developed honorific forms. Syllable structure is either CV or CVC. Stress, non-lexical in most varieties, always falls on the next-to-last vowel with the sole exception of the vocative, in which it falls on the last one.


Nahuatl is still the most widely spoken Native American language in Mexico; however, most, if not all, of the speakers of Nahuatl are bilingual, having a working knowledge of the Spanish language. In fact, until recently, a significant number of the Nahuatl speakers outside the valley of Mexico were bilingual too, speaking both Nahuatl and their own mother tongue. A famous example of bilinguism was Malintzin ("La Malinche"), the native woman who translated between Nahuatl and a Maya language (and later learned Spanish as well) for Hernán Cortés.

Nahuatl is related to the languages spoken by the Hopi, Comanche, Pima, Shoshone, and other peoples of western North America, as they all belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Nahuatl is an agglutinative, polysynthetic language. In Nahuatl there is no fixed difference between phrases or words, there are no infinitives, and no proper pronouns, and has been described as a language that is pure etymology. A Nahuatl word always consists of a prefix, then several root concepts, and a suffix. One can put as many root concepts, each one a syllable, as necessary, so some Nahuatl words are very long. It means also, that words can be created on the fly.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictographs supplemented with a few ideograms. When needed it also used syllabic equivalences; Father Durán recorded how the tlacuilos could render a prayer in Latin using this system, but it was difficult to use. This was adequate for keeping such records as genealogies, astronomical information, and tribute lists, but could not represent a full vocabulary of spoken language in the way that the writing systems of the old world or of the Maya civilization do.

The Spanish introduced the Roman script, which was then utilized to record a large body of Aztec prose and poetry, a fact which somewhat diminished the devastating loss caused by the burning of thousands of Aztec manuscripts by the Catholic priests. See Nahuatl transcription.


  • Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
    • Soshonean (Northern Uto-Aztecan)
    • Sonoran**
    • Aztecan 2000 BP
      • Nahuan
        • Nahuatl (Central & Northern Nahuan) --México(State), Puebla, Hidalgo
        • Nahual (Western Nahuan) --Michoacán
        • Nahuat (Eastern Nahuan) --Veracruz
        • Nawat (Southern Nahuan, also known as "Pipil") --Pacific coast of Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador
      • Pochutec --Coast of Oaxaca

*Estimated split date by glottochronology
**Some scholars continue to classify Aztecan and Sonoran together under a separate group (called variously "Sonoran", "Mexican", or "Southern Uto-Aztecan"). There is increasing evidence that whatever degree of additional resemblance that might be present between Aztecan and Sonoran when compared with Soshonean is probably due to proximity contact, rather than to a common immediate parent stock other than Uto-Aztecan.

Detailed description

I. Table of Nahuatl consonants and semivowels, in IPA notation (see IPA-SAMPA chart for Nahuatl) followed(→) by the proposed Nahuatl Standard Transcription:

  bilabial alveolar alveo-
velar labialized
stop unaspirated  p → p  t → t &nbsp &nbsp  k → k  kw → q  aʔ... → à...
aspirated &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
ejective &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
affricate voiced &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
voiceless &nbsp  ts → z  tɬ  → tl/ł  tʃ → c &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
ejective &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
fricative voiced &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
voiceless &nbsp  s → s/ç  ɬ  → l  ʃ → x  h → h
liquid voiced &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
preglottalized &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
nasal voiced  m → m  n → n &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
preglottalized &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
semivowels  w → v  j → y

II. Table of Nahuatl vowels, in IPA notation (see IPA-SAMPA chart for Nahuatl) followed(→) by the proposed Nahuatl Standard Transcription:

  front central back
  long short long short long short
high tense  i: → ï
lax  i → i
mid tense  e: → ë  o: → ö
lax  e → e  o → o
low tense
lax  a: → ä  a → a

Dialects and local variants

List I. Nahuan subgroup members, sorted by number of speakers:

(name [ethnologue subgroup code] -- location(s) ~ approx. number of speakers)

