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Nahuatl Language of the Aztecs

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Overview: The Nahuatl languages belong to the greater Native American language family known as Uto-Aztecan, which covers a wide variety of languages and dialects originally spoken by the indigenous peoples of modern-day Mexico and the southwestern United States. Generally spoken by people of the Nahua (or Aztec) ethnic group, it is one of the most commonly spoken indigenous American languages, with an estimated 1.5 million speakers mostly concentrated in the rural areas of central Mexico.

Nahuatl has been brushed aside to make way for the Spanish language throughout most of modern history, and as a consequence shows a high degree of intermixing with Spanish in its vocabulary. Native words have also found their way into the Spanish and English lexicons, especially where they describe Mesoamerican flora and fauna (e.g. “tomato,” “chocolate,” “coyote”). Within the last decade, efforts have been underway in Mexico to preserve and promote Nahuatl, lest it become seriously endangered.

 

Roots of the language: Much of the evidence suggests that a variety of Nahuatl served as a lingua franca in precolonial Mesoamerica, used by traders over a wide area and promoted by the mighty empire of the Aztecs. In some cases, it is difficult to pinpoint whether Nahuatl or a different (perhaps extinct) language was used by certain groups, but all are in agreement that Nahuatl was one of the dominant languages on the continent. The very names for several modern-day countries in the region, such as Mexico and Guatemala, are derived from Nahuatl words.

 

Nahua soldiers and mercenaries helped the Spaniards to conquer much of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, spreading their language even further than before. Pockets of them settled in areas as far away as the Philippines, creating creoles of Nahuatl, Spanish and local languages. The earlier rulers of the Spanish Empire encouraged Classical Nahuatl as a standard language in New Spain, but later kings reversed this policy and attempted to stamp it out, resulting in the extinction of Classical Nahuatl and the marginalization of modern spoken varieties.

Language characteristics: Pronunciation can vary quite a bit between the different dialects in the Nahuatl language family, but they generally have a stark phonology of a handful of vowels and a large number of consonants, with few diphthongs (double vowels). Several sounds, mostly consonants, have made their way into Nahuatl pronunciation from Spanish. The language makes extensive use of prefixes and suffixes to convey a variety of meanings, from honorifics to verb tense to repetition of an action. There is no limit on the affixes that can be applied to a single word, making it theoretically possible to create a word of any length. Word order is very loose in Nahuatl, so that words in a sentence can be rearranged to indicate a different mood or to increase their impact.

Written form: Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec people did not have a full writing system in the truest sense, but rather a system of symbols and pictographs that were intended to aid in the memorization of oral histories and religious ceremonies. Soon after the Latin alphabet was introduced in the sixteenth century, the people began to use it to record in Nahuatl for a variety of purposes, resulting in a rich body of works. Grammar books and dictionaries were created, poetry and religious texts were written, and oral histories and songs were recorded. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Florentine Codex, a collection of twelve books written in Nahuatl that describes the spiritual, cultural and economic lives of the Aztecs at the time of European contact. This and other texts were written in Classical Nahuatl, a language that is no longer spoken but well understood through the literary legacy that it has left behind.

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