How to Spell Nahuatl?

Magnus Pharao Hansen says of himself:

I am an anthropologist and linguist with a broad set of interests in what it means to be human – including language, culture, history, politics and evolution and how they interrelate.

In my research, I study the indigenous languages and cultures of Mexico and their history and the relation between lives, language and politics. My dissertation “Nahuatl Nation”, is about the political roles of the Nahuatl language in Mexico and beyond.

I’ve recently discovered his blog Nahuatl Studies, and the latest post, How to spell Nahuatl? Nawatl? Nauatl?, is an excellent introduction to it. He says “In this blog post, I describe the many different conventions for writing Nahuatl using the Latin script,” and boy, does he ever. He starts off with the two main types of Nahuatl orthographies, classical and modern, gives an introduction to each type, and plunges into detailed analyses of all of them, ending with a brief and sensible conclusion (“regardless of which orthography you use someone will inevitably tell you that you are using the wrong one”). Here’s his introduction to the classical type, to give you an idea of the flavor of his writing:

Sometimes people talk about “classical orthography” as if it is a single well-established standard. Really it is not, and it never was. In the 16th century when Nahuatl was first written alphabetically, the idea of a standardized orthography didn’t even exist – and there was no established orthography for any of the spoken main languages such as English or Spanish (as anyone trying to read Shakespeare or Cortés’ letters will realize). Authors writing in any of these languages simply used the writing conventions they learned from their teachers and put them to the best possible use to get their points across in the easiest way. They tended to write these languages as they were spoken, representing the sounds more or less as they pronounced them. And when they began writing Nahuatl they did the same, tried to use the conventions they knew from writing Spanish to represent the sounds of Nahuatl. This is why the only thing that is really shared by all “classical orthographies” is the fact that they represent the sounds that exist both in Nahuatl and in Spanish using the letters that were most commonly used in Spanish to represent these sounds. For example, Spanish had adopted the Latin convention of writing the sound [k] with the letter <c> before the vowels [a] and [o] but with the letters <qu> before the vowels [i] and [e]. Luckily, actually most of the sounds in Nahuatl are also found in Spanish, which meant that this method was fairly succesful. And in fact in the 16th century, Spanish phonology was even more similar to that of Nahuatl – because at that time Spanish didn’t have the harsh j-sound (like in scottish Loch), but instead had a soft sh-sound as in fish which also exists in Nahuatl. They wrote this sound with the letter <x>, because that is how they generally wrote the sh-sound in Spanish. Only over the next century did Spanish gradually change the sh-sound to the harsh j-sound (and eventually began writing it with a j). (This, incidentally, is why the x is pronounced harshly in words like Mexico/Mejico, Oaxaca and Xalapa/Jalapa – but not in the corresponding Nahuatl versions which are pronounced meshi’ko, washakak and shalapan).

However there are some sounds that are found in Nahuatl that do not exist in Spanish: Primarily, the Nahuatl signature sound the tl (written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [t͡ɬ]), but this turned out to be easy to write with the letter combination <tl>. The sound [kw] (as in queen) likewise turned out to be easy to write, since this sound also existed in Spanish as (although in Spanish it is a combination of k and u, and not a single consonant sound) so they wrote it <qu> or <cu>. The Nahuatl consonant [t͡s] also didn’t exist in Spanish, but the Friars knew the sound from Hebrew and wrote it in the same way they would when transliterating the scripture using the letter combination <tz>. Nahuatl also had the consonant sound [w] (as in “wat?”) which was not found in Spanish – friars couldn’t quite decide on how to write this one, but usually they simply represented it with the vowel letter <u> – sometimes combined with a consonant letter such as <hu> or <gu> (More about this below, under Canger’s orthography).

But the most difficult sounds to write were the glottal stop (or h) neither of which existed in Spanish; and the distinction between long and short vowel duration. At first most friars didn’t even realize that these sounds actually existed in Nahuatl, so they simply didn’t write them! This is the main difference between the orthographies of the Franciscan friars and the Jesuits.

