Classical Nahuatl grammar

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The grammar of Classical Nahuatl is agglutinative, head-marking, and makes extensive use of compounding, noun incorporation and derivation. That is, it can add many different prefixes and suffixes to a root until very long words are formed. Very long verbal forms or nouns created by incorporation, and accumulation of prefixes are common in literary works. New words can thus be easily created.

Orthography used in this article[edit]

Vowel length was phonologically distinctive in Classical Nahuatl, but vowel length was rarely transcribed in manuscripts, leading to occasional difficulties in discerning whether a given vowel was long or short. In this article, long vowels are indicated with a macron above the vowel letter: <ā, ē, ī, ō>. Another feature which is rarely marked in manuscripts is the saltillo or glottal stop ([ʔ]). In this article, the saltillo is indicated with an h following a vowel. The grammarian Horacio Carochi (1645) represented saltillo by marking diacritics on the preceding vowel: grave accent on nonfinal vowels <à, ì, è, ò> and circumflex on final vowels <â, î, ê, ô>. Carochi is almost alone among colonial-era grammarians in consistently representing both saltillo and vowel length in transcription, even though they are both essential to a proper understanding of Classical Nahuatl.


The phonological shapes of Nahuatl morphemes may be altered in particular contexts, depending on the shape of the adjacent morphemes or their position in the word.


Where a morpheme ending in a consonant is followed by a morpheme beginning in a consonant, one of the two consonants often undergoes assimilation, adopting features of the other consonant.

ch + y chch E.g. oquich-(tli) "man" + -yō-(tl) "-ness" → oquichchōtl "valor"
l + tl ll E.g. cal- "house" + -tli (absolutive) → calli "house"
l + y ll E.g. cual-(li) "good" + -yō-(tl) "-ness" → cuallōtl "goodness"
x + y xx E.g. mix-(tli) "cloud" + -yoh "covered in" → mixxoh "cloudy"
z + y zz E.g. māhuiz-(tli) "fear" + -yō-(tl) "-ness" → māhuizzōtl "respect"

Almost all doubled consonants in Nahuatl are produced by the assimilation of two different consonants from different morphemes. Doubled consonants within a single morpheme are rare, a notable example being the verb -itta "see", and possibly indicates a fossilized double morpheme.


The words of Nahuatl can be divided into three basic functional classes: verbs, nouns and particles. Adjectives exist, but they generally behave like nouns and there are very few adjectives that are not derived from either verbal or nominal roots. The few adverbs that can be said to exist fall into the class of particles.


The noun is inflected for two basic contrasting categories:

  • possessedness: non-possessed contrasts with possessed
  • number: singular contrasts with plural

Nouns belong to one of two classes: animates or inanimates. Originally the grammatical distinction between these were that inanimate nouns had no plural forms, but in most modern dialects both animate and inanimate nouns are pluralizable.

Nominal morphology is mostly suffixing. Some irregular formations exist.


Non-possessed nouns take a suffix called the absolutive. This suffix takes the form -tl after vowels (ā-tl, "water") and -tli after consonants, which assimilates with a final /l/ on the root (tōch-tli, "rabbit", but cal-li, "house"). Some nouns have an irregular form in -in (mich-in, fish). These suffixes are dropped in most derived forms: tōch-cal-li, "rabbit-hole", mich-matla-tl, "fishing net". Possessed nouns do not take the absolutive suffix (see Noun inflection below).


  • The absolutive singular suffix has three basic forms: -tl/tli, -lin/-in, and some irregular nouns with no suffix.
  • The absolutive plural suffix has three basic forms: -tin, -meh, or just a final glottal stop -h. Some plurals are formed also with reduplication of the noun's first or second syllable, with the reduplicated vowel long.
  • The possessive singular suffix has two basic forms: -uh (on stems ending in a vowel) or -Ø (on stems ending in a consonant).
  • The possessive plural suffix has the form -huān.

