Nahuatl language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Nahuatl, Náhuatl, Mexicano, Nawatl
Nahuatlahtolli, Māsēwallahtōlli
Spoken in: Mexico: Mexico (state), Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Morelos, and Oaxaca, Tabasco, Michoacán, Durango, Jalisco
Total speakers: over 1.5 million
Language family: Uto-Aztecan
  General Aztec
   Nahuatl, Náhuatl, Mexicano, Nawatl 
Official status
Official language of: none
Regulated by: Secretaría de Educación Pública
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: to be added
ISO/FDIS 639-3: — 

Nahuatl (['na.watɬ] is a term applied to a group of related languages and dialects of the Aztecan branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, indigenous to central Mexico. It is spoken by more than 1.5 million people in Mexico, and under the "Law of Linguistic Rights" Nahuatl is recognized as a "national language" along with 62 other indigenous languages and Spanish which have the same "validity" in Mexico . Nahuatl is mostly known outside of Mexico because the Aztecs spoke Nahuatl: a variant now known as Classical Nahuatl.


Nahuatl is the most widely-spoken group of Native American languages in Mexico or in North America as a whole. As is the case with most other Mexican indigenous languages, many of the speakers of Nahuatl are bilingual, having working knowledge of the Spanish language. In the past, a significant number of the Nahuatl speakers outside the Valley of Mexico were bilingual in languages other than Spanish, speaking both Nahuatl and, as their mother tongue, some other indigenous language. A famous example of bilingualism was Malintzin ("La Malinche"), the native woman who translated between Nahuatl and a Mayan language (and who later learned Spanish as well) for Hernán Cortés.

There are an estimated 1.5 million people who speak one or another Nahuatl dialect, some of these dialects being mutually unintelligible. All of these dialects show influence from the Spanish language to various degrees, some of them much more than others. No modern dialects are identical with Classical Nahuatl, but those spoken in and around the Valley of Mexico are generally more closely related to it than are peripheral ones.

Often the term Nahuatl is used specifically with reference to Classical Nahuatl, the administrative language of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs were preceded by, and surrounded by, other Nahuatl-speaking cultures, whose language certainly differed in some degree from theirs. These include the Tepaneca, Acolhua, Tlaxcalteca, and Xochimilca; and Nahuatl was perhaps one of the languages spoken in Teotihuacan. As these groups became predominant, Nahuatl, and especially Classical Nahuatl after the ascendancy of the Aztec empire, was used as a lingua franca in much of Mesoamerica beginning from the 12th century AD until the 16th century, at which time its prominence and influence were eclipsed by the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Since we only have documentation available from that point on, and since the Spanish dealt especially with the Mexica in their administrative, religious and scholarly activities, Classical Nahuatl is for us the most available, as well as the most prestigious, early form of the language.

Geographic distribution

Distribution of Nahuatl speakers per state.
Distribution of Nahuatl speakers per state.

A range of Nahuatl dialects are currently spoken in an area stretching from the northern Mexican state of Durango to Tabasco in the south. Pipil, a Nahuatl dialect which happens to have its own name, is spoken as far south as El Salvador, by fewer than twenty speakers if it is not already extinct. Another Nahuan language, Pochutec, was spoken on the coast of Oaxaca until circa 1930. The largest concentrations of Nahuatl speakers are found in the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Guerrero and Hidalgo. Significant populations are also found in México State, Morelos, and the Mexican Federal District. Smaller populations exist in Michoacán, Jalisco, Tabasco, and Durango.

It is likely that the speakers of Nahuatl languages originally came from the northern Mexican deserts and migrated into central Mexico in several waves. One of the last of these waves settled in what is now the Valley of Mexico and later founded what came to be known as the Aztec empire. During this period, if not before, Nahuatl became a lingua franca, used for trade purposes and as a prestige language in large parts of Mesoamerica, and causing the language to spread even further. For example, at the time of the Spanish conquest, the K'iche' (Mayan) nobility spoke Nahuatl as well as the K'iche' language.

