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Nahuatl language

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  Quote Jalisco Lancer Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Nahuatl language
    Posted: 17-May-2005 at 18:37


Nahuatl (Nahuatlahtolli)
Spoken in: Mexico
Region: Mexico (state), Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Guerrero
Total speakers: >1.5 million
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Uto-Aztecan

Southern Uto-Aztecan

Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: Mexico:
Language codes
ISO 639-1 nah
ISO 639-2 nah

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 Hernn Corts.

Nahuatl is related to the languages spoken by the Hopi, Comanche, Pima, Shoshone, and other peoples of western North America, as they all belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
Soshonean (Northern Uto-Aztecan)
Aztecan 2000 BP
Nahuatl (Central & Northern Nahuan) --Mxico(State), Puebla, Hidalgo
Nahual (Western Nahuan) --Michoacn
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.
Geographic distribution
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 Potos, 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
Michoacn [NCL] Michoacn ~3,000
Santa Mara de la Alta [NHZ] Northwest Puebla ~3,000
Tenango [NHI] Northern Puebla ~2,000
Tlamacazapa [NUZ] Morelos ~1,500
Coatepec [NAZ] Southwestern Mxico (State), Northwestern Guerrero ~1,500
Durango [NLN] Southern Durango ~1,000
Ometepec [NHT] Southern Guerrero, Western Oaxaca ~500
Temascaltepec [AZZ] Southwestern Mxico (State) ~300
Tlalitzlipa [NHJ] Puebla ~100
Pipil [PPL] El Salvador ~20
Tabasco [NHC] Tabasco (extinct?)
Classical [NCI] Valley of Mxico (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
Table of Nahuatl consonants and semivowels, in IPA notation (see IPA-SAMPA chart for Nahuatl) followed(→ by the proposed Nahuatl Standard Transcription:

bilabial alveolar alveo-
lateral alveo-
palatal velar labialized
velar glottal
stop unaspirated p → p t → t      k → k kw → q aʔ... → ...
aspirated        &nb sp;    
ejective        &nbs p;    
affricate voiced             
voiceless    ts → z tɬ → tl/ł tʃ → c       
ejective        &nbs p;   
fricative voiced            
voiceless    s → s/ ɬ → l ʃ → x    h → h
liquid voiced              
preglottalized       &nbs p;      
nasal voiced m → m n → n           ; 
preglottalized       &nbs p;     
semivowels w → v    j → y    
Table of Nahuatl vowels, in IPA notation (see IPA-SAMPA chart for Nahuatl) followed(→ by the proposed Nahuatl Standard Transcription:

front central back
long short long short long short
high tense i: →       
lax   i → i     
mid tense e: →      o: →
lax   e → e     o → o
low tense       
lax    a: → 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.

Due to extensive Mexican-Philippine contacts, there are estimated 250 words of Nahuatl origin in the Filipino language, among such are kamote (sweet potato), palengke (flea market), panotsa (peant brittle), sayote (chayote), tiyangge (seasonal market), and tsokolate (chocolate), and also place names, such as Zapote, a town near Manila, and Macabebe, and Sasmuan, towns in Pampanga province.

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, capuln, chamagoso, chapopote, chayote, chicle, chile, chipotle, chocolate, cuate, comal, copal, coyote, ejote, elote, epazote, escuincle, guacamole, guachinango, guajolote, huipil, hule, jacal, jcara, 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.
Many well-known toponyms also come from Nahuatl, including Mexico (mxihco), Guatemala (cuauhtmallan), and Nicaragua (nicnhuac).

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 Durn 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 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 Catholic priests. See Nahuatl transcription.

Nahuatl literature is extensive (probably the most extensive of all Amerindian languages), including a relatively large corpus of poetry (see also Nezahualcoyotl); the Nican Mopohua is an excellent early sample of transcribed Nahuatl.

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  Quote Jalisco Lancer Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17-May-2005 at 18:42


The Mayan languages are a family of related languages spoken from South-Eastern Mexico through northern Central America as far south as Honduras. They go back at least some 5000 years in the Pre-Columbian era of Mesoamerica. Although the Spanish language (and in Belize the English language) is the official language of the area today, dialects of Maya are still spoken as a primary or secondary language by over 3 million Maya people in the region today. In Classical times (600-800 AD) and as late as the Spanish Conquest, the language was written on buildings, pottery and bark-paper codices in a highly elaborate script now called Maya hieroglyphics.

The most used Maya language is often called Yucatec Maya by linguists but known simply as Maya to its speakers. It is spoken in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as well as in parts of northern Belize and the Peten region of Guatemala. It is documented in the ancient hieroglyphs in Pre-Columbian Maya civilization sites such as Chichen Itza, has a rich literature through the Spanish Colonial era, and remains common as the first language in rural areas in Yucatan today, where in many towns even Yucatecans of Spanish ancestry have a working knowledge of the tongue.