Only animate nouns can take a plural form. These include most animate living beings, but also words like tepētl ("mountain"), citlālin ("star") and some other phenomena.

Possible plurals combination
-h -tin -meh
teōtl, tēteoh tōchtli, tōtōchtin Never occurs
cihuātl, cihuāh oquichtli, oquichtin michin, michmeh

The plural is not totally stable and in many cases several different forms are attested.

Noun inflection[edit]

Absolutive singular cihuātl "woman, wife" oquichtli "man, husband" totōlin "turkey" tlācatl "person (sg.)"
Absolutive Plural cihuāh "women" oquichtin "men" totōlmeh "turkeys" tlatlācah "people"
Possessed Singular nocihuāuh "my wife" noquich "my husband" nototōl "my turkey" notlācauh "my person (ie. my slave)"
Possessed Plural nocihuāhuān "my wives" noquichhuān "my husbands" nototōlhuān "my turkeys" notlācahuān "my slaves"

Possessor prefixes[edit]

1st person singular no-, 'my'
2nd person singular mo-, 'your'
3rd person singular ī-, 'his, hers, its
1st person plural to-, 'our'
2nd person plural anmo-, 'your'
3rd person plural īn-, 'their'
Unknown possessor tē-, 'their' (somebody's)

Example: nocal, 'my house'

Some other categories can be inflected on the noun such as:

Honorific formed with the suffix -tzin.
cihuā-tl "woman" + tzin+ tli absolutive = cihuātzintli "woman (said with respect)"

Inalienable possession[edit]

The suffix -yo — the same suffix as the abstract/collective -yō(tl) — may be added to a possessed noun to indicate that it is a part of its possessor, rather than just being owned by it. For example, both nonac and nonacayo (possessed forms of nacatl) mean "my meat", but nonac may refer to meat that one has to eat, while nonacayo refers to the flesh that makes up one's body. This is known as inalienable, integral or organic possession.[1]

Derivational morphology[edit]

  • -tia derives from noun X a verb with an approximate meaning of "to provide with X " or "to become X".
  • -huia derives from noun X a verb with an approximate meaning of "to use X " or "to provide with X".
  • -yōtl derives from a noun X a noun with an abstract meaning of x-hood or x-ness.
  • -yoh derives from a noun X a noun with a meaning of "thing full of X" or "thing with a lot of X"


All verbs are marked with prefixes in order to agree with the person of the subject, and, where there is one, the object. In addition, verbs take a special suffix to mark plural subjects (only animates take plural agreement).

An example of an intransitive verb, with subject marking: niyōli 'I live,' tiyōli 'you (singular) live,' yōli he, she, it lives,' tiyōlih 'we live,' anyōlih 'you (plural) live,' yōlih 'they live.'

Subject and object marking[edit]

The person prefixes are identical for all tenses and moods (with the exception of the imperative, whose prefix is x(i)-), but the plural number suffix varies according to tense or mood. In the table below, Ø- indicates there is no prefix.

Subject Marking Notes Examples
1st person singular ni-, 'I' n- before a vowel nicuīca 'I sing,' nēhua 'I depart'
2nd person singular ti-, 'you' t- before a vowel ticuīca 'you sing,' tēhua 'you depart'
3rd person singular Ø-, 'he, she, it' always zero cuīca 'he/she/it sings,' ēhua 'he/she/it departs'
1st person plural ti- (verb) + plural suffix, 'we' t- before a vowel ticuīcah 'we sing,' tēhuah 'we depart'
2nd person plural an- (verb) + plural suffix 'you' am- before a vowel, m or p ancuīcah 'you sing,' amēhuah 'you depart'
3rd person plural Ø- (verb) + plural suffix, 'they' only with animates cuīcah 'they sing,' ēhuah 'they depart'
Imperative singular xi-, 'you' x- before a vowel xicuīca 'sing!' xēhua 'depart!'
Imperative plural xi- (verb) + plural suffix 'you' x- before a vowel xicuīcacān 'sing!' xēhuacān 'depart!'

