Many of us know that the Spanish conquest of Latin America brought tremendous change to those regions. In Mexico specifically, Spanish conquest ended one of the most powerful and developed empires in Latin America, which was the Aztec empire. This led to many changes and one of them was the effects the Spanish language had on the Nahuatl language.

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico and took down the Aztec empire. Courtesy of Mateo Saldaña, 1917, Museo Nacional de Virrinato.

In the year 1521 the Aztec empire fell due to Spanish colonization. Hernán Cortés, the Spaniard in charge of the expedition to Mexico, and his men captured and killed the Aztec emperor Montezuma II, due to Montezuma II’s uncertainty on how to react to the Spaniards. The emperor believed Cortés was an Aztec god who was prophesied to bring universal peace to the Aztec empire. After his death, Montezuma II was replaced by his brother Cuitlahuac, whose leadership pushed away Cortés and his people. Cuitlahuac later died of smallpox, which also killed much of the Aztec population. This, in fact, led the empire to its weakest point and, with, the help of neighboring tribes including the Texcocans, Chalca, and Tepanec, Cortés placed Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital under a three-month siege. He accomplished defeating the strong and resistant Aztec empire after his many earlier failed attempts to do so.1

The history of Nahuatl is fascinating, yet complicated. The term “Nahuatl” literally means “something that sounds good and clear”. Classical Nahuatl was the administrative language of the Aztec empire that served as a lingua franca in Central America from the 7th to the 16th century AD, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World. Nahuatl speakers, or the Nahua people, are thought to have originated in what is now the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.2 It is believed that the Nahua split from other Uto-Aztecans, who were people who spoke any of the languages that belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family, such as Comanche, Hopi, Nahuatl, Paiute, Pima, and Shoshone.3After this split, around 500 AD, the Nahua migrated to the central part of Mexico, eventually spreading throughout Mexico.4 Nahuatl served as the language for the Toltec empire, a powerful empire founded by the Nahua that ruled the central part of Mexico from the 10th to mid-12th centuries AD. After its fall, Nahuatl served as language for the Aztec empire, which dominated Mexico from 1325 to 1521.5

Nahuatl was known for its use of a “tl” sound as a single consonant. This sound, /ɬ/, the alveolar lateral affricate, was pronounced by placing the tongue in the position to pronounce the letter “t,” while pushing air out from both sides of the tongue.6 Nahuatl phonology was also known for the glottal stop, an interruption on the airstream by closing the glottis (the space between the vocal cords), which causes the vocal cords to stop vibrating. Upon release, there is a slight choke, or cough like explosive sound.7 Classical Nahuatl used a set of 15 consonants and four long and short vowels. It was also considered to have agglutinative grammar, in that it used prefixes and suffixes, compound words, and it doubled syllables. Nahuatl added different affixes, prefixes, and/or suffixes to roots to form long words. Then the words as a whole functioned as a sentence does in English.8

The Spanish colonization of Mexico brought many changes to the already well-structured and developed civilization. Tenochtitlán itself was rebuilt into a Spanish-style capital city, which they called La Cuidad de México (Mexico City).9 Two of the main reasons why Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the first place was to look for gold10 and to convert the natives to Christianity.11 After the defeat of the Aztec empire and thus, the vast majority of the population of Mexico, the Spaniards took on the mission of achieving these initial goals.

At first Spanish conquistadors tried to persuade natives to learn Spanish, after converting them to Christianity and destroying their temples, but the natives did not cooperate well with this plan.12 Spanish conquistadors soon realized that to govern the thousands of people in Mexico, they needed to understand the language and use interpreters to communicate with people. They did this by getting help from indigenous people who could translate Spanish into Nahuatl and vice versa.

One of the most famous interpreters in Mexican history was Doña Marina, whom they also called La Malinche. In 1519, when Cortés and his troops first landed on the Tabascan coast, he was met with hostility by the Tabascan people. However, Cortés and his troops relied on their superior weapons and military tactics, and the Tabascans backed down. To please the Europeans, the Tabascans gifted Cortés some slave girls. One of them, La Malinche, was a Mexican native princess. She became Cortés’ mistress and interpreter during his conquest of Mexico. She also helped him negotiate with natives in his search for gold and silver all throughout Mexico.13

Decades after the conquest, In 1560, King Charles of Spain declared that all Mexican natives had to be taught Spanish, but declaring a law is easier than actually putting it to action.14 As a matter of fact, Mexican natives clung to their language and traditions. Spanish Catholic priests decided to learn Nahuatl to understand the culture and traditions of the people they planned to convert. Priests, in fact, found it was easier to convert natives to Christianity if they could speak to them in Nahuatl and understand them clearly.15 As a result of the power and social dependence, Nahuatl became Mexico’s lingua franca, or official language.

