Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Nahuatl is a Native American language indigenous to central Mexico. It was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica during the 7th century AD through to the late 16th century, at which time its prominence and influence was interrupted by the Spanish conquest of the New World.
Also known as Mexican language, or the language of the Mexica (ie. Aztecs), it was not only spoken by the Aztecs but also their predecessors (the Colhua , Tecpanec , Acolhua , and the famous Toltecs in one interpretation of the term). Recently, there have begun to appear more and more suggestions, from several diverse fields of Mesoamerican research, that Nahuatl might have been one of the languages spoken at the legendary Teotihuacan.
Today, the term Nahuatl is frequently used in two different senses which are quickly becoming increasingly incompatible:
- the Classical Nahuatl language described above (and which is no longer spoken on an everyday basis anywhere)
- any of a multitude of live dialects (some of them mutually unintelligible) that are still spoken by at least 1.5 million people in what is now Mexico. All of these dialects show influence from the Spanish language to various degrees, some of them much more than others, but it is important to note that some aspects of the essential nature of the Classical language have been lost in all of them (much as it happened to Classical Latin as it developed into the different Romance languages).
Nahuatl is still the most widely spoken Native American language in Mexico; however, most, if not all, of the speakers of Nahuatl are bilingual, having a working knowledge of the Spanish language. In fact, until recently, a significant number of the Nahuatl speakers outside the valley of Mexico were bilingual too, speaking both Nahuatl and their own mother tongue. A famous example of bilinguism was Malintzin ("La Malinche"), the native woman who translated between Nahuatl and a Maya language (and later learned Spanish as well) for Hernán Cortés.
- Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
- Soshonean (Northern Uto-Aztecan)
- Aztecan 2000 BP
- Nahuatl (Central & Northern Nahuan) --México(State), Puebla, Hidalgo
- Nahual (Western Nahuan) --Michoacán
- Nahuat (Eastern Nahuan) --Veracruz
- Nawat (Southern Nahuan, also known as "Pipil") --Pacific coast of Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador
- Pochutec --Coast of Oaxaca
- *Estimated split date by glottochronology
- **Some scholars continue to classify Aztecan and Sonoran together under a separate group (called variously "Sonoran", "Mexican", or "Southern Uto-Aztecan"). There is increasing evidence that whatever degree of additional resemblance that might be present between Aztecan and Sonoran when compared with Soshonean is probably due to proximity contact, rather than to a common immediate parent stock other than Uto-Aztecan.
Dialects and local variants
List I. Nahuan subgroup members, sorted by number of speakers:
(name [ethnologue subgroup code] – location(s) ~approx. number of speakers)
- Huasteca Este [NAI] – Hidalgo, Western Veracruz, Northern Puebla ~450,000
- Huasteca Oeste [NHQ] – San Luis Potosí, Western Hidalgo ~450,000
- Guerrero [NAH] – Guerrero ~200,000
- Orizaba [NLV] – Central Veracruz ~140,000
- Puebla Sureste [NHS] – Southeast Puebla ~135,000
- Puebla Sierra[AZZ] – Puebla Highlands ~125,000
- Puebla Norte [NCJ] – Northern Puebla ~66,000
- Central [NHN] – Tlaxcala, Puebla ~50,000
- Istmo-Mecayapan [NAU] – Southern Veracruz ~20,000
- Puebla Central [NCX] – Central Puebla ~18,000
- Morelos [NHM] – Morelos ~15,000
- Oaxaca Norte [NHY] – Northwestern Oaxaca, Southeastern Puebla ~10,000
- Huaxcaleca [NHQ] – Puebla ~7,000
- Istmo-Pajapan [NHP] – Southern Veracruz ~7,000
- Istmo-Cosoleacaque [NHK] – Eastern Morelos, Northwestern Coastal Chiapas, Southern Veracruz ~5,500
- Ixhuatlancillo [NHX] – Central Veracruz ~4,000
- Tetelcingo [NHG] – Morelos ~3,500
- Michoacán [NCL] – Michoacán ~3,000
- Santa María de la Alta [NHZ] – Northwest Puebla ~3,000
- Tenango [NHI] – Northern Puebla ~2,000
- Tlamacazapa [NUZ] – Morelos ~1,500
- Coatepec [NAZ] – Southwestern México (State), Northwestern Guerrero ~1,500
- Durango [NLN] – Southern Durango ~1,000
- Ometepec [NHT] – Southern Guerrero, Western Oaxaca ~500
- Temascaltepec [AZZ] – Southwestern México (State) ~300
- Tlalitzlipa [NHJ] – Puebla ~100
- Pipil [PPL] – El Salvador ~20
- Tabasco [NHC] – Tabasco (extinct?)
- Classical [NCI] – Valley of México (academic and literary)
Classical Nahuatl makes use of 4 vowels (a,e,i,o) but distinguishes between a long and a short variant of each one of them. It uses two semivowels (/w/ and /j/), a glottal stop, and 10 other unvoiced consonants. It is an agglutinating, polysynthetic language that makes extensive use of compounding and derivation. It has very well developed honorific forms. Syllable structure is either CV or CVC. Stress, non-lexical in most varieties, always falls on the next-to-last vowel with the sole exception of the vocative, in which it falls on the last one.
Consonants and semivowels
|stop||unaspirated||p → p||t → t||k → k||kw → q||aʔ... → à...|
|voiceless||ts → z||tɬ → tl/ł||tʃ → c|
|voiceless||s → s/ç||ɬ → l||ʃ → x||h → h|
|nasal||voiced||m → m||n → n|
|semivowels||w → v||j → y|
|high||tense||i: → ï|
|lax||i → i|
|mid||tense||e: → ë||o: → ö|
|lax||e → e||o → o|
|lax||a: → ä||a → a|
Nahuatl is an agglutinative, polysynthetic language. In Nahuatl there is no fixed difference between phrases or words, no infinitives, and no proper pronouns. Nahuatl has been described as a language that is pure etymology. A Nahuatl word always consists of a prefix, followed by several root concepts, followed by a suffix. One can put together as many one-syllable root concepts as necessary, so some Nahuatl words are very long. This also means that new words can be created on the fly.
The typology of Nahuatl has, by a minority of linguists, been regarded as oligosynthetic. This was first proposed in the early 20th Century by Benjamin Whorf, but was largely dismissed by the linguistic community by the mid-1950s. In 2004, linguist and computer scientist Ernst Herrera Legorreta put forward new evidence in support of Whorf's original claim. It has yet to be seen whether this will change the academic consensus.
- See the list of Nahuatl words and list of words of Nahuatl origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project.
Words loaned to other languages
- Main article: words of Nahuatl origin
Nahuatl has provided the English language with some words for indigenous animals, fruits, vegetables, and tools.
Nahuatl has been an exceedingly rich source of words for the Spanish language, as the following samples show.
Some of them are restricted to Mesoamerica but others are common to all the Spanish dialects:
- acocil, aguacate, ajolote, amate, atole, ayate, cacahuate, camote, capulín, chamagoso, chapopote, chayote, chicle, chile, chipotle, chocolate, cuate, comal, copal, coyote, ejote, elote, epazote, escuincle, guacamole, guachinango, guajolote, huipil, hule, jacal, jícara, jitomate, malacate, mecate, mezcal, milpa, mitote, mole, nopal, ocelote, ocote, olote, paliacate, papalote, pepenar, petaca, petate, peyote, pinole, piocha, popote, pulque, quetzal, tamal, tianguis, tiza, tomate, tule, zacate, zapote, zopilote.