Nahuatl language

Nahuatl (Nahuatlahtolli)
Spoken in: Mexico
Region: Mexico (state), Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Guerrero
Total speakers: >1.5 million
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Uto-Aztecan

 Southern Uto-Aztecan

Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: Mexico:
Language codes
ISO 639-1nah
ISO 639-2nah
See also: LanguageList of languages

Nahuatl is a Native American language indigenous to central Mexico. It was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica during the 7th century AD through to the late 16th century, at which time its prominence and influence was interrupted by the Spanish conquest of the New World.

Also known as Mexican language, or the language of the Mexica (ie. Aztecs), it was not only spoken by the Aztecs but also their predecessors (the Colhua, Tecpanec, Acolhua, and the famous Toltecs in one interpretation of the term). Recently, there have begun to appear more and more suggestions, from several diverse fields of Mesoamerican research, that Nahuatl might have been one of the languages spoken at the legendary Teotihuacan.

Today, the term Nahuatl is frequently used in two different senses which are quickly becoming increasingly incompatible:

  • the Classical Nahuatl language described above (and which is no longer spoken on an everyday basis anywhere)
  • any of a multitude of live dialects (some of them mutually unintelligible) that are still spoken by at least 1.5 million people in what is now Mexico. All of these dialects show influence from the Spanish language to various degrees, some of them much more than others, but it is important to note that some aspects of the essential nature of the Classical language have been lost in all of them (much as it happened to Classical Latin as it developed into the different Romance languages).


Nahuatl is still the most widely spoken Native American language in Mexico; however, most, if not all, of the speakers of Nahuatl are bilingual, having a working knowledge of the Spanish language. In fact, until recently, a significant number of the Nahuatl speakers outside the valley of Mexico were bilingual too, speaking both Nahuatl and their own mother tongue. A famous example of bilinguism was Malintzin ("La Malinche"), the native woman who translated between Nahuatl and a Maya language (and later learned Spanish as well) for Hernán Cortés.


Nahuatl is related to the languages spoken by the Hopi, Comanche, Pima, Shoshone, and other peoples of western North America, as they all belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family.


  • Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
    • Soshonean (Northern Uto-Aztecan)
    • Sonoran**
    • Aztecan 2000 BP
      • Nahuan
        • Nahuatl (Central & Northern Nahuan) --México(State), Puebla, Hidalgo
        • Nahual (Western Nahuan) --Michoacán
        • Nahuat (Eastern Nahuan) --Veracruz
        • Nawat (Southern Nahuan, also known as "Pipil") --Pacific coast of Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador
      • Pochutec --Coast of Oaxaca

*Estimated split date by glottochronology
**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 that might be present between Aztecan and Sonoran when compared with Soshonean is probably due to proximity contact, rather than to a common immediate parent stock other than Uto-Aztecan.

Geographic distribution

Dialects and local variants

List I. Nahuan subgroup members, sorted by number of speakers:

(name [ethnologue subgroup code] – location(s) ~approx. number of speakers)

  • Huasteca Este [NAI] – Hidalgo, Western Veracruz, Northern Puebla ~450,000
  • Huasteca Oeste [NHQ] – San Luis Potosí, Western Hidalgo ~450,000
  • Guerrero [NAH] – Guerrero ~200,000
  • Orizaba [NLV] – Central Veracruz ~140,000
  • Puebla Sureste [NHS] – Southeast Puebla ~135,000
  • Puebla Sierra[AZZ] – Puebla Highlands ~125,000
  • Puebla Norte [NCJ] – Northern Puebla ~66,000
  • Central [NHN] – Tlaxcala, Puebla ~50,000
  • Istmo-Mecayapan [NAU] – Southern Veracruz ~20,000
  • Puebla Central [NCX] – Central Puebla ~18,000
  • Morelos [NHM] – Morelos ~15,000
  • Oaxaca Norte [NHY] – Northwestern Oaxaca, Southeastern Puebla ~10,000
  • Huaxcaleca [NHQ] – Puebla ~7,000
  • Istmo-Pajapan [NHP] – Southern Veracruz ~7,000
  • Istmo-Cosoleacaque [NHK] – Eastern Morelos, Northwestern Coastal Chiapas, Southern Veracruz ~5,500
  • Ixhuatlancillo [NHX] – Central Veracruz ~4,000
  • Tetelcingo [NHG] – Morelos ~3,500
  • Michoacán [NCL] – Michoacán ~3,000
  • Santa María de la Alta [NHZ] – Northwest Puebla ~3,000
  • Tenango [NHI] – Northern Puebla ~2,000
  • Tlamacazapa [NUZ] – Morelos ~1,500
  • Coatepec [NAZ] – Southwestern México (State), Northwestern Guerrero ~1,500
  • Durango [NLN] – Southern Durango ~1,000
  • Ometepec [NHT] – Southern Guerrero, Western Oaxaca ~500
  • Temascaltepec [AZZ] – Southwestern México (State) ~300
  • Tlalitzlipa [NHJ] – Puebla ~100
  • Pipil [PPL] – El Salvador ~20
  • Tabasco [NHC] – Tabasco (extinct?)
  • Classical [NCI] – Valley of México (academic and literary)