I love this kind of thing. Thanks, Yoram!

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    There are even cases where a single community has two different lanugage revitalization projects that refuse to cooperate because they use different spelling systems!

    I reminded of the dispute a few years ago (around 2009, I think) that arose when Microsoft decided that the world needed a version of Windows in Mapudungún, and after years of wrangling between the proponents of different ways of writing Mapudungún decided to use the one that seemed to have the most support, whereupon proponents of a different system took them to court. It was almost the only time in my life that I’ve felt sympathetic to Microsoft. I can’t imagine, however, why they thought that many users of Windows would be wanting to run it in Mapudungún.

  2. Lacking the which-witch merger, in my youth I used to carefully sound the H in exotic Panamerican names like Nahuatl, Coahuila, or Hualaihué, assuming they came straight from a native source and oblivious to the fact they had been filtered through Spanish. I guess it was Chihuahua that first gave me pause.

  3. The folks who internationalize software like that tend to be people who believe that adding languages is a good act, aside from its commercial value. So if they have budget that can reach to Mapudungún, they do it.

  4. @mollymooly: I’m which-witch-merged, but I do use [hw] in the odd foreign borrowing like “Huang He” – on the (tenuous) reasoning this that isn’t quite the same thing as [ʍ]. I’ve never used it in “Nahuatl” or the like, though.

    About Spanish – I’ve been curious for a while about that fricative issue. If [ʃ] survived long enough to cross over to the New World, then why is it as thoroughly extinct in American Spanish as in Iberian?* It seems weird that a sound change in the metropole would be able to totally suffuse the colonial varieties.

    *Not counting Argentine sheísmo, which is a different beast.

  5. I was amused by the use of “wat?” as a pronunciation example, since it gives (me, at least) essentially no guidance how to pronounce the w.

  6. Yes, I was amused by that too.

  7. There are at least six ways to write Cornish, and every time someone tries to create a “unified” or “single” system, that just adds another.

  8. Another (guest) post on that blog makes the case for one-word poems—short poems, long words—in classical Nahuatl, an agglutinative language.

  9. If [ʃ] survived long enough to cross over to the New World, then why is it as thoroughly extinct in American Spanish as in Iberian?

    Elite dominance, I think. The anglophone New World was settled before non-rhotacism really took hold in England, but the eastern coastal cities of what became the U.S. remained non-rhotic (always excepting Philadelphia) because they were still interchanging people and prestige forms with the mother country until 1800 or so. In the American South, the interchange continued for at least another half-century, allowing non-rhotic forms to penetrate past the cities. I think the same thing happened in Spanish America, except more thoroughly.

  10. Jim (another one) says:

    The language is getting a new lease on life:

    “New Mexico prison officials claim this Nahuatl note marks the birth of a new gang linked to 30 prisoners in New Mexico State Penitentiary.
    They say that Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztec empire, is being used by gang-bangers to forge a new Aztec-like order, controlled from within the walls of New Mexico’s prisons.
    Gang achautli (bosses) are issuing their secret orders in Nahuatl so that the pitzome (pigs/cops) can’t figure out what they are up to.

    http://www.responsivetranslation.com/blog/rebirth-of-nahuatl-as-prison-argot/

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8O9iRUWWMbQ

    http://www.policemag.com/blog/gangs/story/2011/01/a-nahuatl-dictionary.aspx

  11. I guess we can expect to be seeing articles like “The Carceral System: A New Tool for Language Revitalization.”

  12. I was amused by the use of “wat?” as a pronunciation example, since it gives (me, at least) essentially no guidance how to pronounce the w.

    I liked this too—made me realize that he couldn’t have used the “what” spelling because the ambiguity of “h” is the whole problem…

  13. marie-lucie says:

    tl

    This sound is fairly common in native languages of Western and Meso- America. Apart from the name Nahuatl, another word one sometimes encounters in English is atlatl, which refers to a kind of spear-thrower. I have heard anglophones saying something that could be transcribed “at-lattle”.