Currently the influx of Mexican workers into the United States has created small Nahuatl-speaking communities in the United States, particularly in New York and California.

Classification and terminology

Sometimes a distinction is made among Nahuan (i.e. languages of the Nahuan or Aztecan branch of Uto-Aztecan) languages between Nahuatl (variants with the characteristic tl phoneme), Nahuat (variants which have t in its place), and Nahual (variants which have l instead). Although the classification implied by emphasizing these differences is currently not given as much weight as in the past, the terms are still used. Sometimes Nahuan is used for the family as a whole; others use the term Aztecan for the family, or Nahua for the family and in any context where one does not want to specify the tl/t/l differences. Most commonly, however, Nahuatl is used as a generic name for the family or any variant of it. In many Nahua speaking communities completely different names are used for the language, commonly speakers call their language "Mexicano" (a term originally used by the Spanish for languages related to the language of the Mexica (Aztecs)) or "Mācehualli" (meaning "commoners' speech").

The Nahuatl languages are related to the other Uto-Aztecan languages spoken by peoples such as the Hopi, Comanche, Paiute and Ute, Pima, Shoshone, Tarahumara, Yaqui, Tepehuán, Huichol and other peoples of western North America. They all belong to the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family which is one of the largest and best studied language families of the Americas consisting of at least 61 individual languages, and spoken from the United States to El Salvador. This is a grouping on the same order as Indo-European.


  • Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
    • Shoshonean (Northern Uto-Aztecan)
    • Sonoran**
    • Aztecan 2000 BP (a.k.a. Nahuan)
      • Pochutec — Coast of Oaxaca
      • General Aztec (Nahuatl)
        • Western periphery
        • Eastern Periphery
        • Huasteca
        • Centre

See the Nahuatl dialects page for further discussion of the sub-categories of General Aztec, which are somewhat controversial.

*Estimated split date by glottochronology (BP = Before the Present).
**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 there might be between Aztecan and Sonoran when compared with Shoshonean is probably due to proximity contact, rather than to a common immediate parent stock other than Uto-Aztecan.

Linguistic Prehistory

In his 2001 article Terrence Kaufman examines the linguistic prehistory of the Nahuan languages. He argues that knowledge about the migrations and splits within the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan languages can be deduced from a thorough study of traces of language contact between the Nahuan languages and other Mesoamerican languages. He documents early loanwords and grammatical influences in all the Nahuan languages from Mixe-Zoquean languages and from Totonacan. This leads him to postulate that Nahuan migrants must have been subject to influence from dominant cultures speaking these languages before they first split up. He documents influence from the Wastek language in the Nahuatl dialects of la Sierra Huasteca.

Phonology of Nahuan languages

Historical phonological changes

The Nahuan subgroup of Uto-Aztecan is classified partly by a number of shared phonological changes from reconstructed proto-Uto-Aztecan to the attested Nahuan languages. The changes shared between the Nahuan languages are the basis for the reconstruction of the intermediate stage of proto-Nahuan. Some of these changes shared by all Nahuan languages are:

  • Proto-Uto-aztecan *t becomes Proto-Nahuan lateral affricate *tl before proto-Uto-aztecan *a
  • Proto-Uto-aztecan initial *p is lost in Proto-Nahuan.
  • Proto-Uto-aztecan *u merges with *i into Proto-Nahuan *i
  • Proto-Uto-aztecan sibilants *ts and *s split into *ts, *ch and *s, *ʃ respectively.
  • Proto-Uto-aztecan fifth vowel reconstructed as *ɨ or *ə merged with *e into proto-Nahuan *e
  • a large number of metatheses in which Proto-Uto-aztecan roots of the shape *CVCV have become *VCCV.

The table below presents some of the changes that are reconstructed from proto-Uto-aztecan to proto-Nahuan.

