Issue 10 |

Náhuatl: A fond farewell?

by on April 21, 2017

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 indigenous 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 indigenous 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,” Calvillo Anza says. “If nothing else, we are documenting the death of a language; kind of wishing it a fond farewell.”



  1. “Agglutinative Language” (August 4, 2006). Retrieved from
  2. Leeming, B. (May 25, 2016) “Micro poetry: One-word poems drawn from colonial Nahuatl texts.” Retrieved from
  3. Montemayor, Carlos. (2007). “Diccionario del Náhuatl en el Español de México.” Federal District, Mexico. National Autonomous University of Mexico.


43 Responses to “Náhuatl”

  1. Angel

    Awesome!!! I teach 7th Grade Ancient World History so this will my teaching of my Meso-American Unit.

    • Editorial Team

      Thanks Angel! We’re glad to hear that. Hope your students enjoy it ?

  2. I also teach World History to 7th graders and we read part of this article today!. Thank you.

    • Editorial Team

      That’s Awesome. Thanks for sharing ?

  3. mexicomystic

    Excellent article. Here in Tlaxcala/Puebla area we hear Nahuatl, Totonac and Otomi languages. But yes they are fading away with Globalization.

  4. IRA Empire

    […]that could be the finish of this write-up. Right here you’ll locate some websites that we believe you will enjoy, just click the links over[…]

  5. I was recommended this blog through a friend from school. No one understood my problem, but I looked at your blog and solved the problem. I will share information about to my friends. I like your blog very much. good luck.

  6. live football betting

    […]check below, are some entirely unrelated web-sites to ours, however, they’re most trustworthy sources that we use[…]

  7. National Chi Nan University

    […]although web-sites we backlink to below are considerably not associated to ours, we really feel they are actually really worth a go via, so possess a look[…]

  8. The site was suggested to me by family members and colleagues. I find it enjoyable to read blogs. Your website is excellent and I’m certain that it will be a valuable resource for me for me to recommend this website to all my acquaintances.

  9. بيئة تعلم مدعومة بكلية التجارة

    […]one of our guests not long ago encouraged the following website[…]

  10. نموذج الرئاسة الأمريكية

    […]please visit the web pages we adhere to, like this 1, as it represents our picks through the web[…]

  11. Bureaucracies

    […]always a huge fan of linking to bloggers that I like but do not get lots of link like from[…]

  12. The great thing about this post is quality information. I always like to read amazingly useful and quality content.

  13. Research Activities

    […]please take a look at the web sites we stick to, such as this one, as it represents our picks from the web[…]

  14. teaching and student activities

    […]we prefer to honor a lot of other net internet sites on the internet, even if they aren’t linked to us, by linking to them. Below are some webpages really worth checking out[…]

  15. هندسة البترول

    […]below you’ll come across the link to some web sites that we consider you should visit[…]

  16. Chairman of the Board of Trustees

    […]please visit the web sites we comply with, which includes this one, because it represents our picks in the web[…]

  17. Campus visits and interviews for future university

    […]usually posts some very fascinating stuff like this. If you are new to this site[…]

  18. Personal statement for future university

    […]always a significant fan of linking to bloggers that I adore but do not get a good deal of link enjoy from[…]

  19. Improve your English speaking much faster by downloading all the lessons to listen and practice anywhere, anytime, without the internet.

  20. Hey,This Article is so good, it helps us to improve my Basic English . I also try to practice Yours Instruction. Thanks For Nice blogging.

  21. Woah! I’m really digging the template/theme of this website.

    It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s challenging to get that
    “perfect balance” between us창원출장샵er friendliness and appearance.
    I must say you have done a superb job with this.
    Also, the blog loads super quick for me on Opera. Excellent Blog!

  22. … [Trackback]

    […] There you will find 80217 more Info on that Topic: […]

  23. … [Trackback]

    […] Find More Info here on that Topic: […]

  24. … [Trackback]

    […] Find More Information here on that Topic: […]

  25. Such great content.This is authentic. Are you also searching for Professional Roles and Values? we are the best solution for you. We are best known for delivering the best

  26. Great blog this is.Are you also searching for Nursing care plan help? we are the best solution for you. We are best known for delivering nursing care plan to students without having to break the bank.whatsapp us:+1-(951)-468-9855

  27. … [Trackback]

    […] Info on that Topic: […]

  28. … [Trackback]

    […] Info to that Topic: […]

  29. … [Trackback]

    […] Here you will find 3888 more Info to that Topic: […]

  30. … [Trackback]

    […] Find More Information here on that Topic: […]

  31. … [Trackback]

    […] Find More Info here on that Topic: […]

  32. Jessicavi

    It is also thing that I would like to draft in a such fashion, giving the necessary amount of time and effort to produce a great essay Retro games.

  33. It’s a game. Five dollars is free. Try it It’s not an easy game
    ->-> 토토사이트 .COM

  34. … [Trackback]

    […] There you will find 59355 more Info to that Topic: […]

  35. … [Trackback]

    […] Read More here on that Topic: […]

  36. Thank you for sharing such an insightful article. It’s truly marketing company in gwalior

  37. … [Trackback]

    […] Read More on to that Topic: […]

  38. cru789

    bewin1688 Do you want extar money?

  39. … [Trackback]

    […] Read More Info here on that Topic: […]

  40. เว็บนาซ่า The classic gambling website

  41. Db City

    This article is a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving our cultural heritage. The author’s poignant portrayal of the Nahuatl language’s significance in Mexican culture and its impact on the community’s identity is a testament to the importance of linguistic preservation. luxury villa gwalior


Leave a Comment