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Classical Nahuatl language

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Title: Classical Nahuatl language  
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Subject: Nahuan languages, Thelma D. Sullivan, Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco (altepetl), Teotihuacan
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Classical Nahuatl language

Classical Nahuatl
Native to Mexico
Region Aztec Empire
Era split into modern dialects by the 15th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nci
Glottolog clas1250[1]

Classical Nahuatl (also known as Aztec, and simply Nahuatl) is any of the variants of the Nahuatl language that were spoken in the Valley of Mexico — and central Mexico as a lingua franca — at the time of the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the subsequent centuries it was largely displaced by Spanish and evolved into some of the modern Nahuatl dialects in use today (other modern dialects descend more directly from other 16th-century variants.) Although classified as an extinct language,[2] Classical Nahuatl has survived through a multitude of written sources transcribed by Nahuas and Spaniards in the Latin script.


Classical Nahuatl is an Uto-Aztecan language of the Nahuan or Aztecan language. It belongs to the central dialects and is most closely related to the modern dialects of Nahuatl spoken in the valley of Mexico in colonial and modern times. It is probable that the Classical Nahuatl documented by 16th- and 17th-century written sources represents a particularly prestigious sociolect. That is to say, the variety of Nahuatl recorded in these documents is most likely to be more particularly representative of the speech of Aztec nobles (pipiltin), while the commoners (mācehualtin) spoke a somewhat different variety.



Front Back
Close i, iː o, oː
Mid e, eː
Open a, aː


Labial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labial
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ʔ
Fricative s ʃ
Affricate ts
Approximant l j w


Stress generally falls on the penultimate syllable. The one exception is the vocative suffix -e, used only by males, where stress falls on the final syllable, e.g. Cuāuhtliquetzqui (a name, meaning "eagle-warrior"), but Cuāuhtliquetzqué "Hey, Cuauhtliquetzqui!".


Maximally complex Nahuatl syllables are of the form CVC; that is, there can be at most one consonant at the beginning and end of every syllable. In contrast, English, for example, allows up to three consonants syllable-initially, and up to four consonants to occur at the end of syllables (e.g. strengths) (note that while there is a sequence of five consonant letters, the end of the word is pronounced with four consonant sounds, /ŋkθs/). For these purposes, tl /tɬ/, is treated as a single sound. Not all consonants can occur in both syllable-initial and -final position.


Writing system

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 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's script could.

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 Spanish authorities (see Nahuatl transcription).

On the Nahuatl edition of WorldHeritage, the language is written in a Latin alphabet, including four letters with macrons or long vowels: ā, ē, ī, ō. Many other foreign letters such as "b" or "k" are used only in foreign names such as in "rancitlānF" (France).

The 25-letter alphabet is:

a c ch cu e hu i l* m n o p qu t tl tz x y z ā ē ī ō ll* h*


  • "cu" and "hu" are inverted to "uc" and "uh" when occurring at the end of a syllable.
  • These (*) letters have no capital form except in foreign names.
  • "h" is used as saltillo.



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 excellent early sample of literary Nahuatl.

A Spanish-Nahuatl, Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary, Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana, y mexicana is "the most important and most frequently reprinted Spanish work on Nahuatl," according to the World Digital Library.[3]

Nowadays, Classical Nahuatl is used by Mexican NSBM groups supporting indigenismo, such as Kukulcan, Tlateotocani and Comando de Exterminio.

See also


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Classical Nahuatl". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Ethnologue summary for Classical Nahuatl
  3. ^ "Manual Vocabulary of the Spanish and Mexican Languages: In Which are Contained the Words, Questions, and Answers Commonly and Usually Found in the Treatment and Communication Between Spaniards and Indians".  


Arenas, Pedro de: Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana y mexicana. [1611] Reprint: México 1982
Carochi, Horacio: Arte de la lengua mexicana: con la declaración de los adverbios della. [1645] Reprint: Porrúa México 1983
Curl, John: Ancient American Poets. Tempe AZ: Bilingual Press, 2005.
Garibay, Angel Maria : Llave de Náhuatl. México 19??
Garibay, Angel María, Historia de la literatura náhuatl. México 1953
Garibay, Angel María, Poesía náhuatl. vol 1-3 México 1964
Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1767-1835): Mexicanische Grammatik. Paderborn/München 1994
Karttunen, Frances, An analytical dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman 1992
Karttunen, Frances, Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Los Angeles 1976
Launey, Michel : Introduction à la langue et à la littérature aztèques. Paris 1980
Launey, Michel : Introducción a la lengua y a la literatura Náhuatl. UNAM, México 1992
León-Portilla, Ascensión H. de : Tepuztlahcuilolli, Impresos en Nahuatl: Historia y Bibliografia. Vol. 1-2. México 1988
León-Portilla, Miguel : Literaturas Indígenas de México. Madrid 1992
Lockhart, James (ed): We people here. Nahuatl Accounts of the conquest of Mexico. Los Angeles 1993
Molina, Fray Alonso de: Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana y Mexicana y Castellana . [1555] Reprint: Porrúa México 1992
Olmos, Fray Andrés de: 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
Rincón, Antonio del : Arte mexicana compuesta por el padre Antonio del Rincón. [1595] Reprint: México 1885
Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de (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
Siméon, Rémi: Dictionnaire de la Langue Nahuatl ou Mexicaine. [Paris 1885] Reprint: Graz 1963
Siméon, Rémi: Diccionario dße la Lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana. [Paris 1885] Reprint: México 2001
Sullivan, Thelma D. : Compendium of Nahuatl Grammar. Salt Lake City 1988
The Nahua Newsletter: edited by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies of the Indiana University (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

External links

  • "Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana, y mexicana. : En que se contienen las palabras, preguntas, y respuestas mas co[m]munes, y ordinarias que se suelen offrecer en el trato, y communicacion entre Españoles, é Indios".  
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