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Classical Nahuatl

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Classical Nahuatl
Native toMexico
RegionAztec Empire. Postclassic Mesoamerica
Era14th to 16th century, during the Late Postclassic and after Conquest of Mexico in the Early Colonial Period
Language codes
ISO 639-3nci
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Classical Nahuatl (also known simply as Aztec or Nahuatl) is any of the variants of Nahuatl spoken in the Valley of Mexico and central Mexico as a lingua franca at the time of the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. During the subsequent centuries, it was largely displaced by Spanish and evolved into some of the modern Nahuan languages in use today (other modern dialects descend more directly from other 16th-century variants). Although classified as an extinct language,[1] Classical Nahuatl has survived through a multitude of written sources transcribed by Nahua peoples and Spaniards in the Latin script.



Classical Nahuatl is one of the Nahuan languages within the Uto-Aztecan family. It is classified as a central dialect and is most closely related to the modern dialects of Nahuatl spoken in the valley of Mexico in colonial and modern times. It is probable that the Classical Nahuatl documented by 16th- and 17th-century written sources represents a particularly prestigious sociolect. That is to say, the variety of Nahuatl recorded in these documents is most likely to be more particularly representative of the speech of Aztec nobles (pīpiltin), while the commoners (mācēhualtin) spoke a somewhat different variety.




Front Back
Close i, o,
Mid e,
Open a,


Labial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labial
Nasal m n
Plosive p t k ʔ
Affricate ts
Fricative s ʃ
Approximant l j w



Stress generally falls on the penultimate syllable. The one exception is the vocative suffix (used by men) , which is added to the end of a word and is always stressed, e.g. Cuāuhtliquetzqui (a name, meaning "Eagle Warrior"), but Cuāuhtliquetzqué "O Cuauhtliquetzqui!"

When women use the vocative, the stress is shifted to the final syllable without adding any suffix. Oquichtli means "man", and oquichtlí means "O man!"



Maximally complex Nahuatl syllables are of the form CVC;[2] that is, there can be at most one consonant at the beginning and end of every syllable. In contrast, English, for example, allows up to three consonants syllable-initially and up to four consonants to occur at the end of syllables (e.g. strengths) (ngths = /ŋkθs/).[3] Consonant clusters are only allowed word-medially, Nahuatl uses processes of both epenthesis (usually of /i/) and deletion to deal with this constraint.

For such purposes, tl /tɬ/, like all other affricates, is treated as a single sound, and not all consonants can occur in both syllable-initial and syllable-final position.

The consonants /l/ and /w/ are devoiced in syllable-final position. Likewise, /j/ is also devoiced and merged into /ʃ/ in syllable-final position.[4]



Writing system


At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictograms supplemented with a few ideograms. When needed, it also used syllabic equivalences[citation needed]; Diego Durán recorded how the tlacuilos could render a prayer in Latin using this system but it was difficult to use. The writing system was adequate for keeping such records as genealogies, astronomical information, and tribute lists, but it could not represent a full vocabulary of spoken language in the way that the writing systems of the Old World or the Maya civilization's script could.

The Spanish introduced the Latin script, which was then used to record a large body of Aztec prose and poetry, which somewhat diminished the devastating loss caused by the burning of thousands of Aztec codices by the Spanish authorities.

Classical Nahuatl Romanisation schemes
Phoneme IPA Romanisation scheme
Michel Launey[5]
a [a] a
e [e] e
i [i] i
o [o] o
u [u] o
a [] ā
e [] ē
i [] ī
o [] ō
u [] ō
p [p] p
t [t] t
k [k] qu (before i and e)
c (in all other cases)
c [ts] tz
č [] ch
λ [] tl
kw [] cu (before vowels)
uc (in all other cases)
m [m] m
n [n] n
s [s] c (before e and i)
z (in all other cases)
š [ʃ] x
y [j] y
w [w] hu (before vowels)
uh (in all other cases)
l [l] l
ll [] ll
ʼ [ʔ] ◌̀ (on the preceding vowel within word)
◌̂ (on the preceding vowel at the end of a word)
ʼ [h] ◌̀ (on the preceding vowel within word)
◌̂ (on the preceding vowel at the end of a word)



Nahuatl literature is extensive (probably the most extensive of all Indigenous languages of the Americas), including a relatively large corpus of poetry (see also Nezahualcoyotl). The Huei tlamahuiçoltica is an early sample of literary Nahuatl.

