What is Nahuatl?

Niki Foster

Nahuatl is a group of Native American languages and dialects spoken in modern day Mexico. There are also small Nahuatl-speaking immigrant communities in the United States, notably in New York and California. This language is most well known as the historical language of the Aztecs, but the form of the language they spoke is more accurately referred to as Classical Nahuatl. There are over 1.5 million speakers and is the most widely spoken native language in North America. The language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family, which includes over 60 languages and spans a geographical area including not only Mexico, but also the modern day United States of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah. Most — although not all — pepole who speak it also speak Spanish.

The word avocado is derived from the Nahuati language.
The word avocado is derived from the Nahuati language.

Although the Aztecs are the most famous speakers of Nahuatl, they were not the first. Earlier tribes spoke different dialects of the language, and varying dialects persisted among different tribes during the time of the Aztec empire. However, due to the extensive power exercised by the Aztecs at the height of the empire, Classical Nahuatl became the most widely spoken version and was used as a lingua franca throughout Mexico and other Mesoamerican countries prior to the European conquest. It is also the most documented early dialect of the language, as extensive written records and translations exist from the colonial period.

The word "chocolate" is derived from Nahuatl.
The word "chocolate" is derived from Nahuatl.

Pre-conquest, the Aztecs employed a rudimentary writing system consisting mostly of pictograms and ideograms. It did not represent the language word for word, but was used mostly to keep brief records or the basic ideas of a text that would be fleshed out in the telling. The large body of Aztec literature transcribed in the Roman alphabet after the conquest was memorized in pre-colonial times. A phonetic syllabary also existed before the arrival of Europeans, but it was cumbersome and infrequently used. Today, the Roman orthography developed in the colonial period is still used to write the various dialects of Nahuatl, but its use is not standardized, and inconsistencies in spelling can be found between sources, a problem also present in classical texts. There continues to be controversy about spelling in Nahuatl.

Some people in modern day Mexico speak Nahuatl, which is a group of Native American languages and dialects.
Some people in modern day Mexico speak Nahuatl, which is a group of Native American languages and dialects.

Spanish and many other languages feature Nahuatl loanwords, and many have entered English by way of Spanish. Some familiar English words derived from the language are avocado, chili, chocolate, coyote, and tomato.

The word "coyote" is one familiar English word that comes from Nahuati.
The word "coyote" is one familiar English word that comes from Nahuati.

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Discussion Comments


It is rudimentary because the translation from pictogram to spoken sentence can vary widely. In a more exacting writing system, such as any language using a Latin Alphabet, the writer and the reader can be exactly on the same page of thought, even if they are centuries apart. Nahuatl became more exacting after the conquest, when is was grafted to the Latin Alphabet.


Hi anon, the Nahuatl writing system is rudimentary because the symbols do not directly correspond to words in the language. Different people "reading aloud" a Nahuatl text would use different words; the pictograms are suggestive rather than explicit in many instances.

Though the Nahuatl system looks very similar to full ideoographic systems like those used by the ancient Egyptians or the Mayans, it never became a fully developed system. Today there are different orthographies for Nahuatl, based on the Roman alphabet, capable of explicitly recording the language.

My use of the word "rudimentary" has nothing to do with how intricate or elaborate the pictograms are, but rather with how intricately they express language.


You are saying Nahuatl has a rudimentary writing system? Have you looked at Nahuatl pictograms? What makes them rudimentary? It seems to me they are anything but.

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