    While these two ‘exotic’ words are uncommon except in writings about Meso-American cultures, several now very common words have been borrowed (through Spanish) with /t/ (followed or not by a vowel), including chocolate and tomato (Spanish “tomate”). It seems to me that this /t/ does not reflect an inability to pronounce /tl/, but instead an attested, perhaps regional form ending in /t/ or /te/ instead of /tl/.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I guess we can expect to be seeing articles like “The Carceral System: A New Tool for Language Revitalization.”

    One word: jailtacht, the phenomenon of people like Gerry Adams learning Irish in prison.

  15. I suppose all American Indian languages would have been lost by now if the US Government didn’t forcibly relocate Indian tribes to reservations.

  16. I was amused by the use of “wat?” as a pronunciation example, since it gives (me, at least) essentially no guidance how to pronounce the w.

    I assumed they were referring to Thai temples.

  17. Minor nitpick re Hansen’s post:

    Spanish had adopted the Latin convention of writing the sound [k] with the letter before the vowels [a] and [o] but with the letters before the vowels [i] and [e].

    This is a bit weird, since it makes it sound like Spanish was originally unwritten, or else written with a different system, and only “adopted” a Latin convention from outside at some late point.

    And, of course, the actual Latin convention was to write the sound [k] with the letter “c” always (except for rare cases when “k” or “ch” was used).

  18. One word: jailtacht, the phenomenon of people like Gerry Adams learning Irish in prison.

    Thread won, and a hearty laugh given.

  19. One word: jailtacht, the phenomenon of people like Gerry Adams learning Irish in prison.

    I had an eventful night over the summer where we beached our car on a Donegal strand. At the pub where we went to ask for planks and shovels and so forth (graciously given, thank you so much Dixon’s of Meenlara) we came across teenagers interacting with the barstaff through Irish. They were clearly northern in their speech, as is usual for for Donegal, and when I understood what they were saying I mentally congratulated myself for my progress in Donegal Irish.

    Half an hour later I learned that they were ceannarí (‘RAs’ is the best translation I can come up with) for an Irish college for students from Northern Ireland, and so they were speaking the caighdeán, the standard language that anyone who learns it as a second language can speak and understand. No confirmed progress after all!

  20. January First-of-May says:

    This is a bit weird, since it makes it sound like Spanish was originally unwritten, or else written with a different system, and only “adopted” a Latin convention from outside at some late point.

    Well, at some late point relative to the early 16th century, which might well be true as the written form would mostly have been Latin a few centuries before that (besides, it’s not clear whether we even can meaningfully project “Spanish” back before 1469 without calling it “Castilian”… which is to an extent still is, admittedly).

    Apparently a lot of 16th century Spanish sounds are still spelled the same way in modern Portuguese (e.g. Portuguese x is still [ʃ]). But this is not true for all such sounds, and pronouncing Nahuatl terms as if they were Portuguese is probably farther from the truth than pronouncing them as if they were Spanish (due to other sound changes in Portuguese).

    And yes, I’m pretty sure that the whole “ca, co, qui, que” thing is (West) Romance, not Latin (apparently originating from palatalization in late Vulgar Latin). Latin qu was apparently fairly consistently [kʷ] (ironically the same sound as in Nahuatl).

  21. marie-lucie says:

    SFR: I suppose all American Indian languages would have been lost by now if the US Government didn’t forcibly relocate Indian tribes to reservations.

    Not all tribes were “relocated” to distant reservations, some of them are still living in (admittedly very reduced) ancestral territories.

    In one case in Oregon, a number of tribes were relocated into two very large reservations. This relocation threw together speakers from at least five different language communities, who had to learn to get along with each other. As a result, the existing “Chinook Jargon”, already known to a number of people, became the common means of communication between groups. Intermarriage caused it to be used also within families, and a few children acquired it as their first language. It would probably have become a separate language, replacing the five languages originally spoken, if it had not been replaced by English because of the arrival of settlers and administrators, and the schooling of children in English.

