What is Nahuatl?

Nahuatl, called the Aztec language or Mexicano at times, is one of the most wide-spread of the indigenous languages of Mexico. It is the language of the Nahuas of the empire of the Mexicas that dominated much of Mexico and Central America before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and who founded the city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

Although Spanish is the official language of Mexico, the Nahuatl language continues to be spoken in the country, principally in the more remote and mountainous regions of central Mexico and predominantly in the states of Mexico, Morelos, Guerrero, Veracruz, Puebla, and Hidalgo. Many of the crafts vendors selling their wares in the streets and markets can be overheard speaking their native Nahuatl language in these areas.

There have been many attempts in modern times to revive the language and bring it again into focus as a great cultural heritage of Mexico, but unfortunately, very few of these programs have been given serious attention or the needed resources for them to flourish.
Codex of Huamantla WDL3244

Many people visiting Mexico and learning or speaking Mexican Spanish don’t realize that the names of many things—particularly native plants and animals—have their origins in the Nahuatl language. In fact, there are a number of words that have made their way even into the English language from original Nahuatl terms.

Some of the words in Spanish and English that come from Nahuatl roots:

Náhuatl Spanish English
ahuacatl aguacate avocado
chilli chile chilli or chile pepper
chocolatl chocolate chocolate
cacahuatl cacahuate peanut
coyotl coyote coyote
nopalli or nopahle nopal nopal or prickly pear cactus
ocelotl ocelote ocelot
tamalli tamale tamale
xitomatl jitomate tomato
xocolatl chocolate chocolate

Many of Mexico’s place names stem from the original Nahuatl names:

Xochimilco: Place where flowers are sown. Xochitl = flower. Milli = cultivated field. The -co ending means “place of.”

Iztaccihuatl: White lady. Iztac = white. Cihuatl = woman.

Popocatépetl: Smoking mountain. Tepetl = mountain. Popoca = to smoke or fume

Nahuatl Courses and Texts:

If you’re interested in delving further into this old language, there are several on-line courses and study resources available. Here are just a few:

Nic chālchiuhcozcameca quenmach tòtóma in nocuic.

I see my song unfolding in a thousand directions, like a string of precious stones.

From The Project Gutenberg EBook of Ancient Nahuatl Poetry, by Daniel G. Brinton (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12219/12219-h/12219-h.htm)


Llave del Náhuatl, Angel Maria Garibay N., Editorial Purrua, S.A., Mexico 1979

Colaboradores de Wikipedia, “Náhuatl,” Wikipedia, La enciclopedia libre, http://es.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=N%C3%A1huatl&oldid=74633784 (descargado 2 de junio de 2014).