  • Huasteca Este [NAI] --Hidalgo, Western Veracruz, Northern Puebla ~ 450,000
  • Huasteca Oeste [NHQ] --San Luis Potosí, Western Hidalgo ~ 450,000
  • Guerrero [NAH] --Guerrero ~ 200,000
  • Orizaba [NLV] --Central Veracruz ~ 140,000
  • Puebla Sureste [NHS] --Southeast Puebla ~ 135,000
  • Puebla Sierra[AZZ] --Puebla Highlands ~ 125,000
  • Puebla Norte [NCJ] --Northern Puebla ~ 66,000
  • Central [NHN] --Tlaxcala, Puebla ~ 50,000
  • Istmo-Mecayapan [NAU] --Southern Veracruz ~ 20,000
  • Puebla Central [NCX] --Central Puebla ~ 18,000
  • Morelos [NHM] --Morelos ~ 15,000
  • Oaxaca Norte [NHY] --Northwestern Oaxaca, Southeastern Puebla ~ 10,000
  • Huaxcaleca [NHQ] --Puebla ~ 7,000
  • Istmo-Pajapan [NHP] --Southern Veracruz ~ 7,000
  • Istmo-Cosoleacaque [NHK] --Eastern Morelos, Northwestern Coastal Chiapas, Southern Veracruz ~ 5,500
  • Ixhuatlancillo [NHX] --Central Veracruz ~ 4,000
  • Tetelcingo [NHG] --Morelos ~ 3,500
  • Michoacán [NCL] --Michoacán ~ 3,000
  • Santa María de la Alta [NHZ] --Northwest Puebla ~ 3,000
  • Tenango [NHI] --Northern Puebla ~ 2,000
  • Tlamacazapa [NUZ] --Morelos ~ 1,500
  • Coatepec [NAZ] --Southwestern México(State), Northwestern Guerrero ~ 1,500
  • Durango [NLN] --Southern Durango ~ 1,000
  • Ometepec [NHT] --Southern Guerrero, Western Oaxaca ~ 500
  • Temascaltepec [AZZ] --Southwestern México(State) ~ 300
  • Tlalitzlipa [NHJ] --Puebla ~ 100
  • Pipil [PPL] --El Salvador ~ 20
  • Tabasco [NHC] --Tabasco ~ EXTINCT?
  • Classical [NCI] --Valley of México ~ ACADEMIC & LITERARY


  • Fray Alonso de Molina: Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana y Mexicana y Castellana. [1555] Reprint: Porrúa México 1992
  • Horacio Carochi: Arte de la lengua mexicana: con la declaración de los adverbios della. [1645] Reprint: Porrúa México 1983
  • Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590): Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España). Eds Charles Dibble/Arthr Anderson, vol I-XII Santa Fe 1950-71
  • Fray Andrés de Olmos: Arte de la lengua mexicana concluído en el convento de San Andrés de Ueytlalpan, en la provincia de Totonacapan que es en la Nueva España. [1547] Reprint: México 1993
  • Antonio del Rincón: Arte mexicana compuesta por el padre Antonio del Rincón. [1595] Reprint: México 1885
  • Pedro de Arenas: Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana y mexicana. [1611] Reprint: México 1982
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835): Mexicanische Grammatik. Paderborn/München 1994
  • Rémi Siméon: Dictionnaire de la Langue Nahuatl ou Mexicaine. [Paris 1885] Reprint: Graz 1963
  • Rémi Siméon: Diccionario de la Lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana. [Paris 1885] Reprint: México 2001
  • Joe Campbell/Frances Karttunen, Foundation course in Nahuatl grammar. Austin 1989
  • Frances Karttunen, An analytical dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman 1992
  • Frances Karttunen, Between worlds: interpreters, guides, and survivors. New Brunswick 1994
  • Frances Karttunen, Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Los Angeles 1976
  • Angel Maria Garibay: Llave de Náhuatl. México 19??
  • Angel María Garibay, Historia de la literatura náhuatl. México 1953
  • Angel María Garibay, Poesía náhuatl. vol 1-3 México 1964
  • Michel Launey: Introduction à la langue et à la littérature aztèques. Paris 1980
  • Michel Launey: Introducción a la lengua y a la literatura Náhuatl. UNAM, México 1992
  • Galarza, Joaquín y Carlos López Avila: Conversación náhuatl-español, Método audiovisual para la enseñanza del náhuatl. CIESAS, México 1987
  • Thelma D. Sullivan: Compendium of Nahuatl Grammar. Salt Lake City 1988
  • Jane Hill/Kenneth Hill, Speaking Mexicano: dynamics of syncretic language in Central Mexico. Tucson 1986
  • Ascensión H. de León-Portilla: Tepuztlahcuilolli, Impresos en Nahuatl: Historia y Bibliografia. Vol. 1-2. México 1988
  • Miguel León-Portilla: Literaturas Indígenas de México. Madrid 1992
  • Doña Luz Jiménez (?-1965): Life and Death in Milpa Alta. Norman 1972
  • James Lockhart (ed): We people here. Nahuatl Accounts of the conquest of Mexico. Los Angeles 1993
  • The Nahua Newsletter: edited by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies of the University of Indiana (Chief Editor Alan Sandstrom)
  • Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl: special interest-yearbook of the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas (IIH) of the Universidad Autonoma de México (UNAM), Ed.: Miguel Leon Portilla

See also

External links

  • Nahuatl Learning Resource List, by Ricardo J. Salvador
  • Brief Notes on Classical Nahuatl, by David K. Jordan
  • Nahuatl (Aztec) family, Summer Institute of Linguistics
  • Nahuatl Summer Language Institute, Yale University
  • Basic Introductory Grammar, by Acoyauh
  • English → Nahuatl ,   Nahuatl → English   (Florentine Codex Vocabulary 1997, by R. Joe Campbell)
  • Nahuatl → English &nbsp (Basic Dictionary, by Acoyauh)
  • Spanish → Nahuatl ,   Nahuatl → Spanish   (

  • Polish:
  • French:

Last updated: 02-05-2005 18:19:32
Last updated: 02-26-2005 12:57:45