Indigenous languages are important for social, economic and political development, peaceful coexistence and particularly for reconciliation in our societies. Yet many of them are in danger of disappearing. It is for this reason that the United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages to encourage urgent action to promote, revitalise and preserve endangered languages as part of the world’s cultural diversity.
This year, as part of our Indigenous language series, each month we will present one of the many Indigenous languages of the world.
While Spanish is easily Mexico’s most spoken language, the country is also home to over 6 million indigenous language speakers. Throughout Mexico, around 6% of people speak at least one indigenous language, although around double that number claim to be part of an indigenous group.
The Náhuatl language is by far the most spoken indigenous Mexican language with about 1.4 million speakers (Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography, 2009). It is predominantly spoken in central Mexico: Puebla, Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero and Hidalgo although it has spread to other regions including the US due to immigration. Náhuatl, historically known as Aztec, is from the Uto-Aztecan language family.
Mexican states with largest communities of Náhautl speakers
The Náhua probably originated from the deserts of northwestern Mexico and the American Southwest. Around 500 AD, the earliest Náhua arrived in the Valley of Mexico and adopted agriculture and urban living which were already being practised by Mesoamerican civilisation.
Classical Náhuatl was the lingua franca, the common language of all the different peoples that came together under the Aztec civilisation. The Aztecs are the latest great Mesoamerican civilisation that lived in Mexico in the 13th century and flourished to become dominant until it was overthrown by the Spanish conquistadors in 1521. At this time the Náhuatl languages were spoken in most areas that were under the Aztec ruling.
Logograms representing cities being conquered by the Aztecs from the Codex Mendoza
After the Spanish arrived, Náhuatl was displaced as the dominant language but still managed to spread as conquistadors formed alliances with Náhuatl speakers to gain new territories north and south. Numerous Náhuatl words have been borrowed by the Spanish such as:
- Aguacate (avocado): from “aguacatl” which means testicles
- Chicle (chewing gum): from “tzictli” which designate the gum extracted from the Zapote tree which was chewed by Náhua people
- Chocolate: from “xocolātl” designating the aliment obtained from mixing sugar with cacao butter
Some of them were later absorbed into English as well, including chile or chilli, avocado, chocolate, coyote, peyote, guacamole, ocelot and mescal.
Unlike the Maya, the Náhua did not have a full alphabet. Their writing system consisted of a mixture of ideographic and phonetic writing. The same symbols are used for each system, and which one was being used depending on the context. Thus, the writing system was partly phonetic, but not entirely which has made it more challenging to translate parts of the Náhuatl codices.
The Spanish introduced the Latin alphabet to write Náhuatl, and a large amount of prose and poetry was subsequently written. Ever since there has been considerable debate about how to spell Náhuatl.
Sample text (Classical Orthography)
Nochi tlacameh ihuan cihuameh quipiah manoh cualli tlacaticeh, nochi zan ze totlatechpohuiltiliz ihuan titlatepanitalohqueh, yeca monequi cualli ma timohuicacah, ma timoicnelicah, ma timotlazohtlacah ihuan ma timotlepanitacah.
This text was provided by Pierre Sánchez and is written in the “normal way” used by Nahuatl-speaking communities.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Present situation & future
For a long time, Náhuatl has been in decline due to the effort from the government in Hispanisation to modernise the country. Although 2003 saw the creation of a federal law designed to protect the linguistic rights of Mexican indigenous people; simultaneously, federal education legislation was modified, guaranteeing speakers of indigenous languages access to basic education in their native tongue.
Ley general de derechos lingüísticos de los pueblos indígenas (http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/257_200618.pdf)
Náhuatl suffers from the ideology shared by indigenous and non-indigenous people alike, that native tongues are “dialects”, and cannot be considered languages, such as Spanish and English. It’s not surprising then that indigenous people, especially after migrating to the cities, deny that they speak their native tongue and do not pass it on to their children.
Náhuatl is indeed on its way to becoming an endangered language. Yet, in 2009 there were approximately 1.4 million people speaking twenty-nine variants of Náhuatl in Mexico, and continuing to practice and develop diverse aspects of culture rooted in pre-Hispanic times.