Note that prefix ti- means 'you (singular)' with no number suffix on the verb, but ti- plus the plural suffix (in the present -h) means 'we'.

The imperative prefixes can only be used in the second person; for other persons, use the optative mood.

As mentioned previously, verbal subject prefixes can also be used with nouns, to create a nominal predicate: nicihuātl 'I am a woman,' toquichtli 'you are a man,' 'timēxicah 'we are Mexica.'

Transitive and bitransitive verbs take a distinct set of prefixes, after the subject prefixes, to mark the object:

Object Marking Notes Examples
1st person singular -nēch-, 'me' tinēchitta 'you see me,' nēchitta 'he/she/it sees me'
2nd person singular -mitz-, 'you' nimitzitta 'I see you' mitzitta 'he/she/it sees you'
3rd person singular -c-, 'him, her, it' -qu- before a vowel but qui- before a consonant cluster niquitta 'I see it,' quitta 'he/she/it sees him/her/it'
1st person plural tēch- 'us' tēchitta 'you (singular) see us,' tēchitta 'he/she/it sees us'
2nd person plural amēch- 'you' namēchitta 'I see you,' amēchitta 'he/she/it sees you'
3rd person plural quin- 'them' quim- before a vowel, m or p niquimitta 'I see them,' quimitta 'he/she/it sees them'
Unspecified animate -tē- 'someone, people' nitēitta 'I see (someone, people),' tēitta 'he/she/it sees (someone, people)'
Unspecified inanimate -tla- 'something, things' eclipses a following i- nitlatta 'I see (something, things),' tlatta 'he/she/it sees (something, things)'
1st person singular reflexive -no- 'myself' Often -n- before a vowel but eclipses a following i- ninotta 'I see myself,' ninotlazohtla 'I love myself'
1st person plural reflexive -to- 'ourselves, each other' Often -t- before a vowel but eclipses a following i- titottah 'we see ourselves/each other,' titotlazohtlah 'we love ourselves/each other'
non-1st person reflexive -mo- 'yourself, himself, herself, themselves (etc.)' Often -m- before a vowel but eclipses a following i- motta 'he/she/it sees him/her/itself,' mottah 'they see themselves/each other'

The object always must be marked on a transitive verb. If the object is unknown or is simply 'things/people in general' the unspecified object prefixes may be used. Compare niccua 'I am eating it (ie. something specific)' to nitlacua 'I am eating'.

Plural suffixes are never used to mark plural objects, only plural subjects. Unspecified objects are never plural.

A Classical Nahuatl verb thus has the following structure:

SUBJECT PREFIX + OBJECT PREFIX + VERB STEM + SUBJECT NUMBER (example: ti-quim-itta-h, we - them - see - plural, i.e., 'we see them')

Direct arguments of the verb - that is, subject and object - are obligatorily marked on the verb. If there are both direct and indirect objects (which are not morphologically distinguished), only one may be marked on the verb.

Other inflectional categories may be optionally marked, for example direction of motion. Other inflections include the applicative and causative, both valency changing operations; that is, they increase the number of arguments associated with a verb, transforming an intransitive verb into transitive, or a transitive verb into bitransitive.

Tense and mood inflection[edit]

The different tenses and moods are formed, somewhat as in Latin or Ancient Greek, by adding the person inflections to the appropriate verbal base or stem.

The present tense is formed from base 1, the normal or citation form of the verb (also known as the imperfective stem), with no special suffixes. The plural subject suffix is -h. Examples: nicochi 'I am sleeping,' tlahtoah 'they are speaking,' nicchīhua 'I am making it.'

The preterite or perfect tense is similar in meaning to the English simple past or present perfect. It is formed using base 2. The singular often ends in -h or -c while the plural suffix is -queh.