The Spanish crown continued to discourage the use of indigenous tongues in Mexico throughout the next centuries. However, this did not affect Nahuatl in any way; it was still spoken all throughout the country, and Spanish conquistadors accepted it as beneficial to them. Since the Spanish crown was far from Mexico, in any case, they could not stop the continued usage of the Nahuatl language as they would have wanted to.16

Image showing the translation of some words borrowed from Nahuatl to Spanish and English. Courtesy of Mexicolore.co.uk

It is known that a language can survive if its native speakers or its “conquerors” find a use for it and make it the official language of that society.17 Since the conquistadors did find benefits from using Nahuatl as the official Mexican language, Nahuatl continued to exist and be part of the traditional Mexican culture. However, although the conquest of Mexico did not end the Nahuatl language, the Spanish language did change and influence Nahuatl in various ways.

Some of the changes to the Nahuatl language were due to Spanish influence on it. This is shown in the adaptation of the orthographic conventions of Spanish’s Roman alphabet in the 1530s, which helped develop writing in Nahuatl.18 The changes continued. In fact, American linguists Frances E. Karttunen and James Lockhart believe “that as early as 1545 if not earlier, central Mexican Nahuatl had borrowed all the Spanish words for the days of the week and the months of the year”.19

Even though this does not mean that the Nahuatl language was changed drastically back then, there have been changes to the language that have become noticeable in modern times. According to recent studies, in Modern Nahuatl, there are borrowings of verbs and particles from Spanish, and the adoption of plural forms and sounds which did not exist in Classical Nahuatl.20 Linguists now determine three basic divisions of Modern Nahuatl based on how the Classical Nahuatl phoneme /ɬ/ changed. Central and northern Nahuatl varieties retained /ɬ/ (Nahuatl), eastern varieties replaced /ɬ/ with /t/ (Nahuat), and western varieties replaced /ɬ/ with /l/ (Nahual).21 In the long run, the greatest factor that caused change in the Nahuatl language was the influence of Spanish as evidenced by the many effects it had on the native tongue of the Aztecs.22

A map of the most spoken indigenous languages in Mexico. The estimated number of people who speak Nahuatl in Mexico is more than 1,500,000. Courtesy of Blog XCARET, data taken from INEGI Censos y Conteos de Población y Vivienda (2010 Census).

As time passed after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Spanish did become the official language. This does not mean, however, that the Nahuatl language disappeared completely. Although some might argue that Nahuatl is a dead language, and that the Spanish language replaced Nahuatl as the dominant language23, the Nahuatl language has continued to be a living language in many parts of Mexico and the United States. According to the census of 2010, Nahuatl is still spoken in Mexico by about 1.54 million people.24 Most Nahuatl speakers are found in rural areas of the states Guerrero, Puebla, and San Luis Potosí, and it is estimated that at least 15% of these speakers are monolingual, meaning they only speak Nahuatl.25 The history of the Nahuatl language, and the many changes it went through, is part of Mexican culture and history. For this reason, we should try to pass the language to future generations and study more about it, since it is an example of the effects that colonization has on the indigenous languages of those colonized.

  1. History.com Editors, “Aztec capital falls to Cortes,” History, February 9, 2010, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/aztec-capital-falls-to-cortes.
  2. “Nahuatl”, Must Go, https://www.mustgo.com/worldlanguages/nahuatl/#:~:text=The%20Nahua%20peoples%20are%20thought,dominant%20people%20in%20central%20Mexico.
  3. Lyle Campbell, “Uto-Aztecan languages,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Uto-Aztecan-languages/additional-info#history.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Nahua,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nahua/additional-info#history.
  5. Elias Beck, “Toltec,” History Crunch, August 15, 2018, https://www.historycrunch.com/toltec.html#/.
  6. Edward Anthony Polanco, “Tips on Pronouncing Nahuatl,” Edward Anthony Polanco, PhD, April 4, 2017, https://eapolanco.com/tips-on-pronouncing-nahuatl/.
  7. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Glottal stop,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, July 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/topic/glottal-stop.
  8. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Nahuatl language,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, March 22, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nahuatl-language.
  9. John P. Schmal, “The Aztecs are Alive and Well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” 2004, http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/nahuatl.html.
  10. Christopher Minster, “The Treasure of the Ancient Aztecs,” ThoughtCo, February 25, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/the-treasure-of-the-aztecs-2136532.
  11. John P. Schmal, “The Aztecs are Alive and Well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” 2004, http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/nahuatl.html.
  12. John P. Schmal, “The Aztecs are Alive and Well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” 2004, http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/nahuatl.html.
  13. Mark Cartwright, “Cortés & the Fall of the Aztec Empire,” World History Encyclopedia, July 4, 2016, https://www.ancient.eu/article/916/cortes–the-fall-of-the-aztec-empire/.
  14. John P. Schmal, “The Aztecs are Alive and Well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” 2004, http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/nahuatl.html.
  15. John P. Schmal, “The Aztecs are Alive and Well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” 2004, http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/nahuatl.html.
  16. John P. Schmal, “The Aztecs are Alive and Well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” 2004, http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/nahuatl.html.
  17. Nathan Bierma, “Impact of Cortez’s conquest is still felt today in Mexico,” Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2006, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-04-12-0604120005-story.html.
  18. Justyna Olko and John Sullivan, “Empire, Colony, and Globalization. A Brief History of the Nahuatl Language,” Colloquia Humanistica (2015):190-98.
  19. Frances E. Karttunen and James Lockhart, Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 233-35.
  20. Justyna Olko and John Sullivan, “Empire, Colony, and Globalization. A Brief History of the Nahuatl Language,” Colloquia Humanistica (2015):190-98.
  21. “Nahuatl”, Must Go, https://www.mustgo.com/worldlanguages/nahuatl/#:~:text=The%20Nahua%20peoples%20are%20thought,dominant%20people%20in%20central%20Mexico.
  22. Nicolás del Castillo, “Nahuatl: The Influence of Spanish on the Language of the Aztecs,” Journal of the American Society of Geolinguistics 38, (2012).
  23. Nicolás del Castillo, “Nahuatl: The Influence of Spanish on the Language of the Aztecs,” Journal of the American Society of Geolinguistics 38, (2012).
  24. John Schmal, “The Mexican Census,” Somos Primos, March 10, 2019, http://www.somosprimos.com/schmal/mexicancensus.htm.
  25. Nicolás del Castillo, “Nahuatl: The Influence of Spanish on the Language of the Aztecs,” Journal of the American Society of Geolinguistics 38, (2012).

