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!