  22. @ January First-of-May:
    Well, at some late point relative to the early 16th century, which might well be true as the written form would mostly have been Latin a few centuries before that

    El Cantar de Mio Cid dates to around 1200, and Alfonso X of Castille promoted translation of Arabic works into Castilian (instead of Latin) at the Toledo “School of Translators” in the late 13th Century. So written Castilian was a going concern several centuries earlier.

    And yes, I’m pretty sure that the whole “ca, co, qui, que” thing is (West) Romance, not Latin (apparently originating from palatalization in late Vulgar Latin).

    My understanding is that the [k] sound in cases of “ce” and “ci” had (perhaps) shifted to a [ts] sound in Late Latin (which is why German and East European pronunciations of Latin tend to use that sound, since that’s roughly when they came into contact with Latin), and thence to [s] in French and southern Spanish dialects (among others); to [th] in Castilian; and [ch] in (most forms of?) Italian.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    I suppose all American Indian languages would have been lost by now if the US Government didn’t forcibly relocate Indian tribes to reservations.

    Cherokee isn’t quite extinct in Georgia.

    (And Chinook Jargon as a first language still exists, too, but it’s endangered like everything else in the region.)

    And yes, I’m pretty sure that the whole “ca, co, qui, que” thing is (West) Romance, not Latin (apparently originating from palatalization in late Vulgar Latin). Latin qu was apparently fairly consistently [kʷ]

    Absolutely. It’s still [kʷ] in Italian, which preserves [gʷ] too – despite not preserving [w]. Only “who” and “why” have become che and perché.

    Things only get confusing if you descend deep enough into antiquity that the usage of q hadn’t been fixed yet, so people sometimes wrote qur for Classical cur (“why”); this was the last vestige of the original convention to use c before e and i, k before a and r, and q before o and u, extending the contemporary Greek distribution of kappa and qoppa.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    shifted to a [ts] sound in Late Latin

    Probably something like the modern Italian pronunciation (which is almost [tɕ]) was the immediate outcome. (This has, BTW, never happened in Sardinian, and happened before i but not e in Vegliot on the now Croatian-speaking island of Krk.) This was reportedly also preserved in “Mozarabic” (all the Romance spoken in the Muslim-ruled parts of the Iberian Peninsula) and was adapted to the Slavic sound system in Romanian (I’m not sure if it’s [tʃ] or somewhat retroflex there). In Old French it went in the other direction, becoming [ts], which was later simplified to [s].

    The evidence from German shows that the sound hadn’t become [s] yet, but Old High German would have represented any foreign coronal affricate as the only one it had itself, [ts]; the origin of [ʃ] in German happened several hundred years later. Latin words associated with Christianity were passed on to western Slavic via German at first.

    The northern Castilian development of [s] to [θ] is a very recent development. The motivation for it is dissimilation from the more retracted [s̠], i.e. s from Latin s, to avoid the merger that has happened in northern Andalusia and in America – where it hadn’t, however, happened yet when Nāhuatl was first written, as you can see by the complete absence of the letter s there (in the earlier orthographies, obviously – including the one used in the Classical Nāhuatl Wikipedia).

  25. people sometimes wrote qur for Classical cur (“why”)

    Perhaps by analogy with other question words and relatives with qu, which had become /k/ before /u/? Cf. quum for cum ‘when’, never for cum ‘with’.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    That’s likely.

  27. There were other competing forms like equus and ecus as well.

  28. Cherokee isn’t quite extinct in Georgia.

    I think you mean North Carolina.

  29. There may well be Cherokee-speakers in Georgia. New Echota in that state was the original capital of the undivided and unrelocated Cherokee Nation, and there is a group called “Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee” that has Georgia but not federal recognition. Two of the three federally recognized tribes, the Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma) and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (North Carolina) oppose generally the recognition of any group using “tribe”, “nation”, or “band” in its title, as these terms imply governance, though they support Cherokee heritage groups for people of Cherokee descent who are not members of any of the three federally recognized tribes. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (also of Oklahoma), whose members are mostly descended from pre-Trail-of-Tears self-relocated people, has not made the same complaint. The GTEC claims that their ancestors were members of families whose heads of households were not Cherokee (e.g. American husbands married to Cherokee wives), who were therefore not relocated. In general its members do not appear on the Dawes Roll or other early Cherokee membership rolls.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    I think you mean North Carolina.

