2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Nahuatl, Mexicano, Nawatl
Nāhuatlahtōlli, Māsēwallahtōlli 
Nahua woman from the Florentine Codex. The speech scroll indicates that she is speaking:
Spoken in: Mexico
( Mexico State, Distrito Federal, Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Morelos, Oaxaca, Michoacán and Durango)
El Salvador
United States,
Total speakers: 1.45 million (2000)
Language family: Uto-Aztecan
  General Aztec
   Nahuatl, Mexicano, Nawatl 
Official status
Official language in: none
Regulated by: Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: nah
ISO 639-3: nci –  Classical Nahuatl
For modern varieties, see List of Nahuan languages.

Nahuatl ( [ˈnaː.wat͡ɬ] ) is a group of related languages and dialects of the Aztecan, or Nahuan, branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. All Nahuan branch languages are indigenous to Mesoamerica and are spoken by an estimated 1.5 million Nahua people, most of whom live in Central Mexico.

Nahuatl has been spoken in Central Mexico since at least the 7th century AD. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century it was the language of the Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico during the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology. The expansion and influence of the Aztec Empire led to the dialect spoken by the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan becoming a prestige language in Mesoamerica in this period. With the introduction of the Latin alphabet, Nahuatl also became a literary language and many chronicles, grammars, works of poetry, administrative documents and codices were written in the 16th and 17th centuries. This early literary language based on the Tenochtitlan dialect has been labeled Classical Nahuatl and is among the most-studied and best-documented languages of the Americas.

Today Nahuan dialects are spoken in scattered communities mostly in rural areas. There are considerable differences between dialects, and some are mutually unintelligible. They have all been subject to varying degrees of influence from Spanish. No modern dialects are identical to Classical Nahuatl, but those spoken in and around the Valley of Mexico are generally more closely related to it than those on the periphery. Under Mexico's Ley General de Derechos Lingüísticos de los Pueblos Indígenas ("General Law on the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples") promulgated in 2003, Nahuatl along with the other indigenous languages of Mexico are recognized as lenguas nacionales ("national languages") in the regions where they are spoken, with the same status as Spanish.

Nahuatl is a language with a complex morphology characterized by polysynthesis and agglutination, allowing the construction of long words with complex meanings out of several stems and affixes. Nahuatl has been influenced by other Mesoamerican languages through centuries of coexistence, becoming part of the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. Many words from Nahuatl have been borrowed into Spanish and further on into hundreds of other languages. These are mostly words for concepts indigenous to central Mexico which the Spanish heard mentioned for the first time by their Nahuatl names. English words of Nahuatl origin include " atlatl", "avocado", " chili", "chocolate", " coyote" and " tomato".


Pre-Columbian period

By a general consensus developed in the 20th century, linguists contend that the Uto-Aztecan languages originated in the southwestern United States, and thereafter migrated southwards into Mexico. Some recent scholars such as Jane H. Hill have challenged this view, by proposing instead that the Uto-Aztecan languages originated in central Mexico and then spread northwards at a very early date. This hypothesis is yet to be consolidated, and a northern origin of the Uto-Aztecan languages remains the most favored.

Archaeological, ethnohistorical and linguistic evidence suggests that speakers of early Nahuan languages first migrated into central Mexico from the northern Mexican deserts, most likely in several waves. Before reaching the central altiplano, these early pre-Nahuan groups probably spent a period of time in contact with the Coracholan languages in northwestern Mexico ( Cora and Huichol).

This migration of proto-Nahuatl speakers into the Mesoamerican region has been placed at sometime around AD 500, towards the end of the Early Classic period in Mesoamerican chronology. The major political and cultural influence across the region in the Early Classic had been Teotihuacan, the great city which flourished in central Mexico during the first half-millennium AD. The language(s) spoken by Teotihuacan's founders has long been debated, and the relationship of Nahuatl to Teotihuacan has figured centrally in that enquiry. While in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was presumed that Teotihuacan had been founded by speakers of Nahuatl, later linguistic and archaeological research tended to discount this view. Instead, the timing of the Nahuatl influx was seen to coincide more closely with Teotihuacan's fall than its rise, and other candidates such as Totonacan identified as more likely. Recently discovered linguistic and epigraphic evidence from the Maya region has revived interest in the notion that Nahuan influences may have been significantly earlier than previously thought, opening up again the possibility of a significant Nahuatl presence at Teotihuacan. However the exact implications of this evidence are not yet agreed upon by the Mesoamericanist community, and the linguistic affiliations of Teotihuacan's populace remain undetermined.

In Mesoamerica the Nahua came into contact with speakers of Mayan, Oto-Manguean and Mixe-Zoquean languages who had coexisted for millennia, and whose languages had converged to form the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. The earlier nomadic Nahuas adopted many aspects of Mesoamerican culture, which caused proto-Nahuatl to develop new traits similar to the other Mesoamerican languages. Those traits which are common to all Nahuatl varieties, but are absent in other Uto-Aztecan languages outside of Mesoamerica, are held to date from this period. Examples of such adopted traits include the use of relational nouns, the appearance of calques, or loan translations, and a form of possessive construction typical of Mesoamerican languages.