A bilingual dictionary with Spanish, Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana y mexicana, was first published in 1611 and is "the most important and most frequently reprinted Spanish work on Nahuatl," according to the World Digital Library.[6]

See also



  1. ^ "Ethnologue summary for Classical Nahuatl". Archived from the original on 2013-02-18. Retrieved 2006-06-09.
  2. ^ Aguilar 2013, citing Andrews 2003, Bedell 2011, Brockway 1963, and Goller, Goller & Waterhouse 1974
  3. ^ Aslam, Mohammed; Kak, Aadil Amin (2011). "4 - English Syllable Structure". Introduction to English Phonetics and Phonology. Foundation Books. pp. 60–68. doi:10.1017/UPO9788175968653.005. ISBN 9788175968653.
  4. ^ Launey 2011, p. 8.
  5. ^ Launey, Michel (1992). Introducción a la lengua y literatura náhuatl [Introduction to Nahuatl Language and Literature]. Mexico City, Mexico: Institute of Anthropological Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. p. 13-14. ISBN 978-9-683-61944-0.
  6. ^ "Manual Vocabulary of the Spanish and Mexican Languages: In Which are Contained the Words, Questions, and Answers Commonly and Usually Found in the Treatment and Communication Between Spaniards and Indians". World Digital Library. Retrieved 2013-05-23.


  • Aguilar, Andrés Ehecatl (2013). Phonological description of Huasteca Nahuatl from Chicontepec, Veracruz (Thesis). California State University, Northridge. p. 25. hdl:10211.2/3997.
  • Andrews, J. Richard (2003). Introduction to classical Nahuatl (Rev. ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3452-9.
  • Arenas, Pedro de: Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana y mexicana. [1611] Reprint: México 1982
  • Bedell, George (2011). "The Nahuatl Language" (PDF). Language in India. 11. Retrieved October 5, 2021.
  • Brockway, Earl (1963). "The Phonemes of North Puebla Nahuatl". Anthropological Linguistics. 5 (2): 14–18. ISSN 0003-5483. JSTOR 30022406.
  • Carochi, Horacio: Arte de la lengua mexicana: con la declaración de los adverbios della. [1645] Reprint: Porrúa México 1983
  • Curl, John: Ancient American Poets. Tempe AZ: Bilingual Press, 2005.
  • Garibay, Angel Maria : Llave de Náhuatl. México 19??
  • Garibay, Angel María, Historia de la literatura náhuatl. México 1953
  • Garibay, Angel María, Poesía náhuatl. vol 1–3 México 1964
  • Goller, Theodore R.; Goller, Patricia L.; Waterhouse, Viola G. (1974). "The Phonemes of Orizaba Nahuatl". International Journal of American Linguistics. 40 (2): 126–131. doi:10.1086/465295. S2CID 142992381.
  • Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1767-1835): Mexicanische Grammatik. Paderborn/München 1994
  • Karttunen, Frances, An analytical dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman 1992
  • Karttunen, Frances, Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Los Angeles 1976
  • Launey, Michel : Introduction à la langue et à la littérature aztèques. Paris 1980
  • Launey, Michel : Introducción a la lengua y a la literatura Náhuatl. UNAM, México 1992
  • Launey, Michel (2011). An introduction to classical Nahuatl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521518406.
  • León-Portilla, Ascensión H. de : Tepuztlahcuilolli, Impresos en Nahuatl: Historia y Bibliografia. Vol. 1–2. México 1988
  • León-Portilla, Miguel : Literaturas Indígenas de México. Madrid 1992
  • Lockhart, James (ed): We people here. Nahuatl Accounts of the conquest of Mexico. Los Angeles 1993
  • Molina, Fray Alonso de: Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana y Mexicana y Castellana . [1555] Reprint: Porrúa México 1992
  • Olmos, Fray Andrés de: Arte de la lengua mexicana concluído en el convento de San Andrés de Ueytlalpan, en la provincia de Totonacapan que es en la Nueva España. [1547] Reprint: México 1993
  • Rincón, Antonio del : Arte mexicana compuesta por el padre Antonio del Rincón. [1595] Reprint: México 1885
  • Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de (1499–1590): Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España). Eds Charles Dibble/Arthr Anderson, vol I-XII Santa Fe 1950–71
  • Siméon, Rémi: Dictionnaire de la Langue Nahuatl ou Mexicaine. [Paris 1885] Reprint: Graz 1963
  • Siméon, Rémi: Diccionario dße la Lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana. [Paris 1885] Reprint: México 2001
  • Sullivan, Thelma D. : Compendium of Nahuatl Grammar. Salt Lake City 1988
  • The Nahua Newsletter: edited by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies of the Indiana University (Chief Editor Alan Sandstrom)
  • Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl: special interest-yearbook of the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas (IIH) of the Universidad Autonoma de México (UNAM), Ed.: Miguel Leon Portilla

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