The formation of base 2, also known as the perfective stem, depends on the specific verb, but is usually shorter in form than base 1, often dropping a final vowel.

The preterite is often accompanied by the prefix ō- (sometimes called the augment, or antecessive prefix). The function of this prefix is to mark that the action of the verb is complete at the time of speaking (or in a subordinate clause, at the time of the action described by the main verb). The augment is frequently absent in mythic or historical narratives. Examples: ōnicoch 'I slept,' ōtlatohqueh 'they spoke,' ōnicchīuh 'I made it.' The preterite also can be used to create agentive constructions

The pluperfect is also formed with the use of base 2 and the augment, but with the suffix -ca in the singular and -cah in the plural. The pluperfect roughly corresponds with the English past perfect, although more precisely it indicates that a particular action or state was in effect in the past but that it has been undone or reversed at the time of speaking. Examples: ōnicochca 'I had slept,' ōtlatohcah 'they had spoken,' ōnicchīuhca 'I had made it.'

The imperfect is similar in meaning to the imperfect in the Romance languages. It is formed with base 1, plus -ya or -yah in the plural. Sometimes the final vowel of the stem is lengthened. Examples: nicochiya 'I was sleeping,' tlahtoāyah 'they used to speak,' nicchīhuaya 'I was making it.'

The habitual present or customary present or quotidian tense is formed from base 1. The suffix is -ni, with the stem vowels sometimes lengthened before it. Rather than one specific event this tense expresses the subject's tendency or propensity to repeatedly or habitually perform the same action over time (e.g. miquini 'mortal,' lit. '(one who is) prone to die'. It is frequently translated into English with a noun or noun phrase, for example: cuīcani 'one who sings, singer,' tlahcuiloāni (from ihcuiloa 'write, paint') 'scribe,' or 'tlahtoāni' (from ihtoa 'speak') the title for the ruler of a Mexica city. Plural formation of this form is variable. It can be in -nih or -nimeh. In some cases, the plural does not use -ni at all but instead a preterite ending, as with tlahtohqueh, the plural of tlahtoāni, or tlahcuilohqueh, the plural of tlahcuiloāni. These preterite forms are also used to create possessive forms.

The future tense is formed from base 3, with a suffix -z in the singular and -zqueh in the plural.

Base 3 is normally the same as base 1, except for verbs whose stem ending in two vowels, in which case the second vowel is dropped, and the stem vowel is often lengthened in front of a suffix. Examples of the future: nicochiz 'I will sleep,' tlahtōzqueh 'they will speak,' nicchīhuaz 'I will make it.'

The imperative and optative are likewise formed from base 3, but with the plural suffix -cān. The imperative uses the special imperative subject prefixes, available only in the second person; the optative uses the normal subject prefixes (effectively it is the same mood, but outside of the second person). The imperative is used for commands, the optative is used for wishes or desires, both used in conjunction with particles: mā nicchīhua 'let me make it!'

The conditional, irrealis or counterfactual are all names for the same verbal mood formed from base 3. The suffix is -zquiya (sometimes spelled -zquia) in the singular and -zquiyah in the plural. The basic meaning is that a state or action that was intended or desired did not come to pass. It can be translated as 'would have,' 'almost,' etc. Examples: nicochizquiya 'I would have slept,' tlahtōzquiyah 'they would have spoken,' nicchīhuazquiya 'I would have made it.'

The final mood is sometimes called as vetitive (that is, issuing a prohibition), or negative imperative (equivalent to English 'don't...') but this is not the proper sense. Another way to describe it is admonitive - issuing a warning that something may come to pass, which the speaker does not desire, and by implication steps should be taken to avoid this (compare the English conjunction lest). The negative of this mood simply warns that something may not happen and this non-occurrence is not desirable. The mood is formed with base 2, the same as the preterite, but with different endings. If the preterite singular ends in -c this is replaced by the glottal stop/saltillo. In the plural the ending is -(h)tin or -(h)tih. The admonitive is used in conjunction with particles or nēn. Examples: mā nicoch 'be careful, lest I sleep,' mā tlatohtin 'watch out, they may speak,' mā nicchīuh 'don't let me make it.'