The first group to split from the main group of proto-Nahuatl speakers were the Pochutec, who went on to settle on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, possibly as early as AD 400, arriving in Mesoamerica a few centuries earlier than the main bulk of Nahua peoples. The earliest migrations are thought to correspond to the modern peripheral dialects some of which are relatively conservative and do not display much influence from the central dialects. Some Nahuan groups migrated south along the Central American isthmus, reaching as far as El Salvador and Panama. They would be ancestral to speakers of modern Pipil. Beginning in the 7th century Nahuan speakers rose to power in central Mexico, where they expanded into areas earlier occupied by speakers of Oto-Manguean, Totonacan and Huastec languages. The people of the Toltec culture of Tula, Hidalgo, which was active in central Mexico around the 10th century, are thought to have been Nahuatl speakers, and the traits associated with the central dialects spread within central Mexico in the epi-Toltec period migrations.

By the 11th century, Nahuatl speakers were dominant in the Valley of Mexico and far beyond, with centers such as Azcapotzalco, Colhuacan and Cholula rising to prominence. Successive Nahua migrations from the north into the region continued into the Postclassic period. One of the last of these migrations to arrive in the valley settled on an island in the Lake Texcoco and proceeded to subjugate the surrounding tribes. This group were the Mexica (or Mexihka), who over the course of the next three centuries founded an empire based from Tenochtitlan, their island capital. Their political and linguistic influence came to reach well into Central America and it is well documented that among several non-Nahuan ethnic groups, such as the K'iche' Maya, Nahuatl became a prestige language used for long distance trade and spoken by the elite groups.

Colonial period

With the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 the tables turned for the Nahuatl language, and a new language became dominant. However, because the Spanish allied themselves with the Nahuatl speakers from Tlaxcala and later with the conquered Aztecs, the Nahuatl language continued spreading throughout Mesoamerica in the decades after the conquest, when Spanish expeditions with thousands of Nahua soldiers marched north and south to conquer new territories. Jesuit missions in northern Mexico and the southwestern US region often included a barrio of Tlaxcaltec soldiers who remained to guard the mission. For example, some fourteen years after the northeastern city of Saltillo, Coahuila, was founded in 1577, a Tlaxcaltec community was resettled in a separate nearby village ( San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala), to cultivate the land and aid colonization efforts that had stalled in the face of local hostility to the Spanish settlement. Spanish conquests to the south of Mexico also often included Tlaxcatecs or other Nahuatl speaking allies.

Page 51 of Book IX from the Florentine Codex.  The text is in Nahuatl written with a Latin script.
Page 51 of Book IX from the Florentine Codex. The text is in Nahuatl written with a Latin script.

As a part of their missionary efforts, members of various religious orders (principally Fransciscan friars, Dominican friars and Jesuits) introduced the Latin alphabet to the Nahuas, who were eager to learn to read and write both in Spanish and in their own language. Within the first twenty years after the Spanish arrival, texts were being prepared in the Nahuatl language written in Latin characters. Also during this time institutions of learning were founded, such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, inaugurated in 1536, which taught both indigenous and classical European languages to both Indians and priests. Missionary grammarians undertook the writing of grammars of indigenous languages for use by priests. The first Nahuatl grammar, written by Andrés de Olmos, was published in 1547, three years before the first French grammar. By 1645 a further four had been published: one by Alonso de Molina in 1571, one by Antonio del Rincón in 1595, one by Diego de Guzmán in 1642, and in 1645, what is today considered the most important Nahuatl grammar, that of Horacio Carochi.

In 1570 King Philip II of Spain decreed that Nahuatl should become the official language of the colonies of New Spain in order to facilitate communication between the Spanish and natives of the colonies. This led to the Spanish missionaries teaching Nahuatl to Indians who were native speakers of other indigenous languages as far south as Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Classical Nahuatl was used as a literary language, and a large corpus of texts from that period is in existence today. Texts from this period include histories, chronicles, poetry, theatrical works, Christian canonical works, ethnographic description and a wide variety of administrative and mundane documents. The Spanish permitted a great deal of autonomy in the local administration of indigenous towns during this period, and in many Nahuatl speaking towns Nahuatl was the de facto administrative language both in writing and speech. A large body of Nahuatl literature was composed during this period, including the Florentine Codex, a twelve-volume compendium of Aztec culture compiled by Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún; Crónica Mexicayotl, a chronicle of the royal lineage of Tenochtitlan by Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc; Cantares Mexicanos, a collection of songs in Nahuatl; a Nahuatl-Spanish/Spanish-Nahuatl dictionary compiled by Alonso de Molina; and the Huei tlamahuiçoltica, a description in Nahuatl of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Grammars and dictionaries of indigenous languages were composed throughout the colonial period, but their quality was highest in the initial period and declined towards the ends of the 18th century. In practice, the friars found that learning all the indigenous languages was impossible and began to focus on Nahuatl. For a period the linguistic situation in Mesoamerica remained relatively stable, but in 1696 King Charles II passed a decree banning the use of any language other than Spanish throughout the Spanish Empire. In 1770 another decree with the avowed purpose of eliminating the indigenous languages, issued by the Royal Cedula, ended the existence of Classical Nahuatl as a literary language.