Table of reconstructed changes from proto-Uto-aztecan to proto-Nahuan

PUA proto-Nahuan
*ta:ka "man" *tla:ka-tla "man"
*pahi "water" *a:-tla "water"
*muki "to die" *miki "to die
*pu:li "to tie" *ilpi "to tie"
*nɨmi "to walk" *nemi "to live, to walk"

From the changes common to all Nahuan languages the subgroup has diversified somewhat and giving a complete overview of the phonologies of Nahuan languages is not suitable here. However, the table below shows a standardised phonemic inventory based on the inventory of Classical Nahuatl. Many modern dialects have undergone changes from proto-Nahuan that have resulted in different phonemic inventories.


Table of Nahuatl consonants

  Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops p t   k /  ʔ
Fricatives   s ʃ    
Affricates     / ts    
Approximants w l j    
Nasals m n      


Table of Nahuatl vowels

  front central back
  long short long short long short
high i
mid e o
low a


The Nahuatl languages are agglutinative, polysynthetic languages that make extensive use of compounding, incorporation and derivation. That is, they can add many different prefixes and suffixes to a root until very long words are formed. Very long verbal forms or nouns created through incorporation and accumulation of prefixes are not uncommon in literary works. This also means that new words can be created at a moment's notice.

A minority of linguists consider the typology of Nahuatl to be oligosynthetic. This was first proposed by Benjamin Whorf in the early 20th Century. However, by the mid- 1950s, this view was largely dismissed by the linguistic community.


Lizard, snake, death day pictographs  on a Stone of the Sun
Lizard, snake, death day pictographs on a Stone of the Sun

Words loaned to other languages

Many Nahuatl words have been borrowed into the Spanish language, many of which are terms designating things indigenous to the American continent. Some of these loans are restricted to Mexican or Central American Spanish, but others have entered all the varieties of Spanish in the world and a number of them, such as "chocolate", "tomato" and "avocado" have made their way into many other languages via Spanish. For example because of extensive Mexican-Philippine contacts in the colonial history, there are an estimated 250 words of Nahuatl origin in the Tagalog language. Likewise a number of English words have been borrowed from Nahuatl through Spanish. Two of the most prominent are undoubtedly chocolate (from xocolātl, 'chocolate drink', perhaps literally 'bitter-water') and tomato (from (xi)tomatl). But there are others, such as coyote (coyotl), avocado (ahuacatl) and chile or chili (chilli). The brand name Chiclets is also derived from Nahuatl (tzictli 'sticky stuff, chicle'). Other English words from Náhuatl are: Aztec, (aztecatl); cacao (cacahuatl 'shell, rind'); mesquite (mizquitl); ocelot (ocelotl).

Many well-known toponyms also come from Nahuatl, including Mexico (mexihco) and Guatemala (cuauhtēmallan).

In Mexico many words for common everyday concepts attest to the close contact between Spanish and Nahuatl:

achiote, aguacate, ajolote, amate, atole, axolotl, ayate, cacahuate, camote, capulín, chapopote, chayote, chicle, chile, chipotle, chocolate, cuate, comal, copal, coyote, ejote, elote, epazote, escuincle, guacamole, guajolote, huipil, huitlacoche, hule, jícama, jícara, jitomate, malacate, mecate, metate, metlapil, mezcal, mezquite, milpa, mitote, molcajete, mole, nopal, ocelote, ocote, olote, paliacate, papalote, pepenar, petate, peyote, pinole, popote, pozole, quetzal, tamal, tianguis, tomate, zacate, zapote, zopilote.

(The persistent -te or -le endings on these words are Spanish reflexes of the Nahuatl 'absolutive' ending -tl, -tli, or -li, which appears on (most) nouns when they are not possessed or in the plural.)

