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Aztec Calendar Sun Stone, used by the Aztecs as well as other Pre-Columbian peoples of central Mexico and Central America

Nahuatl, The Language of the Aztec Nation

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Today, Spanish is the dominant language of Mexico and most central and South American countries. There was a time, however, when Nahuatl, a language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, was the language of art, science, religion, and high culture in the part of Mesoamerica ruled by the Aztec Empire.  Despite colonization by the Spaniards, Nahuatl remains a spoken language with numerous dialects and currently 1.6 million speakers. In regions with large indigenous Nahua populations, it enjoys a status equivalent to Spanish. It also has become a language that has helped to strengthen the identity of the Nahua people.

What is Nahuatl?

Classical Nahuatl was the lingua franca, the common language of all the differing peoples that came together under the Aztec civilization. Nahuatl is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family, a family of languages spoken in the western United States and Mexico. The Uto-Aztecan family also includes languages such as the Shoshoni language spoken in the American west. The branch of Uto-Aztecan which includes Nahuatl is Southern Uto-Aztecan. Nahuatl has many different dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. The variety within Nahuatl is great enough that it can be divided into western and eastern variants. The dialects of Nahuatl within the Valley of Mexico most closely resemble Classical Nahuatl.

The rise and fall of Nahuatl. (Public Domain)

The rise and fall of Nahuatl. ( Public Domain )

Nahuatl languages have a complex grammar. It is highly agglutinative (using complex words consisting of many elements) and polysynthetic. The meaning of a sentence will often be indicated more with prefixes and suffixes on a word than with separate words. Nahuatl does not have case or gender, but it does distinguish between inanimate and animate nouns. Dialects of Nahuatl also distinguish between possessed and unpossessed nouns. Animate and inanimate nouns may have different plural endings in some dialects.

Writing System

Unlike the Maya, the Nahua did not have a full alphabet. Their writing system consisted of a mixture of ideographic and phonetic writing. The same symbols are used for each system, and which one was being used depended on context. Thus, the writing system was partly phonetic, but not entirely which has made it more challenging to translate parts of the Nahuatl codices. An example of a Nahuatl symbol being used to represent a word or idea is the use of a scroll to represent “speech” or “speaker.”

In this scene from Codex Mendoza — a father teaches his twelve-years-old son the art of war, and a mother teaches her daughter house duties, with the speaking parents indicated by the scroll glyph. (Public Domain)

In this scene from Codex Mendoza — a father teaches his twelve-years-old son the art of war, and a mother teaches her daughter house duties, with the speaking parents indicated by the scroll glyph. ( Public Domain )

Some symbols used in the Nahua writing are clear enough in what they depict, so that those who don’t speak the language can get a general idea of what is being discussed. For example, records of the cities conquered by Aztecs are documented by a mixture of glyphs and text in the Codex Mendoza. To show that a city has been conquered, the city's name is written next to the glyph meaning "conquered", this being is a temple (pyramid) in smoke and flames with its top toppling over.

Logograms representing cities being conquered by the Aztecs from the Codex Mendoza. (Public Domain)

Logograms representing cities being conquered by the Aztecs from the Codex Mendoza. ( Public Domain )

Others, however, do require knowing the sounds and words represented by the symbols. Today, a mixture of traditional and Latin characters are used to write Nahuatl.

The place names Mapachtepec ("Raccoon Hill"), Mazatlan ("Deer Place") and Huitztlan ("Thorn Place") written in the Aztec writing system, from the Codex Mendoza. (Public Domain)

The place names Mapachtepec ("Raccoon Hill"), Mazatlan ("Deer Place") and Huitztlan ("Thorn Place") written in the Aztec writing system, from the Codex Mendoza . ( Public Domain )

Speakers of Nahuatl: the Nahua People

The Nahua probably originated from the deserts of northwestern Mexico and the American Southwest. Around 500 AD, the earliest Nahua arrived in the Valley of Mexico and adopted agriculture and urban living which were already being practiced by Mesoamerican civilization. By the 13th century, the Nahua had established numerous city-states throughout the Valley of Mexico.

One of the last migrations of Nahua into the Valley of Mexico from farther north were the Mexica who arrived around 1200 AD and eventually settled on an island in Lake Texcoco. On the island, they built the city that would later become Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan grew in power and in the 15th century, Tenochtitlan formed the triple alliance with Tlacopan and Texcoco forming the Aztec Empire. It was through the expansion of the Aztec Empire that Nahuatl became a widely spoken language across Mexico and Central America. By 1519, when the Conquistadors arrived, Nahuatl in its classic form was the language of administration, law, science, and religion.

Even after the Spanish conquest, Nahuatl remained an important language spoken by the natives. Nahuatl texts represent one of the main sources from which archaeologists and historians have learned about ancient Mexican culture, including, their religious beliefs.

The first page of Codex Mendoza. (Public Domain)

The first page of Codex Mendoza. ( Public Domain )

Nahua Religion

The Nahua, like other Mesoamerican cultures, had a shared religion centered around deities such as the feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl. They believed that history was cyclic and was divided into ages, and each age was ruled by a different sun. The Nahua also believed that the current age was the fourth age and that present-day people were the fourth race of humanity. Whichever god reigned as the sun god was responsible for bringing order to the universe and making life itself possible. Without the sun, it was believed that chaos would rule, and all life would cease.

Aztec calendar stone sculpture in Forest Lawn's "Plaza of Mesoamerican Heritage” (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aztec calendar stone sculpture in Forest Lawn's "Plaza of Mesoamerican Heritage” (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When the Spanish friars began to evangelize Nahua, the Nahua belief in the sun god appears to have survived. Many early Nahua Christians thought of Christ as analogous to a sun god. An interesting find related to Nahua Christianity is a Nahuatl translation of the Book of Proverbs and other books attributed to Solomon dating the to the early colonial period.

Legacy

The importance of Nahuatl and the Nahua parallels the importance of Latin and the Latini of ancient Italy who later became the rulers of the ancient Roman Empire. It is possible that had the arrival of the Spanish not ended Mesoamerican history in 1519, the Aztec Empire may have become to the Americas what the Roman Empire became to Western Europe.

Top image: Aztec Calendar Sun Stone, used by the Aztecs as well as other Pre-Columbian peoples of central Mexico and Central America  Source:  Kim Alaniz/ CC BY-SA 3.0

By Caleb Strom

References

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Geographic Perspectives: Papers in Memory of Wick R. Miller by the Friends of Uto-

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Solomon." Ethnohistory 60.4 (2013): 759-762.

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Thompson, Irene and Philips, Jon. “Uto-Aztecan Language Family” About World Languages . (2013). Available at: http://aboutworldlanguages.com/uto-aztecan-language-family

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