17 Responses

  1. You chose such an interesting and seldom discussed topic. I knew some indigenous languages were still spoken but it was amazing to learn about the Nahuatl language. I really enjoyed how you introduced the topic and explained the evolution of the Nahuatl language due to colonization. I also liked that you provided extensive context to colonization in Mexico with iconic actors like Doña Marina.

  2. This is sadly one of the legacies of colonialization which is to completely assimilate people to hold their and value their traditions and beliefs. One of the first ways is by making the language of the colonized extinct and then demonizing their religion. It is a shame because a lot of culture from indigenous people has been lost due to colonialization.

  3. Hey, Emilia.
    This was a superb article to read. I found the phonetic aspects of it particularly scintillating. I’ve always found the evolution of languages fascinating, but sometimes, I have to stop and remind myself of the atrocities which led to certain languages’ adapting or going extinct. Nahuatl is a beautiful language that I hope is maintained for future generations.

  4. This article was really captivating because I did not know about Nahuatl. The image showing the translation was really interesting. The author did a excellent job on illustrating how nahualt was changed after colonization and how it has not died off. Something that I found interesting was that over a million people in Mexico speak the language. I feel as if the language is something that people should bring more attention to.

  5. In all honesty, this aspect of the colonization of Mexico’s native tribes by the Spanish conquistador’s impact of the Native’s language never really occurred to me. Your article gave a detailed description of the history and linguistics of the Nahuatl language. I am so relieved at the language survived such trying times. Thank you for sharing so much about the rich culture of Mexico.

  6. Hi Emilia! I really enjoyed this article and the importance you highlighted of the Nahuatl language. The Spanish conquest is often talked about in the history of Mexico and is a prominent part of history books throughout school. It is unfortunate that when this is taught it is through a positive lens and one that makes this seem like a happy occurrence. I appreciate your article highlighting the struggle to maintain culture and language as this is the unfortunate truth. Great job!

  7. Before reading this article, I didn’t think any of the North and South American indigenous languages were still actively spoken today by nonindigenous people, and had never heard of Nahuatl. Now I’m curious where in the United States people are speaking Nahuatl. I’m glad that the Spanish priests decided to just learn the Nahuatl language instead of holding their own Spanish language above all, because a language and culture dying is always a sad thing to occur, and Nahuatl could very well have been a truly dead language today if the Spanish priests then were stubborn on this matter.

  8. I loved your article, it was very well written and also I appreciated you explaining the structure of the language Nahuatl. It’s sad to see how much was destroyed by the Spaniards due to colonization but it’s amazing to see how much was still preserved. I’m glad that the language didn’t die out like so many other indigenous languages in the world that were oppressed and wiped from existence.

  9. The conquest was a topic that always made me sad due to the culture and civilization that was destroyed all because it was due to greed and the need to be “saviors.” You wrote about the topic so well, especially about the language Nahuatl. Your writing on this topic was so amazing and I enjoyed reading this so much!

  10. ¡Felicidades, Emilia, por este artículo! Tuviste que aprender mucho sobre la lingüística para poder presentar así de claro las características de una lengua poco conocida por muchos de nosotros. La primera lengua nacional de México, merece todo el respeto que le podemos otorgar.

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