    Could be. I have no idea.

  31. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Cherokee, NC, is pretty close to Georgia.

  32. Thanks for reading me Languagehat. I am in fact currently working on an investigation of the carceral revitalization of Nahuatl in the US, and the use of Nahuatl among Mexican-Americans and Chicanos (you can find one paper in press on this at my academia.edu profile). It is quite interesting, and the comparisons with the Jailteacht revival have not escaped me.

    Also thanks for the additional information on the origin of the Spanish qu- spellings.

  33. Glad you found the thread, and keep up the good work!

  34. Trond Engen says:

    I’m working my way back through the blog entries. Or at least it’s added to the list of things I’m currenty doing instead of what I properly should. So far it’s all very interesting, but I’ll mention two:

    I really enjoyed the posts on Nahua dialectology and migrations, but I’m a certified sucker for that kind of thing. I understand it’s not the final answer on something that may well be a contentious issue among specialists, but it makes me happy for how the Internet has made it possible to peek through the workshop windows while the wizards are working.

    The guest post from Ben Leeming on “one-word poems” is another feast — and it seems made for Language Hat. I mean, it’s poetry, translation, linguistics, and cultural cross-fertilization, all at once.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    the use of Nahuatl among Mexican-Americans and Chicanos (you can find one paper in press on this at my academia.edu profile)

    I can’t find it there. What is it called?

  36. Because I really like that sort of thing: Terrence Kaufman, in his article The history of the Nawa language group from the earliest times to the sixteenth century, impressionistically compares the Nahuatl language tree to more familiar examples (I tried my best to render the trees side by side):

    “Proto-Nawan is like Vulgar Latin or proto-Romance; alternatively, it is like Anglo-Frisian: proto General Nawa is like Old English; Pipil is like Scots; Pochuteko is like Frisian. Or, more elaborately:

    Pochuteko is analogous to … Frisian

    Eastern Nawa … Northern English

    —Pipil … —Scots
    —Isthmus-Gulf Nawa … —Cumbrian English
    —Sierra de Puebla Nawa … —Northumberland English
    —Huasteca Nawa … —Yorkshire English

    Central & Western Nawa … Midland & Southern English

    —Central Nawa … —Midland English
    ——Malinche Nawa … ——Stafford English
    ——Morelos Nawa … ——Northampton English
    ——Valley of Mexico Nawa … ——London English
    ——Mejicano of Chiapas … ——Irish English
    ——Mejicano of Guatemala … ——American English

    —Western Nawa … —Southern English
    ——Pómaro-Mejicanero Nawa … ——Wexford English”

  37. I’ve read same thing about Quechua. The author claimed that various branches of Quechua began diverging only after Spanish conquest in 16th century, so they are about as close to each other as Latin American Spanishes to Spanish Spanish.

  38. The interesting thing about Kaufman’s comparison is that he supplies two comparisons each of which he considers valid: Either Nahuatl is on the order of Romance languages with Pipil as Romanian and Huastecan as Portuguese etc. Or it is as English with the diversity from Forth and Bargy English to Scots, to Cockney, to Jamaican and General American. So he is showing that whether we consider the varieties to be “languages” or “dialects” depends not on the degree of diversity but on politics. I myself consider them to be best understood as distinct languages for political and metalinguistic reasons.

    Noone argues that diversification of Nahuatl started post-colonization and it would not be a tenable argument to make.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    Interesting semantic parallel between Nahuatl saltillo and Danish stød for the glottal stop. The second post on the blog, Notes on Ixhuatlancillo Nahuatl: An Exercise in Dialect Classification, made me wonder if there might also be interesting half-parallels in how the glottal stop is analysed and reanalysed as a phoneme, a length marker, or an accentual feature.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    To me the question of whether Romance or English (or rather Anglo-Frisian) is the best comparison for a language like Nahuatl is one of socio-linguistics. The time-depth and diversity may be about right in both cases, but the socio-linguistic forces of gravity work differently.