Modern period

Map showing the areas of Mesoamerica where Nahuatl is spoken today (in White) and where it is known to have been spoken historically (Grey)
Map showing the areas of Mesoamerica where Nahuatl is spoken today (in White) and where it is known to have been spoken historically (Grey)

Throughout the modern period the situation of indigenous languages has grown increasingly precarious, and the numbers of speakers of virtually all indigenous languages have dwindled. Although the absolute number of Nahuatl speakers has actually risen over the past century, indigenous populations have become increasingly marginalized in Mexican society. In 1895, Nahuatl was spoken by over 5% of the population. By 2000, this proportion had fallen to 1.49%. Given the process of marginalization combined with the trend of migration to urban areas and to the United States, some linguists are warning of impending language death. At present Nahuatl is mostly spoken in rural areas by an impoverished class of indigenous subsistence agriculturists.

Since the early 20th century and until recently, educational policies in Mexico focused on the "hispanification" of indigenous communities, teaching only Spanish and discouraging the use of Nahuatl. The result has been that today no group of Nahuatl speakers has general literacy in Nahuatl, while their literacy rate in Spanish also remains much lower than the national average. Even so, Nahuatl is still spoken by well over a million people, of whom around 10% are monolingual. Nahuatl as a whole is not imminently endangered, but some of its dialects are severely endangered and others have become extinct within the last few decades of the 20th century.

More recent government policy has encouraged the establishment of bilingual schools where at least some of the instruction is in Nahuatl. Although there are still problems, such as lack of textbooks in the Nahuatl of particular regions, or teachers from one dialect assigned to teach children in another region, there is at least some movement towards more widespread literacy in Nahuatl and use of Nahuatl in written form. The Ley General de Derechos Lingüísticos de los Pueblos Indígenas ("General Law regarding the Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples"), promulgated on 13 March 2003, recognizes all the country's indigenous languages, including Nahuatl, as "national languages" and gives indigenous people the right to use them in all spheres of public and private life. Government-sponsored broadcasting in Nahuatl is also carried by the CDI's radio stations.

In February 2008 the mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, launched a drive to have all government employees learn Nahuatl. Ebrard stated he would continue institutionalizing Nahuatl, and that it was important for Mexico to remember its history and its tradition.

Geographic distribution

Speakers over 5 years of age in the ten states with most speakers (2000 census). Absolute and relative numbers.
Region Totals Percentages
Federal District 37,450 0.44%
Guerrero 136,681 4.44%
Hidalgo 221,684 9.92%
Mexico (state) 55,802 0.43%
Morelos 18,656 1.20%
Oaxaca 10,979 0.32%
Puebla 416,968 8.21%
San Luis Potosí 138,523 6.02%
Tlaxcala 23,737 2.47%
Veracruz 338,324 4.90%
Rest of Mexico 50,132 0.10%
Total: 1,448,937 1.49%

A range of Nahuatl dialects are currently spoken in an area stretching from the northern state of Durango to Veracruz in the southeast. Pipil (also known as Nawat), the southernmost Nahuan language, is spoken in El Salvador by a small number of speakers. Another Nahuan language, Pochutec, was spoken on the coast of Oaxaca until circa 1930.

Based on figures accumulated by INEGI from the national census conducted in 2000, Nahuatl is spoken by an estimated 1.45 million people, some 198,000 (14.9%) of whom are monolingual. There is a disparity in monolingualism between males and females, with females representing nearly two-thirds of all monolinguals. The states of Guerrero and Hidalgo have the highest ratios of monolingual Nahuatl speakers, calculated at 24.2% and 22.6%, respectively. The proportion of monolinguals for most other states is less than 5%.

The largest concentrations of Nahuatl speakers are found in the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, and Guerrero. Significant populations are also found in Mexico State, Morelos, and the Federal District, with smaller communities in Michoacán and Durango. Nahuatl was formerly spoken in the states of Jalisco and Colima, where it became extinct during the 20th century. As a result of internal migrations within the country, all Mexico's states today have some isolated pockets and groups of Nahuatl speakers. The modern influx of Mexican workers and families into the United States has resulted in the establishment of a few small Nahuatl-speaking communities, particularly in New York and California.