Template:IPA notice Classical Nahuatl makes use of 4 vowels (a,e,i,o) but distinguishes between a long and a short variant of each one of them. It uses two semivowels (/w/ and /j/), a glottal stop, and 10 other unvoiced consonants. It is an agglutinating, polysynthetic language that makes extensive use of compounding and derivation. It has very well developed honorific forms. Syllable structure is either CV or CVC. Stress, non-lexical in most varieties, always falls on the next-to-last vowel with the sole exception of the vocative, in which it falls on the last one.

Consonants and semivowels

Table of Nahuatl consonants and semivowels, in IPA notation (see IPA-SAMPA chart for Nahuatl) followed(→) by the proposed Nahuatl Standard Transcription:

  bilabial alveolar alveo-
velar labialized
stop unaspirated  p → p  t → t      k → k  kw → q  aʔ... → à...
affricate voiced        
voiceless    ts → z  tɬ  → tl/ł  tʃ → c      
fricative voiced      
voiceless    s → s/ç  ɬ  → l  ʃ → x  h → h
liquid voiced          
nasal voiced  m → m  n → n          
semivowels  w → v  j → y


Table of Nahuatl vowels, in IPA notation (see IPA-SAMPA chart for Nahuatl) followed(→) by the proposed Nahuatl Standard Transcription:

  front central back
  long short long short long short
high tense  i: → ï
lax  i → i
mid tense  e: → ë  o: → ö
lax  e → e  o → o
low tense
lax  a: → ä  a → a


Nahuatl is an agglutinative, polysynthetic language. In Nahuatl there is no fixed difference between phrases or words, no infinitives, and no proper pronouns. Nahuatl has been described as a language that is pure etymology. A Nahuatl word always consists of a prefix, followed by several root concepts, followed by a suffix. One can put together as many one-syllable root concepts as necessary, so some Nahuatl words are very long. This also means that new words can be created on the fly.

The typology of Nahuatl has, by a minority of linguists, been regarded as oligosynthetic. This was first proposed in the early 20th Century by Benjamin Whorf, but was largely dismissed by the linguistic community by the mid-1950s. In 2004, linguist and computer scientist Ernst Herrera Legorreta put forward new evidence in support of Whorf's original claim. It has yet to be seen whether this will change the academic consensus.


See the list of Nahuatl words and list of words of Nahuatl origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project.

Words loaned to other languages

Main article: words of Nahuatl origin

Nahuatl has provided the English language with some words for indigenous animals, fruits, vegetables, and tools.

Due to extensive Mexican-Philippine contacts, there are estimated 250 words of Nahuatl origin in the Filipino language, among such are kamote (sweet potato), palengke (flea market), panotsa (peant brittle), sayote (chayote), tiyangge (seasonal market), and tsokolate (chocolate), tatay(tatle:father), nanay(nantle:mother),chonggo (monkey) and also place names, such as Zapote, a town near Manila, and Macabebe, and Sasmuan, towns in Pampanga province.

Nahuatl has been an exceedingly rich source of words for the Spanish language, as the following samples show. Some of them are restricted to Mesoamerica but others are common to all the Spanish dialects:

acocil, aguacate, ajolote, amate, atole, ayate, cacahuate, camote, capulín, chamagoso, chapopote, chayote, chicle, chile, chipotle, chocolate, cuate, comal, copal, coyote, ejote, elote, epazote, escuincle, guacamole, guachinango, guajolote, huipil, hule, jacal, jícara, jitomate, malacate, mecate, mezcal, milpa, mitote, mole, nopal, ocelote, ocote, olote, paliacate, papalote, pepenar, petaca, petate, peyote, pinole, piocha, popote, pulque, quetzal, tamal, tianguis, tiza, tomate, tule, zacate, zapote, zopilote.
Many well-known toponyms also come from Nahuatl, including Mexico (mëxihco), Guatemala (cuauhtëmallan), and Nicaragua (nicänähuac).

