When Hernán Cortés and his band of Spanish soldiers landed on the green shores of Veracruz along Mexico’s gulf coast in 1519, they encountered a host of languages as they pushed their way to the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán on their path to conquest of the entire region. More specifically, they had stepped into a land where more than 287 individual languages were once spoken. That number is currently at 68 and shrinking rapidly due to the almost overwhelming supremacy of Spanish over the centuries since 1519.
Today, the most widely spoken language in Mexico is Náhuatl, with more than 1,400,000 speakers predominantly located in central Mexico. The majority of Náhuatl speakers are bilingual (with Spanish), however an estimated 190,000 are monolingual. Náhuatl was, and still is in many ways, the king of Mesoamerican languages. It’s still heard in villages high in the Sierra Gorda of Puebla, Hidalgo and Veracruz in the centre of Mexico, and these mountainous and heavily rural states have the highest percentage of Náhuatl speakers in the country. But there are also locals who communicate in this language in pueblos on the hillsides, and in the bustling marketplaces of Mexico City, where the fight to take Tenochtitlán from the Aztecs and claim it for Spain ended in bloody battles, leveled pyramids and raised churches.
The roots of Náhuatl
A Uto-Aztecan language, Náhuatl’s roots come from the north of Mexico, in what is now the Southwestern United States. The family of Uto-Aztecan languages is thought to have been born around 5,000 years ago, and today spans from Oregon in the United States to Nicaragua (possibly once extending as far south as Panama) and consists of 61 languages, including Shoshoni, Hopi, Comanche, Yaqui, Huichol and Tarahumara. The common theory is that the Aztec (or Mexica) people who speak Náhuatl migrated from these northern regions before finally settling in central Mexico around 500 BE.
As of 2008, Náhuatl has more than 30 varieties recognized as distinct languages by the Mexican government. These varieties are viewed as separate languages as they are often mutually unintelligible from one another.
Characteristics of the language
One of the most notable characteristics of Náhuatl is that it’s an agglutinative language, making for some very expansive words. In agglutinative languages, several morphemes (the smallest meaningful unit of a language) are added to a noun or verb to denote tense, number, gender, person, and so on. This can result in a word such as: tiyecchalchiuhmatlalaacaxmachiotiltzintli, a 41-letter word meaning “you are the finely emblazoned jade-green water vessel.”
Another characteristic of the language is that its orthography differs greatly from one region to the next, as no institution has ever formally governed its spelling. The Náhuatl language was written mostly using pictographs before the arrival of the Spanish, who introduced the Latin alphabet to the natives as a means to convert them to Christianity.
The metaphorical language
Náhuatl is a language known for its beautiful phrasings, which tend to be very analogical. Some phrases from the Náhuatl spoken in rural Milpa Alta, the southernmost of 16 metropolitan entities making up Mexico City, include:
- Tzontli (hair) + calli (house) = tzoncalli (the house for the hair) which is a hat.
- Teotl (god) + cuitlatl (excrement) = teocuitlatl (divine excrement) is the word for gold
- Ayotl (tortoise) + tochtli (rabbit) = ayotochtli (rabbit tortoise) is the term for armadillo.
- Atl (water) + citlalli (star) = acitlalli (water star) which means dew.
- ¿Quen otitlathuilli? = “How did you receive the light through your eyes?” Which is a common way to say “good morning.”
- Niyolpahpaqui = My heart smiles, which means “I’m happy.”
Náhuatl words in English
Because of its close proximity and history of trade with the United States, many of Mexico’s Náhuatl words have found their way into our daily lives as English speakers. The words were taken from Náhuatl, because in some cases, the plants or animals existed only in Mesoamerica. Some examples include: Avocado, coming from ahuakatl, thought by some to mean testicle; cocoa, from cacua; chilli, from cilli; chocolate, from xocolatl, which literally means “bitter water;” coyote from coyotl; tomato from tomatl, which literally means “the swelling fruit.”
Challenges facing Náhuatl
The population in the Valley of Mexico has skyrocketed since the 1950s, when Mexico City’s population was a “mere” 2.8 million people. The nation’s capital is now home to more than 21 million people. Amidst the economic bubbles and growth in certain sectors, the language of the people’s ancestors has dwindled in its importance to daily life. If one were to do a study of second languages in Mexico City at this point, the most common would be English or German because of the work opportunities afforded to those who speak these languages, given that globalization and cheap labor have brought many foreign companies to Mexico over the decades.
Access to learning materials is also a problem for speakers of Nahuatl. There are few books written in Náhuatl, few radio programs in the language, and almost no films. This is in contrast to the situation for Yucatec Maya, the second most widely spoken language in Mexico. For example, it’s not hard to tune into a Mayan language radio station in your car while cruising the low-lying jungles of the Yucatec homeland.
Náhuatl is also primarily an oral language, passed on through community interactions. Rarely have children been taught Náhuatl in a formal setting. While there are some sporadic works of literature in the language, textbooks to learn the language are essentially unavailable.
Mexico’s class structure worked (and could be argued still to work) on a very clear delineation related to the amount of indigenous blood perceived to run through one’s veins. Before the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), it was clear and mostly accepted that darker peoples, i.e. those with more indigenous blood were subjugated to the lower realms of society. As they began to be more integrated into other levels of society (albeit rarely as CEOs or presidents), there was more pressure to assimilate to the ways of the European Mexicans. As such, speaking indigenous languages became even more of a stigma than it already was before Mexico’s independence in 1821, when the Spanish crown systematically tried to promote Spanish at the expense of other native languages.
Efforts to promote the language in today’s world
Today, there are places where interested parties can study Náhuatl, including in the classrooms of Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and the Mexico City campus of the Technological University of Monterrey. There are also individuals teaching private classes at their homes in Nahua communities and beyond.
Some parents say they don’t want their children to learn Náhuatl for fear of them being discriminated against. In Santa Ana Tlacotenco, a small pueblo in Milpa Alta, there are groups who work toward altering the apparent course of the language’s disappearance — and they aim to do so by teaching it to the children of the community. Such groups exist nationwide in Náhuatl lands, with the effort seeking to breathe new life into the language.
Groups in Milpa Alta include La Academia de Lengua y Cultura Náhuatl Tlacotenco which focuses on an ultra-correct version of the language, based on the grammatical rules of Classic Náhuatl; whereas Wewetlajtulle (‘word of the ancestors’) aims to teach the language to young people through arranging work with older Náhuatl speakers, who teach traditional, oral, local Náhuatl through daily activities such as working the fields. There’s also Las Tlacualeras, or “the women who cook and bring food”, which is a group of ladies who gather with the younger generation to teach them traditional crafts such as weaving, clay work, cuisine, dances and songs, etc. of the ancestors.
I leave you with the words of Náhuatl students and Mexico City artists, Luis Octavio Calvillo Anza and Diego Robles,who have been documenting their experiences learning and practicing the language on their YouTube channel —“It’s kind of sad because there’s not much hope in people taking more interest in the language… Maybe somehow we can help to preserve it. If nothing else, we are documenting the death of a language; kind of wishing it a fond farewell.”
- “Agglutinative Language” (August 4, 2006). Retrieved from http://wiki.c2.com/?AgglutinativeLanguage
- Leeming, B. (May 25, 2016) “Micro poetry: One-word poems drawn from colonial Nahuatl texts.” Retrieved from http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.mx/2016/05/nahuatl-one-word-poems-guestblog-by-ben.html
- Montemayor, Carlos. (2007). “Diccionario del Náhuatl en el Español de México.” Federal District, Mexico. National Autonomous University of Mexico.