The terminology used to describe varieties of spoken Nahuatl is inconsistently applied. Many terms are used for differing meanings, or the same groupings go under several names. Sometimes older terms are substituted with newer terms or the speakers' own name for their specific variety. The word Nahuatl is itself a Nahuatl word, probably derived from the word nāwatlahtolli ("clear language"). The language was formerly called "Aztec" because it was spoken by the Aztecs, who however didn't call themselves Aztecs but mexica, and their language mexicacopa. Nowadays the term "Aztec" is rarely used for modern Nahuan languages, but "Aztecan" is used for the Nahuatl languages and dialects when described as the second constituent part of the Uto-Aztecan language family. (This group is also often called "Nahuan".) "General Aztec" is used by some linguists to refer to the Aztecan languages excluding Pochutec.

The speakers of Nahuatl themselves often refer to their language as either mexicano or a word derived from mācēhualli, the Nahuatl word for "commoner". One example of the latter is the case for Nahuatl spoken in Tetelcingo, Morelos, whose speakers call their language mösiehuali. The Pipil of El Salvador do not call their own language "Pipil", as most linguists do, but rather nawat. The Nahuas of Durango call their language mexicanero. Speakers of Nahuatl of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec call their language mela'tajtol ("the straight language"). Some speech communities also use "Nahuatl" as the name for their language although this seems to be a recent innovation. Linguists commonly identify localized dialects of Nahuatl by adding as a qualifier the name of the village or area where that variety is spoken (for example, "Nahuatl of Acaxochitlan").


The Nahuatl languages belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family which is one of the largest and best studied language families of the Americas. The Nahuatl languages (including Pipil and the extinct Pochutec) are the only members of the "Aztecan" or "Nahuan" subgroup of Uto-Aztecan. The subgroupings of the Nahuan dialects and languages have been the subject of discussions among linguists for the past fifty years. Early classifications rested on the assumption that the basic division of Nahuan languages lay between the languages which had the /tl/ sound and others which had /t/ . This assumption was refuted by Lyle Campbell and Ronald Langacker in 1978, who showed that all the Aztecan languages had shared the development of */t/ to /tl/ but that subsequently some dialects had changed the /tl/ back to /t/ or /l/ .

The most recent authoritative classifications of the Nahuan languages have been done by Yolanda Lastra de Suárez and by Una Canger. Both of these approaches were based on dialectological research that focussed on delineating isoglosses, or linguistic boundaries, based on differences in phonology, grammar and vocabulary. Both classifications define the basic split to be that between central and peripheral dialects. The hypothesis presented is that the speakers of peripheral dialects were the first Nahuatl speakers to arrive in Mesoamerica, and that they therefore preserve some slightly archaic features. The speakers of the central dialects who arrived later, among them the Aztecs, introduced linguistic innovations that then spread outwards from the Valley of Mexico aided by the expansion of Aztec hegemony and prestige. The two classifications are largely similar, but differ in their treatment of the dialects from the region of La Huasteca. Canger places these in the central group, while Lastra de Suárez places them in a separate group. The classification below is based on that of Lastra de Suárez, combined with Lyle Campbell's classification for the higher-level groupings.

  • Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
    • Shoshonean (a.k.a. Northern Uto-Aztecan)
    • Sonoran**
    • Aztecan 2000 BP (a.k.a. Nahuan)
      • PochutecCoast of Oaxaca
      • General Aztec (a.k.a. Nahuatl)
        • Western periphery Dialects of Durango (Mexicanero), Michoacán, Western Mexico state, extinct dialects of Colima and Nayarit
        • Eastern Periphery Pipil language and dialects of Sierra de Puebla, southern Veracruz and Tabasco (Isthmus dialects)
        • Huasteca Dialects of northern Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí and northern Veracruz
        • Centre Dialects of central Puebla, Tlaxcala, central Veracruz, Morelos, Mexico state, central and southern Guerrero
*Estimated split date by glottochronology (BP = years Before Present).
**Some scholars continue to classify Aztecan and Sonoran together under a separate group (called variously "Sonoran", "Mexican", or "Southern Uto-Aztecan"). There is increasing evidence that whatever degree of additional resemblance there might be between Aztecan and Sonoran when compared with Shoshonean is probably due to proximity contact, rather than to a common immediate parent stock other than Uto-Aztecan.


Nahuan is defined as a subgroup of Uto-Aztecan by having undergone a number of shared changes from the Uto-Aztecan proto-language (PUA) since the original speakers of Nahuan split from the main Uto-Aztecan group. These changes shared by all Nahuan languages are the basis for the reconstruction of an intermediate stage called Proto-Nahuan (PN) from which the modern Nahuan languages have since developed.

The table below shows the phonemic inventory of Classical Nahuatl, as an example of a typical Nahuan language. Many modern dialects have undergone changes from proto-Nahuan that have resulted in different phonemic inventories. For example some dialects do not have the /t͡ɬ/ phoneme that is so common in classical Nahuatl, but have instead changed it into /t/ as it has happened in Isthmus-Mecayapan Nahuatl, Mexicanero and Pipil or into /l/ as it has happened in Nahuatl of Pómaro, Michoacán. Many dialects no longer distinguish between short and long vowels. Some have introduced completely new vowel qualities to compensate for this, as is the case for Tetelcingo Nahuatl. Others developed a pitch accent, such as Nahuatl of Oapan, Guerrero. Many modern dialects have also introduced new phonemes such as /b, d, ɡ, f/ under influence from Spanish.


The consonants of classical Nahuatl
  Labial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Labio-
Nasal m n          
Plosive p t     k ʔ (h)*
Affricate   t͡ɬ / t͡s t͡ʃ        
Fricative   s ʃ        
Approximant   l   j   w  
The vowels of classical Nahuatl
  Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Close i o
Mid e
Open a
* The glottal phoneme (called the " saltillo") only occurs after vowels. In many modern dialects it is realized as an [h], but in classical Nahuatl and in other modern dialects it is a glottal stop [ʔ].

Nahuatl generally has stress on the penultimate syllable of a word, but some varieties have changed this. Mexicanero Nahuat from Durango has lost many unstressed syllables and now has phonemic stress, and Pochutec had the accent on the last syllable of the word.


Allophony, in Nahuatl, is not very rich in most varieties: In many dialects the voiced consonants are often devoiced in wordfinal position and in consonant clusters: /j/ devoices to a voiceless palatal sibilant /ʃ/, /w/ devoices to a voiceless glottal fricative [h] or to a voiceless labialized velar approximant [ʍ] and /l/ devoices to voiceless alveolar lateral [ɬ]. In some dialects the first consonant in almost any consonant cluster becomes [h]. Some dialects have productive lenition of voiceless consonants into their voiced counterparts between vowels. The nasals are normally assimilated to the place of articulation of a following consonant. The voiceless lateral affricate [t͡ɬ] is assimilated after /l/ and pronounced as [l].


Classical Nahuatl and most of the modern varieties have fairly simple phonological systems. They allow only syllables with maximally one initial and one final consonant. Consonant clusters only occur wordmedially and over syllable boundaries. Some morphemes have two alternating forms, one with a vowel i to prevent consonant clusters, and one without. For example, the absolutive suffix has the variant forms – tli (used after consonants) and – tl (used after vowels).

Some modern varieties however have formed complex clusters due to vowel loss. Others have contracted syllable sequences, causing accents to shift or vowels to become long.


Many varieties of Nahuatl have productive reduplication. By reduplicating the first syllable of a root a new word is formed. In nouns this is often used to form plurals, e.g. /tla:katl/ "man" > /tla:tla:kah/ "men", but also in some varieties to form diminutives, honorifics, or for derivations. In verbs reduplication is often used to form a reiterative (expressing repetition), or to intensify the meaning of the verb. E.g. /kitta/ "he sees it", /kihitta/ "he looks at it repeatedly" and /ki:itta/ "he stares at it".


The Nahuatl languages are agglutinative, polysynthetic languages that make extensive use of compounding, incorporation and derivation. That is, they can add many different prefixes and suffixes to a root until very long words are formed – and a single word can constitute an entire sentence.

The following verb shows how the verb is marked for subject, patient, object, and indirect object:

"I shall make somebody give something to you" (Classical Nahuatl)


The Nahuatl noun is relatively complex with some inflectional categories. It is only obligatorily inflected for number and possession. Noun compounds are commonly formed by combining two or more nominal stem, or combining a noun stem with other kinds of stems such as adjectives or verbs. Nahuatl has neither case nor gender, but Classical Nahuatl and some modern dialects distinguish between animate and inanimate nouns which behave differently with respect to pluralization.

In most varieties of Nahuatl most nouns in the unpossessed singular form take a suffix traditionally called an "absolutive". The most common forms of the absolutive are -tl after vowels, -tli after consonants other than l, and -li after l.

Nahuatl distinguishes only singular and plural forms of nouns. Plural forms of nouns are normally formed by adding a suffix, although some words form irregular plurals by using reduplication. In Classical Nahuatl only animate nouns could take a plural form, whereas all inanimate nouns were uncountable (like the words "bread" and "money" are uncountable in English). Nowadays many dialects do not maintain this distinction and allow all nouns to be pluralized, although most inanimates and sometimes animates often show the common number pattern, i.e. their absolutive form can be understood as either singular or plural.

Singular noun:

"coyote" (Classical Nahuatl)

Plural animate noun:

"coyotes" (Classical Nahuatl)

Nahuatl distinguishes between possessed and unpossessed forms of nouns. As mentioned above, the absolutive suffix is not used on possessed nouns. In all dialects possessed nouns take a prefix agreeing with number and person of its possessor.

Absolutive noun:

"house" (Classical Nahuatl)

Possessed noun:

"my house" (Classical Nahuatl)

Nahuatl does not have grammatical case but uses what is sometimes called a relational noun to describe spatial (and other) relations. These morphemes cannot appear alone but must always occur after a noun or a possessive prefix. They are also often called postpositions or locative suffixes. In some ways these locative constructions resemble, and can be thought of as, locative case constructions. Most modern dialects have incorporated prepositions from Spanish that are competing with or that have completely replaced relational nouns.

Uses of relational noun/postposition/locative -pan with a possessive prefix:

"in/on me" (Classical Nahuatl)
"in/on it" (Classical Nahuatl)
i:-pan kal-li
its-in house-ABSOLUTIVE
"in the house" (Classical Nahuatl)

Use with a preceding noun stem:

"in the house" (Classical Nahuatl)


Nahuatl generally distinguishes three persons – both in the singular and plural numbers. In at least one modern dialect, the Isthmus-Mecayapan variety, there has come to be a distinction between inclusive (I/we and you) and exclusive (we but not you) forms of the first person plural:

First person plural pronoun in Classical Nahuatl:

tehwa:ntin "we"

First person plural pronouns in Isthmus-Mecayapan Nahuat:

nejamēn ([nehame:n]) "We but not you"
tejamēn ([tehame:n]) "We, I and you (and others)"

Much more common is an honorific/non-honorific distinction, usually applied to second and third persons but not first.

Non-honorific forms:

tehwa:tl "you sg."
amehwa:ntin "you pl."
yehwatl "he/she/it"

Honorific forms

tehwa:tzin "you sg. honorific"
amehwa:ntzitzin "you pl. honorific"
yehwa:tzin "he/she honorific"


The Nahuatl verb is quite complex and inflects many grammatical categories. The verb is composed of a root which can take both prefixes and suffixes. The person of the subject, and person and number of the object and indirect object is expressed by agreement prefixes, whereas tense, aspect, mood and subject number is expressed by suffixes.

Most Nahuatl dialects distinguish present, past and future tenses and perfective and imperfective aspects. Some varieties have progressive or habitual aspects. As for moods all dialects distinguish indicative and imperative moods and some also have optative and vetative moods.

Most Nahuatl varieties have a number of ways to alter the valency of a verb. Classical Nahuatl had a passive voice, but this is not found in most modern varieties. However the applicative and causative voices are found in many modern dialects. Many Nahuatl varieties also allow forming verbal compounds with two or more verbal roots.

The following verbal form has two verbal roots and is inflected for causative voice and both a direct and indirect object:

"I want to feed them" (Classical Nahuatl)

Some Nahuatl varieties, notably Classical Nahuatl, can inflect the verb to show the direction of the verbal action going away from or towards the speaker. Some also have specific inflectional categories showing purpose and direction and such complex notions as "to go in order to" or "to come in order to", "go, do and return", "do while going", "do while coming", "do upon arrival", or "go around doing".

Classical Nahuatl and many modern dialects have grammaticalised ways to express politeness towards addressees or even towards people or things that are being mentioned, by using special verb forms and special "honorific suffixes".

Familiar verbal form:

"you run"(Classical Nahuatl)

Honorific verbal form:

"You run"(said with respect) (Classical Nahuatl)


The syntax of modern and Classical Nahuatl has been a topic of numerous studies. Some linguists, notably Mark Baker, have argued that Nahuatl displays the properties of a non-configurational language, meaning that word order in Nahuatl is basically free. He notes that Nahuatl allows all possible inversions of the basic sentence constituents, allows pro-drop of all direct arguments of a predicate, and that certain kinds of syntactically discontinuous expressions are allowed.

The widest accepted conclusion is that Nahuatl originally has a basic verb initial word order but with extensive freedom for variation which is then used to encode pragmatic functions such as focus and topicality. For example in most varieties independent pronouns are used only for emphasis.

newal no-nobia
I my-fianceé
"My fiancée "(and not anyone else’s) (Michoacán Nahual)

Some Nahuatl scholars such as Michel Launey and J. Richard Andrews have argued that classical Nahuatl syntax is best characterised by what Launey calls "omnipredicativity", meaning that any noun or verb in the language is in fact a full predicative sentence. This is a radical interpretation of Nahuatl syntactic typology, that nonetheless seems to account for some of its peculiarities, for example, why nouns must also carry the same agreement prefixes as verbs, and why predicates do not require any noun phrases to function as their arguments. For example the verbal form "tzahtzi" means "he/she/it shouts", and with the second person prefix titzahtzi it means "you shout". Nouns are inflected in the same way: the noun "konētl" means not just "child", but also "it is a child", and tikonētl means "you are a child". This prompts the omnipredicative interpretation which posits that all nouns are also predicates, and that a phrase such as "tzahtzi in konētl" should not be interpreted as meaning just "the child screams" but, more correctly, "it screams, (the one that) is a child".

Contact phenomena

Nearly 500 years of intense contact between speakers of Nahuatl and speakers of Spanish, combined with the minority status of Nahuatl and the higher prestige associated with Spanish has caused many changes in modern Nahuatl varieties, with large numbers of words borrowed from Spanish into Nahuatl, and the introduction of new syntactic constructions and grammatical categories.

For example, a construction like the following, with several borrowed words and particles, is common in many modern varieties (Spanish loanwords in boldface):

pero āmo tēchentenderoah lo que tlen tictoah en mexicano
but not they-us-understand-PLURAL that which what we-it-say in Nahuatl
"But they don't understand what we say in Nahuatl" (Malinche Nahuatl)

In some modern dialects basic word order has become a fixed Subject Verb Object, probably under influence from Spanish. Other changes in the syntax of modern Nahuatl includes the usage of Spanish prepositions instead of postpositions or relational nouns and the reinterpretation of original postpositions/relational nouns into prepositions. In the following example, from Michoacán Nahual, the postposition -ka meaning "with" appears used as a preposition, with no preceding object:

ti-ya ti-k-wika ka tel
you-go you-it-carry with you
"are you going to carry it with you?" (Michoacán Nahual)

And, in this example from Mexicanero Nahuat, of Durango, the original postposition/relational noun -pin "in/on" is used as a preposition. "porque", a preposition borrowed from Spanish, also occurs in the sentence.

amo wel kalaki-yá pin kal porke ¢akwa-tiká im pwerta
not can he-enter-PAST in house because it-closed-was the door
"He couldn't enter the house because the door was closed" (Mexicanero Nahuat)

Many dialects have also undergone a degree of simplification of their morphology which has caused some scholars to consider them to have ceased to be polysynthetic.


The tomato is native to Mexico and the Aztecs called the red variety "xitōmatl" whereas the green Currant tomato was called "tōmatl" – the source for the English word "tomato".
The tomato is native to Mexico and the Aztecs called the red variety "xitōmatl" whereas the green Currant tomato was called "tōmatl" – the source for the English word "tomato".

Many Nahuatl words have been borrowed into the Spanish language, most of which are terms designating things indigenous to the American continent. Some of these loans are restricted to Mexican or Central American Spanish, but others have entered all the varieties of Spanish in the world. A number of them, such as "chocolate", "tomato" and "avocado" have made their way into many other languages via Spanish.

Likewise a number of English words have been borrowed from Nahuatl through Spanish. Two of the most prominent are undoubtedly chocolate and tomato (from Nahuatl tomatl). Other common words such as coyote (from Nahuatl coyotl), avocado (from Nahuatl ahuacatl) and chile or chili (from Nahuatl chilli). The word chicle is also derived from Nahuatl tzictli "sticky stuff, chicle". Some other English words from Nahuatl are: Aztec, (from aztecatl); cacao (from Nahuatl cacahuatl 'shell, rind'); ocelot (from ocelotl). In Mexico many words for common everyday concepts attest to the close contact between Spanish and Nahuatl, so many in fact that entire dictionaries of "mexicanismos" (words particular to Mexican Spanish) have been published tracing Nahuatl etymologies, as well as Spanish words with origins in other indigenous languages. Many well-known toponyms also come from Nahuatl, including Mexico (from the Nahuatl word for the Aztec capital mexihco) and Guatemala (from the word cuauhtēmallan).

Writing and literature


The placenames Mapachtepec ("Raccoon Hill"), Mazatlan ("Deer Place") and Huitztlan ("Thorn Place") written in the Aztec writing system. From the Codex Mendoza.
The placenames Mapachtepec ("Raccoon Hill"), Mazatlan ("Deer Place") and Huitztlan ("Thorn Place") written in the Aztec writing system. From the Codex Mendoza.

Precolumbian Aztec writing used three basic means of expression: direct representation, or pictures of what was expressed; ideograms or logograms symbolically representing a thing or concept; and, to some degree, phonetic transcription, employing logograms meant to represent only the sound of a given word, to be interpreted according to the rebus principle. This writing system was adequate for keeping such records as genealogies, astronomical information, and tribute lists, but could not represent a full vocabulary of spoken language in the way that the writing systems of the old world or that of the Maya civilization could. Aztec writing was not meant to be read, but to be told; the elaborate codices were essentially pictographic aids for teaching, and long texts were memorized.

The Spanish introduced the Roman script, which was used to record a large body of Aztec prose, poetry and mundane documentation such as testaments, administrative documents, legal letters, etc. In a matter of decades pictorial writing was completely replaced with the Latin alphabet. No standardized Latin orthography has been developed for Nahuatl, and no general consensus has arisen for the representation of many sounds in Nahuatl that are lacking in Spanish, such as long vowels and the glottal stop. The orthography most accurately representing the phonemes of Nahuatl was developed in the 17th century by the Jesuit Horacio Carochi. Carochi's orthography used two different accents: a macron to represent long vowels and a grave for the saltillo, and sometimes an acute accent for short vowels. This orthography did not achieve a wide following outside of the Jesuit community.