Writing system

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictographs supplemented with a few ideograms. When needed it also used syllabic equivalences; Father Durán recorded how the tlacuilos could render a prayer in Latin using this system, but it was difficult to use. 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 of the Maya civilization could.

The Spanish introduced the Roman script, which was then utilized to record a large body of Aztec prose and poetry, a fact which somewhat diminished the devastating loss caused by the burning of thousands of Aztec manuscripts by the Catholic priests. See Nahuatl transcription.



Nahuatl literature is extensive (probably the most extensive of all Amerindian languages), including a relatively large corpus of poetry (see also Nezahualcoyotl); the Nican Mopohua is an excellent early sample of transcribed Nahuatl.


  • de Arenas, Pedro: Vocabulario manual de las lenguas castellana y mexicana. [1611] Reprint: México 1982
  • Campbell, Joe and Frances Karttunen, Foundation course in Nahuatl grammar. Austin 1989
  • Carochi, Horacio: Arte de la lengua mexicana: con la declaración de los adverbios della. [1645] Reprint: Porrúa México 1983
  • Garibay, Angel Maria : Llave de Náhuatl. México 19??
  • Garibay, Angel María, Historia de la literatura náhuatl. México 1953
  • Garibay, Angel María, Poesía náhuatl. vol 1-3 México 1964
  • Hill, Jane and Kenneth Hill, Speaking Mexicano: dynamics of syncretic language in Central Mexico. Tucson 1986
  • von Humboldt, Wilhelm (1767-1835): Mexicanische Grammatik. Paderborn/München 1994
  • Jiménez, Doña Luz (?-1965): Life and Death in Milpa Alta Norman 1972
  • Karttunen, Frances, An analytical dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman 1992
  • Karttunen, Frances, Between worlds: interpreters, guides, and survivors. New Brunswick 1994
  • Karttunen, Frances, Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Los Angeles 1976
  • Launey, Michel : Introduction à la langue et à la littérature aztèques. Paris 1980
  • Launey, Michel : Introducción a la lengua y a la literatura Náhuatl. UNAM, México 1992
  • de León-Portilla, Ascensión H. : Tepuztlahcuilolli, Impresos en Nahuatl: Historia y Bibliografia. Vol. 1-2. México 1988
  • León-Portilla, Miguel : Literaturas Indígenas de México. Madrid 1992
  • Lockhart, James (ed): We people here. Nahuatl Accounts of the conquest of Mexico. Los Angeles 1993
  • de Molina, Fray Alonso: Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana y Mexicana y Castellana . [1555] Reprint: Porrúa México 1992
  • de Olmos, Fray Andrés: Arte de la lengua mexicana concluído en el convento de San Andrés de Ueytlalpan, en la provincia de Totonacapan que es en la Nueva España. [1547] Reprint: México 1993
  • del Rincón, Antonio : Arte mexicana compuesta por el padre Antonio del Rincón. [1595] Reprint: México 1885
  • de Sahagún, Fray Bernardino(1499-1590): Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain (Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España). Eds Charles Dibble/Arthr Anderson, vol I-XII Santa Fe 1950-71
  • Siméon, Rémi: Dictionnaire de la Langue Nahuatl ou Mexicaine. [Paris 1885] Reprint: Graz 1963
  • Siméon, Rémi: Diccionario dße la Lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana. [Paris 1885] Reprint: México 2001
  • Sullivan, Thelma D. : Compendium of Nahuatl Grammar. Salt Lake City 1988
  • The Nahua Newsletter: edited by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies of the University of Indiana (Chief Editor Alan Sandstrom)
  • Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl: special interest-yearbook of the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas (IIH) of the Universidad Autonoma de México (UNAM), Ed.: Miguel Leon Portilla

See also

Specific Nahuatl SIL codes =

External links

Template:InterWiki Template:Wikibookspar

da:Nahuatl de:Nahuatl es:Náhuatl eo:Naŭatla lingvo fr:Nahuatl it:Nahuatl nah:Nawatl nl:Nahuatl ja:ナワトル語 pl:Język nahuatl pt:Língua nahuatl simple:Nahuatl language sv:Nahuatl


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools