Nahuatl in LA.

Peggy McInerny writes about a Nahuatl program for the Latin American Institute:

The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat], is alive and well today in Los Angeles. Beginning and intermediate classes in modern Nahuatl are offered at UCLA, with an advanced class slated to launch next year.

A few miles due north at the Getty Museum, historians and art experts are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the general public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico.

Last fall, an entire scene of a U.S. television show was shot in Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had ever been heard on an American broadcast. This coming September, a charter school in Lynwood will offer Nahuatl classes to its middle school students, courtesy of a UCLA graduate student. And that’s not to mention a dedicated native speaker who has been teaching Nahuatl classes for 26 years in a local church in Santa Ana (see KPCC story).

Standing at the confluence of most of these linguistic streams is UCLA historian Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute. A genial professor with a dry sense of humor, Terraciano was instrumental in making Nahuatl available at UCLA, beginning in fall 2015. It was Terraciano who translated English dialogue into Nahuatl for an American Crime episode during the show’s current season. (He later coached the actors, who had to learn their parts phonetically, at the actual shoot.)

There’s some interesting stuff there about the history of the language (“Nahuatl was still the majority-spoken language in the Valley of Mexico at the end of the colonial period […] Despite the fact that 90 percent of the population died over a 100-year period as a result of one epidemic after another, indigenous peoples were still the majority of the population of Mexico by the end of that period”). Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The guilty pleasure – no, I’ll admit it – deeply enjoyable Mask of Zorro (the one with all the Welsh actors and Antonio Banderas) has a few lines of actual Nahuatl dialogue.

  2. Is there a link to the original article?

  3. marie-lucie says

    The Florentine Codex is one of many documents of the early Spanish period, written in what is now called “Classical Nahuatl”, but there were other forms of the language also, and today there are a number of Nahuatl varieties, some of them not mutually intelligible with most of the others (see Wikipedia for a good overview). I wonder which one is being taught in LA? or was used in the Zorro film?

  4. My colleague from the University of Warsaw, Justyna Olko, is running an ambitious revitalisation project involving Nahuatl (and two endangered minority lects in Poland). They produce, among other things, educational materials and reading stuff for Nahuatl learners, using a standardised modern orthographic system (probably the one promoted by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education, judging from the absence of diacritics). Here is an example:

    Malintzin itlahtol.

  5. Is there a link to the original article?

    D’oh! Added, thanks. This is what happens when I post late and in haste.

  6. Marja Erwin says

    I don’t speak Nahuatl, but I thought it was pronounced Na-hwatl– rhyming with tomatl, potatl, and atl-atl– rather than Na-wat.

  7. In Nahuatl, yes, but that was clearly intended for use in speaking English, where we don’t have the -tl sound.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Either that, or it refers to those modern varieties that have merged it into /t/.

    There’s no [h] in it, BTW; hu and uh are just Spanish attempts to render [w].

  9. Either that, or it refers to those modern varieties that have merged it into /t/.

    Ah, I didn’t know about that.

  10. Of course, most educated English speakers have some familiarity with the -tl sound from reading Shakespeare in the original.

    Wasn’t there a very interesting blog post linked from here not long ago about hu/uh/wa in this context?

    Edit: Yes! http://languagehat.com/how-to-spell-nahuatl/

  11. marie-lucie says

    Yes, the letter sequence hu in Nahuatl is Spanish spelling for w (as in huevo ‘egg’ [wevo] – I can’t write the bilabial fricative here but it is irrelevant to the initial pronunciation).

    And yes, the older word Nahuatl (and many other words of this language) ended in the affricate [tl| but in some varieties (apparently including the current prestigious one) the affricate simplified to the plosive [t] and in others to t he corresponding fricative (sometimes transcribed as [L] in linguistic notation) which is identical to Welsh ll.

  12. In particular, -tl is the marker of the absolute state (which the construct state lacks), which is why almost all borrowings end in it. So avocado < āhuacatl, distorted by folk etymology in Spanish, and then distorted again in English to alligator (pear). But in a compound like ahuaca=molli ‘avocado sauce’ the word is in the construct state, and thus > guacamole in Spanish.

  13. marie-lucie says

    JC: -tl is the marker of the absolute state (which the construct state lacks), which is why almost all borrowings end in it.

    You are right, and I should have mentioned it. It is not actually part of the basic word itself.

    alligator pear

    This must have been a folk etymology due to the rugged aspect of the avocado skin.

  14. But in a compound like ahuaca=molli ‘avocado sauce’ the word is in the construct state, and thus > guacamole in Spanish.

    That is a wonderful etymology. And of course the mole of “mole sauce” is that same molli.

  15. “…but there were other forms of the language also, and today there are a number of Nahuatl varieties, some of them not mutually intelligible with most of the others ”

    Indeed there are other varieties and at least one of the modern varieties is in use by Mexican-American gangs in the California prison system. It turned out too many guards could understand Spanish. I’m waiting for the Aryan Brotherhood or whatever they have morphed into to start using Norse or something along those lines.

    In California there is a large enough population of speakers of various Mixtec languages to support a radio station in Modesto, presumably speakers of varieties close enough for that to work. That means an even larger population that includes speakers of more dissimilar varieties. There are also whole villages of Zapotecs in and around the LA area and probably all the way up the coast, also presumably using those languages.

    Nahuatl speakers and people descended from Nahuatl speakers are probably fewer because of settlement patterns but it’s still really good and constructive to see programs in the language going in California.

  16. It would have never occurred to me that guacamole was avocado plus mole, but once it’s been pointed out, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

  17. “It would have never occurred to me that guacamole was avocado plus mole, but once it’s been pointed out, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.”

    As it happens the English pronunciation is closer to the Nahuatl form “molli” (that same -tl morpheme) than the Spanish.

  18. the Aryan Brotherhood or whatever they have morphed into

    A pro-Trump PAC?

  19. John Cowan says

    I see now that the absolute state is marked by a circumfix a…tl; in making it from ahuaca, the circumfixed /a/ merges with the root /a/ to form a long vowel. There’s another analysis, though, that calls -tl(i) the singulative ending, which would mean that the construct state isn’t marked for number.

  20. Some owls were considered to be messengers from the underworld and/or witches by the Aztecs, and David Bowles reports on the Nahuatl phrases (with grammatical analysis) historically used to curse at them

  21. Ooh, very nice:

    Men would shout, “Mā xitlamattiuh, nocné, tīxtecocoyocpōl, monān ticyecoh!”

    The first two words are a command. The verb “tlamati” literally means “become wise,” but it’s used for “be silent” (as is the wont of wise folks). The -tiuh suffix indicates movement away.

    “Go away silently.”

    Then “nocné” means “o, my icnītl” … “icnītl” being “friend” but also “rogue, rascal.”

    Like modern “bro,” basically.

    Next is “tīxtecocoyocpōl” or “you sunken-eyed thing” (īxtecocoyoc) with the derogatory -pōl ending.

    “Big ol’ sunken-eyed thing.”

    And, yikes, finally … the phrase “monān ticyecoh.”

    Mo- is “your.”
    Nān- is “mother.”
    Ti- is “you.”
    -c- is “her.”
    Yecoh is the past tense of “yecoa,” meaning literally “finish” or “enjoy,” but metaphorically … “fuck.”

    Yup, that’s right. “Monān ticyecoh” is Nahuatl for “motherfucker.”

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Once again, we see that LH is very educational.

    I hope Owlmirror does not feel personally affronted by all this, by the way. It seems a bit near the knuckle.

  23. Owlmirror just says “I’m mirror, you’re glue, whatever you say reflects off me and sticks to you!”

  24. There is no “construct state” in Nahuatl. In uto-aztecan languages the term absolutive is used in a different sense than in Semitic, namely to describe a suffix that marks nouns that are syntactically free standing and unpossessed.

    Also, Nahuatl nouns borrowed from Spanish (or other languages) typically do not take the absolutive suffix.

  25. Trond Engen says

    modern varieties that have merged it into /t/

    Now what?

  26. Trond Engen says

    Magnus Pharao: Nahuatl nouns borrowed from Spanish (or other languages) typically do not take the absolutive suffix.

    Did the language develop grammatical strategies to handle the uninflected words, or is it more like code-switching?

  27. David Marjanović says

    Russian leaves the cases and numbers of uninflected nouns entirely to context. Can get a bit difficult.

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