The applicative construction adds an argument to the verb. The role of the added argument can be benefactive, malefactive, indirect object or similar. It is formed by the suffix -lia.

  • niquittilia "I see it for him"


The causative construction also adds an argument to the verb. This argument is an agent causing the object to undertake the action of the verb. It is formed by the suffix -tia.

  • niquittatia "I make him see it/I show it to him"

Unspecified Subject/Passive[edit]

The construction, called "passive" by some grammarians and "unspecified subject construction" by others, removes the subject from the valency of the verb, substituting it with a null reference, and promoting the argument marked by object prefixes to subject. The passive or unspecified subject construction uses one of two suffixes: -lo or -hua.

  • quitta "he sees it"+ -lo= quittalo "it is seen (by someone)"
  • miqui "he dies" + hua = micohua "there is dying/people are dying"

Directional affixes[edit]


  • -on- "away from the speaker"
  • on+ tlahtoa "to speak" = ontlahtoa "he/she/it speaks towards there"
  • -huāl- " towards the speaker"
  • huāl+ tlahtoa "to speak" = huāllahtoa "he/she/it speaks towards here"

Introvert: Imperfective: -qui "comes towards the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + qui ="quittaqui "he/she/it will come here to see it" Perfective: -co "has come towards the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + co =quittaco "he/she/it has come here to see it"

Extrovert: Imperfective: -tīuh "goes away from the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + tīuh ="quittatīuh "he/she/it will go there to see it" Perfective: -to " has gone away from the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + to =quittato "he/she/it has gone there to see it"


A number of different suffixes exist to derive nouns from verbs:

  • -lli used to derive passivized nouns from verbs.

tla "something" + ixca "roast" + l + tli = tlaxcalli "something roasted/ a tortilla"
tla + ihcuiloa "write/draw" + l - tli = tlahcuilolli "scripture/ a drawing"

  • -liztli used to derive abstract nouns from verbs.

miqui "to die" + liztli = miquiliztli "death"
tlahcuiloa "to write something" + liztli = tlahcuiloliztli "the concept of writing or being a scribe"

  • -qui used to derive agentive nouns from verbs.

ichtequi "to steal" + qui = ichtecqui "a thief"
tlahuāna "to become drunk" + qui = tlahuānqui "a drunkard"

Verbal compounds[edit]

Two verbs can be compounded with the ligature morpheme -ti-.

Relational Nouns and Locatives[edit]

Spatial and other relations are expressed with relational nouns. Some locative suffixes also exist.

Noun Incorporation[edit]

Noun incorporation is productive in Classical Nahuatl and different kinds of material can be incorporated.

  • Body parts
  • Instruments
  • Objects


The particle in is important in Nahuatl syntax and is used as a kind of definite article and also as a subordinating particle and a deictic particle, in addition to having other functions.


Classical Nahuatl can be classified as a non-configurational language, allowing many different kinds of word orders, even splitting noun phrases.

VSO basic word order[edit]

The basic word order of Classical Nahuatl is verb initial and often considered to be VSO, but some scholars have argued for it being VOS. However, the language being non-configurational, all word orders are allowed and are used to express different kinds of pragmatic relations, such as thematization and focus.

Nouns as predicates[edit]

An important feature of Classical Nahuatl is that any noun can function as a standalone predicate. For example, calli is commonly translated "house" but could also be translated "(it) is a house".

As predicates, nouns can take the verbal subject prefixes (but not tense inflection). Thus, nitēuctli means "I am a lord" with the regular first person singular subject ni- attached to the noun tēuctli "lord". Similarly tinocihuāuh means "you are my wife", with the possessive noun nocihuāuh "my wife" attached to the subject prefix ti- "you" (singular). This construction is also seen in the name Tītlācahuān meaning "we are his slaves", a name for the god Tezcatlipoca.