When Nahuatl became the subject of focused linguistic studies in the 20th century, linguists acknowledged the need to represent all the phonemes of the language. Several practical orthographies were developed to transcribe the language, many using the Americanist transcription system. With the establishment of Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas in 2004, new attempts to create standardized orthographies for the different dialects were resumed; however to this day there is no single official orthography for Nahuatl. Apart from dialectal differences, major issues in transcribing Nahuatl include:

  • whether or not to follow Spanish orthographic practice and write /k/ with c and qu, // with cu, /s/ with c/z or s, and /w/ with hu or u.
  • how to write the " saltillo" phoneme (in some dialects pronounced as a glottal stop [ʔ] and in others as an [h]), which has been spelled with j, h, ' (apostrophe), or a grave accent on the preceding vowel, but which traditionally has often been omitted in writing.
  • whether and how to represent vowel length, e.g. by double vowels or by the use of macrons.


Among the indigenous languages of the Americas, Nahuatl's extensive corpus of surviving literature dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries may be considered unique. Nahuatl literature encompasses a diverse array of genres and styles, the documents themselves composed under many different circumstances. It appears that the pre-conquest Nahua had a distinction much like the European distinction between " prose" and "poetry", the first called tlahtolli "speech" and the second cuicatl "song".

Nahuatl tlahtolli prose has been preserved in different forms. Annals and chronicles recount history, normally written from the perspective of a particular altepetl (locally based polity) and often combining mythical accounts with real events. Important works in this genre include those from Chalco written by Chimalpahin, from Tlaxcala by Diego Muñoz Camargo, from Mexico-Tenochtitlan by Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc and those of Texcoco by Fernando Alva Ixtlilxochitl. Many annals recount history year-by-year and are normally written by anonymous authors. These works are sometimes evidently based on pre-Columbian pictorial year counts that existed, such as the Cuauhtitlan annals and the Anales de Tlatelolco. Purely mythological narratives are also found, like the "Legend of the Five Suns", the Aztec creation myth recounted in Codex Chimalpopoca.

One of the most important works of prose written in Nahuatl is the twelve-volume compilation generally known as the Florentine Codex, produced in the mid-16th century by the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of a number of Nahua informants. With this work Sahagún bestowed an enormous ethnographic description of the Nahua, written in side-by-side translations of Nahuatl and Spanish and illustrated throughout by colour plates drawn by indigenous painters. Its volumes cover a diverse range of topics: Aztec history, material culture, social organization, religious and ceremonial life, rhetorical style and metaphors. The twelfth volume provides an indigenous perspective on the conquest itself. Sahagún also made a point of trying to document the richness of the Nahuatl language, stating:

This work is like a dragnet to bring to light all the words of this language with their exact and metaphorical meanings, and all their ways of speaking, and most of their practices good and evil.

Nahuatl poetry is preserved in principally two sources: the Cantares Mexicanos and the Romances de los señores de Nueva España, both collections of Aztec songs written down in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some songs may have been preserved through oral tradition from pre-conquest times until the time of their writing, for example the songs attributed to the poet-king of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl. Lockhart and Karttunen identify more than four distinct styles of songs, e.g. the icnocuicatl ("sad song"), the xopancuicatl ("song of spring"), melahuaccuicatl ("plain song") and yaocuicatl ("song of war"), each with distinct stylistic traits. Aztec poetry makes rich use of metaphoric imagery and themes and are lamentation of the brevity of human existence, the celebration of valiant warriors who die in battle, and the appreciation of the beauty of life.


The Aztecs distinguished between the at least two social registers of language: the language of commoners (macehuallahtolli) and the language of the nobility (tecpillahtolli). The latter was marked by the use of a distinct rhetorical style. Since literacy was confined mainly to these higher social classes, most of the existing prose and poetical documents were written in this style. An important feature of this high rhetorical style of formal oratory was the use of parallelism, whereby the orator structured their speech in couplets consisting of two parallel phrases. For example:

ye maca timiquican
"May we not die"
ye maca tipolihuican
"May we not perish"

Another kind of parallelism used is referred to by modern linguists as difrasismo, in which two phrases are symbolically combined to give a metaphorical reading. Classical Nahuatl was rich in such diphrasal metaphors, and a number of the primary-source language commentaries such as Sahagún's Florentine Codex and Andrés de Olmos' Arte describe and give examples of this particular rhetoric trait. Such difrasismos include:

in xochitl, in cuicatl
"The flower, the song" – meaning "poetry"
in cuitlapilli, in atlapalli
"the tail, the wing" – meaning "the common people"
in toptli, in petlacalli
"the chest, the box" meaning "something secret"
in yollohtli, in eztli
"the heart, the blood" – meaning "cacao"
in iztlactli, in tenqualactli
"the drool, the spittle" – meaning "lies"
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