The second most historically important dialect or language is Chol, formerly widespread, but spoken only in pockets in Chiapas and Guatemala today. A closely related dialect, Chorti, is spoken in a region around the boundaries of the nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These particular dialects are believed to be the most conservative in vocabulary and phonology, and are closely related to the language of the inscriptions of the ancient sites of the Classic era Central Lowlands.

The Classic Maya language is quite closely related to modern Chol and Yucatec, and the split between these two languages may be observed in Maya inscriptions.

In the Highlands of Guatemala are the Quichan-Mamean Maya languages and dialects, including Quich proper, Cachiquel, Kekchi, Tzutuhil, Pocomam, and Mam. The famous Popol Vuh is in Quich. In the western highlands around Huehuetenango, Jacaltec is spoken.

The Huastec language, spoken in east-central Mexico, is part of the Mayan language family, although it is distant both linguistically and geographically from the rest of the language family.

Mayan languages
Cholan-Tzeltalan languages
Chol language [ʧʼol]
Chorti language
Chontal language
Tzeltal language [ʦʼeltal]
Tzotzil language [soʦʼil]
Huastecan languages
Huastec language [waːʃteːka]
Chicomuceltec language
Kanjobalan-Chujean languages
Chuj language [ʧuːx]
Tojolabal language
Jacaltec language
Kanjobal language [qʼanhoɓal]
Mocho language
Quichean-Mamean languages
Mam language [maːm]
Ixil language
Kekchi language [qʼeqʧiʔ]
Pocomam language [poqomam]
Quichean languages
Quich language [kʼiːʧeːʔ]
Cakchiquel language [kaqʧikel]
Tzutuhil language
Yucatecan languages
Itza language
Lacandon language
Mopan language
Yucatec Maya language [joʔkateːka]
Mayan Sign Languages
Yucatec Maya Sign Language
Language Origin
It is generally agreed that the Mayan writing system was adopted from the Olmecs (Schele & Freidel, 1990; Soustelle, 1984). An Olmec origin for many PreClassic Maya sites, would explain Schele and Freidel's (1990) claim that the first king of Palenque was the Olmec leader U-Kix-chan; and that the ancient Maya adopted many Olmec social institutions and Olmec symbolic imagery.

B. Stross (1973) mentions the Mayan tradition for a foreign origin of Mayan writing. This idea is also confirmed by Mayan oral tradition (Tozzer, 1941), and C.H. Brown (1991) who claimed that writing did not exist among the Proto-Maya.

Terrence Kaufman has proposed that the Olmec spoke a Mexe-Zoquean speech and therefore the authors of Olmec writing were Mexe-Zoquean speakers. This view fails to match the epigraphic evidence. The Olmec people spoke a Manding "Malinke-Bambara" language and not Zoquean.

1. Mayan Terms for Writing

Figure 1. Mayan Terms for Writing

Yucatec c'i:b' Chorti c'ihb'a Mam c'i:b'at

Lacandon c'ib' Chol c'hb'an Teco c'i:b'a

Itza c'ib' Chontal c'ib' Ixil c'ib'

Mopan c'ib' Tzeltalan c'ib'

Proto-Term for write *c'ib'

The Mayan /c/ is often pronounced like the hard Spanish /c/ and has a /s/ sound. Brown (1991) argues that *c'ihb may be the ancient Mayan term for writing but, it can not be Proto-Mayan because writing did not exist among the Maya until 600 B.C. This was 1500 years after the break up of the Proto-Maya (Brown, 1991).

Landa's tradition concerning the origin of writing among the Maya supports the linguistic evidence (Tozzer, 1941). Landa noted that the Yucatec Maya claimed that they got writing from a group of foreigners called Tutul Xiu from Nonoulco (Tozzer, 1941).

The Tutul Xi were probably Manding speaking Olmecs. The term Tutul Xiu, can be translated using Manding as follows:

Tutul, "Very good subjects of the Order".

Xiu, "The Shi (/the race)".

"The Shis (who) are very good Subjects of the cult-Order". The term Shi, is probably related to the Manding term Si, which was also used as an ethnonym.

The Mayan term for writing is derived from the Manding term

se'be. Below are the various terms for writing used by the Manding/Mande people for writing.
Manding Term for Writing

Malinke se'be Serere safe

Bambara se'be Susu se'be

Dioula se'we' Samo se'be

Sarakole safa W. Malinke safa

Proto-Term for writing *se'be , *saf

Brown has suggested that the Mayan term c'ib' diffused from the Cholan and Yucatecan Maya to the other Mayan speakers. This term is probably derived from Manding *Se'be which is analogous to *c'ib'. This would explain the identification of the Olmec or Xi/Shi people as Manding speakers. There are also many cognate Mayan and Manding terms (Wiener, 1920-22) .

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