    (The fundamental, though blurry, split between Western and Eastern varieties, made me think of Scandinavian.)

  41. David Marjanović says:

    David Marjánovic – it is this one

    Thanks, that’s interesting indeed! As a biologist, I must take issue with the claim that historical linguistics produces narratives while natural sciences produce facts. It’s all science – they don’t produce mere narratives, and they don’t produce facts either. They start from facts; they explain facts by producing hypotheses and testing them against more facts. (Not necessarily falsifying the hypotheses outright as Popper preferred, but certainly using Ockham’s Razor.)

    Interesting also what you’ve done to my name. 🙂 You’ve placed the accent correctly by Spanish rules!

    Interesting semantic parallel between Nahuatl saltillo and Danish stød for the glottal stop.

    On top of that, this post also contains the first evidence I’ve seen that [h] can change into [ʔ] (and not just the other way around). One fewer language universal, I guess… 🙂

  42. marie-lucie says:

    David: evidence … that [h] can change into [ʔ]

    As I mentioned a while ago, my mother (like me a native French speaker) knew some English and a little German but was unable to pronounce [h], which she regularly replaced by [ʔ].

  43. Oh, I thought [h] to [ʔ] was an unremarkable sound change. Or at least, it seems like it should be easy for it to occur, since [h > ∅] and [∅ > ʔ] both seem fairly likely (there are many examples for the first, and glottal stops seem to be added automatically in various languages before word-initial vowels or between vowels).

  44. David Marjanović says:

    ∅ > ʔ […] glottal stops seem to be added automatically in various languages before word-initial vowels or between vowels)

    But the examples show a phonemic glottal stop occurring in front of consonants, and not doing predictably so except by etymology, because the same environments occur in other words without [ʔ] insertion. This doesn’t look like a case of a phoneme springing up ex nihilo.

    Also, in the same dialect, [h > ∅] hasn’t happened word-finally, which is the first position I’d expect it to happen.

  45. In Nahuatl /h/ has a significant grammatical load in word final position where it marks plural subjects on verbs. Several dialects have undergone /h/ > [Ø] wordfinally (and indeed in all other positions as well) – with the result that they had to recruit other morphemes or syntactic strategies to serve as the marker of plural subjects.

    It is surprising to me if the h > ʔ is uncommon – seems like the kind of change one would expect to see fairly often. I certainly have no doubt that this is what happened in Ixhuatlancillo.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    seems like the kind of change one would expect to see fairly often.

    A voiceless fricative turning into a plosive? AFAIK, that’s hardly supposed to happen at all, except before another fricative or occasionally in dissimilation phenomena.

    I certainly have no doubt that this is what happened in Ixhuatlancillo.

    I’m not doubting it either; you’ve demonstrated it quite convincingly.

  47. David: Consider /θ/ > /t/ or /d/ and /ð/ > /d/ in most Germanic languages including some dialects of English (notably Orcadian Scots), some Uralic languages, and some Semitic languages. Scottish Gaelic borrowed (Middle) English wall as balla, since /w/ is only possible as a result of grammatical mutation. Swahili has /l/ and /r/ > /d/ and /w/ > /b/ after a nasal prefix.

    Otherwise all languages would long since have lost their stops.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    OK, but [h] > [ʔ]?

    Swahili has /l/ and /r/ > /d/ and /w/ > /b/ after a nasal prefix.

    I would guess that these /d/ and /b/ continue epenthetic consonants, followed by loss of the end of the consonant cluster. I’m thinking of Ancient Greek anḗr, genitive *anrós > andrós “man” and *mrotós > *mbrotós > brotós “mortal”.

    [θ] and [ð] seem to be special cases; they’re globally rather rare and apparently objectively difficult. Borrowing isn’t sound change; borrowing [f] as [p] is very common.

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