Writing systems

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictographs supplemented by a few ideograms. When needed, it also used syllabic equivalences; Father Durán recorded how the tlacuilos (codex painters) could render a prayer in Latin using this system, but it was difficult to use. This writing system 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 could. The Aztec writing was not meant to be read, but to be told; the elaborate codices were essentially pictographic aids for teaching, and long texts were memorized.

The Spanish introduced the Roman script, which was then utilized to record a large body of Aztec prose and poetry, a fact which somewhat mitigated the devastating loss of the thousands of Aztec manuscripts which were burned by the Spanish. (See Nahuatl transcription and Aztec codices.) Important lexical works (e.g. Molina's classic Vocabulario of 1571) and grammatical descriptions (of which Carochi's 1645 Arte is generally acknowledged the best) were produced using variations of this orthography.

The classical orthography was not perfect, and in fact there were many variations in how it was applied, due in part to dialectal differences and in part to differing traditions and preferences that developed. (The writing of Spanish itself was far from totally standardized at the time.) Today, although almost all written Nahuatl uses some form of Latin-based orthography, there continue to be strong dialectal differences, and considerable debate and differing practices regarding how to write sounds even when they are the same. Major issues are

  • whether to follow Spanish in writing the /k/ sound sometimes as c and sometimes as qu or just to use k
  • how to write /kʷ/
  • what to do about /w/, the realization of which varies considerably from place to place and even within a single dialect
  • how to write the "saltillo", phonetically a glottal stop ([ʔ]) or an [h], which has been spelled with j, h, and a straight apostrophe ('), but which traditionally was often omitted in writing.

There are a number of other issues as well, such as

  • whether and how to represent vowel length
  • how and whether to represent sound variants (allophones) which sound like different Spanish sounds [phonemes], especially variants of o which come close to u
  • to what extent writing in one variant should be adapted towards what is used in other variants.

The Secretaría de Educación Pública (Ministry of Public Education) has adopted an alphabet for its bilingual education programs in rural communities in Mexico in which k is used and /w/ is written as u, and this decision has been influential. The recently established (2004) " Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas" ( INALI) will also be involved in these issues.

The Aztec world
Aztec society

Nahuatl language
Aztec philosophy
Aztec calendar
Aztec religion
Aztec mythology
Aztec entheogenic complex
Human sacrifice in Aztec culture

Aztec history

Aztec army
Aztec codices
Aztec Triple Alliance
Spanish conquest of Mexico
Siege of Tenochtitlan
La Noche Triste
Hernán Cortés

Hueyi Tlatoani

Tenoch ( 1325– 1376)
Acamapichtli ( 1376– 1395)
Huitzilíhuitl ( 1395– 1417)
Chimalpopoca ( 1417– 1427)
Itzcóatl ( 1427– 1440)
Moctezuma I ( 1440– 1469)
Axayacatl ( 1469– 1481)
Tízoc ( 1481– 1486)
Auítzotl ( 1486– 1502)
Moctezuma II ( 1502– 1520)
Cuitláhuac ( 1520)
Cuauhtémoc ( 1520– 1521)


Nahuatl literature is extensive (probably the most extensive of all Indigenous languages of the Americas), including a relatively large corpus of poetry (see also Nezahualcoyotl); the Huei tlamahuiçoltica is an example of literary Nahuatl from the seventeenth century. Examples from the time immediately following the conquest include at least one census from the 1540s. The two largest collections of poetry, the Cantares mexicanos and the Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, were in all likelihood copied down in the 1560s or somewhat later. The mammoth encyclopedia of Aztec culture known as the Florentine Codex was compiled by the Franciscan Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, with the assistance of tri-lingual students from the Colegio de Santacruz Tlatelolco at about the same time. A large dictionary of the classical nahuatl language was compiled by fray the bilingual Alonso de Molina and published in 1555. Several grammars of the nahuatl language was published during colonial times, the most influential of which were written by Horacio Carochi in 1648 and another earlier one by Fray Andrés de Olmos.

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