Number system[edit]


Classical Nahuatl has a vigesimal or base 20 number system.[2] In the pre-Columbian Nahuatl script, the numbers 20, 400 (202) and 8,000 (203) were represented by a flag, a feather, and a bag, respectively.

It also makes use of numeral classifiers, similar to languages such as Chinese and Japanese.

Basic numbers[edit]

1 Becomes cem- or cen- when prefixed to another element.
2 ōme Becomes ōm- or ōn- when prefixed to another element.
3 ēyi/yēi/ēi/yēyi Becomes (y)ē- or (y)ēx- when prefixed to another element.
4 nāhui Becomes nāhu-/nāuh- (i.e. /naːw/) when prefixed to another element.
5 mācuīlli Derived from māitl "hand".[3]
6 chicuacē chicua- "5" + "1"
7 chicōme chic- "5" + ōme "2"
8 chicuēyi chicu- "5" + ēi "3"
9 chiucnāhui chiuc- "5" + nāhui "4"
10 mahtlāctli From māitl "hand" + tlāctli "torso".[4]
15 caxtōlli
20 cēmpōhualli From cēm- "1" + pōhualli "a count" (from pōhua "to count").[5]
400 cēntzontli From cēn- "1" + tzontli "hair".[5]
8000 cēnxiquipilli From cēn- "1" + xiquipilli "bag".[6]

Compound numbers[edit]

Multiples of 20, 400 or 8,000 are formed by replacing cēm- or cēn- with another number. E.g. ōmpōhualli "40" (2×20), mahtlāctzontli "4,000" (10×400), nāuhxiquipilli "32,000" (4×8,000).[7]

The numbers in between those above—11 to 14, 16 to 19, 21 to 39, and so forth—are formed by following the larger number with a smaller number which is to be added to the larger one. The smaller number is prefixed with om- or on-, or in the case of larger units, preceded by īpan "on it" or īhuān "with it". E.g. mahtlāctli oncē "11" (10+1), caxtōlonēyi "18" (15+3), cēmpōhualmahtlāctli omōme "32" (20+10+2); cēntzontli caxtōlpōhualpan nāuhpōhualomōme "782" (1×400+15×20+4×20+2).[8]


Depending on the objects being counted, Nahuatl may use a classifier or counter word. These include:

  • -tetl for small, round objects (literally "rock")
  • -pāntli for counting rows
  • -tlamantli for foldable or stackable things
  • -ōlōtl for roundish or oblong-shaped things (literally "maize cob")

Which classifier a particular object takes is loose and somewhat arbitrary.[9]

Ordinal numbers[edit]

Ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) are formed by preceding the number with ic or inic.[10]


  1. ^ Andrews (2003): pp. 382–384; Carochi (2001): pp. 308–309; Lockhart (2001): pp. 69–70.
  2. ^ Andrews (2003): p. 307.
  3. ^ Andrews (2003): pp. 309–310.
  4. ^ Andrews (2003): p. 310.
  5. ^ a b Andrews (2003): p. 311.
  6. ^ Andrews (2003): p. 312.
  7. ^ Andrews (2003): pp. 311–312.
  8. ^ Andrews (2003): pp. 312–313; Lockhart (2001): pp. 49–50.
  9. ^ Andrews (2003): p. 316
  10. ^ Andrews (2001): p. 452; Lockhart (2001): p. 50.


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Rincón, Antonio del (1885) [1595]. Arte mexicana compuesta por el padre Antonio del Rincón (Reprint ed.). México D.F.
Sahagún, Bernardino de (1950–71). Charles Dibble and Arthur Anderson (eds.), ed. Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España). vols I-XII. Santa Fe, NM.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)