The Nahuatl Language Of Pre-Columbian Mexico

Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs and related Mesoamerican indigenous peoples.

5. Linguistic History and Development

Nahuatl is perhaps best known as the language of the once powerful Aztec Empire. It belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family which consists of several Native American languages. Nahuatl is the major language of Pre-Columbian Mexico, but where did it begin? The majority of today’s linguists agree that the Nahuatl developed in what is now the Southwestern United States. Speakers of the language migrated to Central Mexico around 500 AD. After a 100 year presence, Nahuatl became the strongest language of the region and maintained this power well into the 11th century. Nahuatl speakers spread throughout Central Mexico well into the Valley of Mexico and further south into Central America. Trade relations among the various regions took on Nahuatl as the lingua franca of the era. Simultaneously, the language spread into Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City.

4. Diaspora of Speakers

When the Spaniards invaded in 1519, Nahuatl lost its place as the dominant language. The language did not disappear, however. The Spanish conquerors made alliances with various Nahuatl speakers who became soldiers for Spanish expeditions. Once existing primarily in central, western and southern Mexico, these alliances allowed Nahuatl to spread throughout northern and southern Mexico. In addition to the military, Christian missionaries also played a significant role in expanding the use of Nahuatl. Colonization of Mexico required converting the indigenous population to Christianity. Missionaries utilized the help of Nahuatl speakers in achieving this goal. Eventually, the missionaries also learned the language which helped to preserve its use. Today, Nahuatl speakers live as far north as Durango and as far southeast as Tabasco. Nearly 1.5 million people continue to speak the language and of them, 14.9% speak only Nahuatl. Women make up the majority of the monolingual population. The states of Hidalgo, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, and Veracruz have the highest numbers of Nahuatl speakers. Migration routes have even brought Nahuatl into the US states: New York, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

3. Phonological Characteristics and Alphabet

In Classical Nahuatl, the labial consonants include the letters m and p. Alveolar consonants are: “n”, “ts”, “t”, “s”, “l”, and “tɬ”. The “tʃ”, “ʃ”, and “j” are all considered palatal consonants while the “k,” “w” and “kw,” are velar consonants. Finally, glottal consonants include: “ʔ” and “h”. For the vowels, “i” and “e” are the front vowels, “a” the central vowels, and “o” the back vowels. Originally, the Nahuatl language was written by pictograph or ideograms, but this written system was not a full representation of all of the vocabulary. It was largely a spoken language until the Spanish Inquisition when the Latin alphabet was introduced. The use of this alphabet allowed scholars to write important Aztec stories and poetry at a time when the Spanish were destroying original works. Varying dialects affect both the phonology and spelling of Nahuatl. Due to these inconsistencies, teaching the language is a difficult task although the Ministry of Public Education has attempted to overcome the difficulty by identifying a standardized alphabet.

2. Cultural Significance

Colonizers the world over have destroyed thousands of indigenous languages. They also attempted to eradicate Nahuatl. The government enforced the use of Spanish as the sole language because they believed that one language would unite everybody and promote equality. Fortunately, this attempt was unsuccessful. The Nahuatl language represents a majority of indigenous individuals and characterizes their culture. In 1992, the Mexican government recognized the importance of cultural diversity and committed to protecting its expression.

1. Threats

The overall population of native language speakers in Mexico grew between 1970 and 2000. Over the last decade, however, the number of Nahuatl speakers has declined. The loss of indigenous language speakers is a result of many factors including Mexican youth’s loss of interest in preserving the Aztec culture. Often, youth loses interest in native languages because classist beliefs equate lower class citizens with indigenous language use. In the case of Nahuatl, classism and emigration to the US and Mexico City threaten this once dominant language.

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