General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Professor Juan José Batalla

Question for January 2007

Did most words in the Aztec language end in -tl? Asked by Loseley Fields Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Juan José Batalla.

If you can say...
If you can say... (Click on image to enlarge)

English:The Náhuatl language is known as an ‘agglutinative’ language [follow the Wikipedia link below to learn more]: its words, as well as parts of words [’affixes’], join [literally, are ‘glued’] together to make new words. Classical Náhuatl nouns had 4 endings [’suffixes’]: -in, -li, -tli and -tl. When two words joined to form a new one, generally the first word lost its ending while the second word kept its.

... the word ‘atlas’...
... the word ‘atlas’... (Click on image to enlarge)

As an example, the word ‘tlalatl’ meaning ‘mud’ is made up of the words ‘tlalli’ (earth) and ‘atl’ (water): in the final word, the ‘tlalli’ part has lost its -li ending whilst the ‘atl’ part remains unchanged. In the same way, the word ‘tlahuizmatlaxopilli’ meaning ‘banner carried into war’ comes from combining the words ‘tlahuiztli’ (weapon, insignia) which loses its -tli, ‘matlatl’ (net) which loses its ending -tl and finally the last word added ‘xopilli’ (toe). Joining the three words together forms a new one with a completely new meaning.

... without the ‘as’...
... without the ‘as’... (Click on image to enlarge)

The most common ending for Náhuatl words were -tl and -tli - in fact they can almost be considered one and the same, together with -li. Which of these 3 endings was to be used depended on the rules of grammar. So basically some 90% of Náhuatl words end(ed) in the same ending: -tl, -tli or -li.

... you can pronounce...
... you can pronounce... (Click on image to enlarge)

Español:La lengua nahuatl se caracteriza por tratarse de un idioma “aglutinante”, es decir sus palabras se unen entre sí y con diversas partículas gramaticales para conformar otras nuevas. Así, los sustantivos nahuatl tenían cuatro formas de terminación, de manera que finalizaban en –in, -li, -tli y –tl. Cuando los términos se unían para formar otras palabras perdían la terminación conformándose el nuevo con la raíz de los otros, salvo el último en ser unido que mantenía la misma.

... plenty of Aztec words...
... plenty of Aztec words... (Click on image to enlarge)

Por ejemplo el término tlalatl que se traduce como “barro” se compone de las palabras tlalli-tierra y atl-agua, de manera que en su suma la primera pierde la terminación –li y la última se mantiene completa. Igualmente, la palabra tlahuizmatlaxopilli que designaba un “estandarte que llevaban a la guerra” resulta de la combinación de la palabras tlahuiztli (arma, insignia) que pierde el -tli, matlatl (red) sin la terminación –tl y, finalmente, el último término completo xopilli (dedo del pie). De este modo, la unión de las tres palabras da lugar a otra con distinto significado.

(‘atl’ on its own means ‘water’)
(‘atl’ on its own means ‘water’) (Click on image to enlarge)

La terminación más común de las palabras nahuatl era la –tl y –tli, ya que al fin y al cabo pueden considerarse como una única finalización, al igual que -li. La aparición de uno de estos tres tipos de terminación dependía de las reglas gramaticales. Se puede afirmar que cerca del 90% de las palabras nahuatl finalizan en –tl, -tli o –li, ya que como hemos señalado se trata de una misma terminación.

Main picture: part of a screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río
Graphics: from ‘Huehuehtlahtolli’ by Miguel León-Portilla, SEP, Mexico City 1991

Our Aztec Pronunciation pages

Wikipedia: ‘agglutinative’ languages

Professor Juan José Batalla has answered 7 questions altogether:

Physically how were the skulls stuck into the skullracks?

Was there any contact between the Aztecs and the ancient Egyptians?

Did most words in the Aztec language end in -tl?

When did the 5 ‘useless’ days come in the Aztec calendar?

Are Spanish children taught in school about what happened to the Aztecs?

Is it true the Aztecs made a sacrifice (on average) every 10 minutes?

How did scribes get rid of mistakes when they wrote their books?

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