General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Dr. John F. Schwaller

Question for December 2007

How many words were there in the Aztec language? Asked by Willesborough Junior School. Chosen and answered by Dr. John F. Schwaller.

Letter "A" entries of the Dictionary of Spanish and Nahuatl by Alonso de Molina
Letter "A" entries of the Dictionary of Spanish and Nahuatl by Alonso de Molina (Click on image to enlarge)

Remember that people still speak the Aztec language, called Nahuatl. In Mexico more people speak Nahuatl than any languages except for Spanish. Just like any other language there were thousands of words. We’ll probably never know exactly how many were used at the time of the Spanish arrival. Shortly after the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish, many of the missionaries set about learning Nahuatl, the Aztec language. One of the most famous was a Franciscan friar named Alonso de Molina. He compiled a Spanish-Nahuatl and Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary. It has tens of thousands of Nahuatl words in it. But if he did not hear a word to write it down, it didn’t get included in his dictionary. So we conclude that there must have been many tens of thousands of words.

Cartoon in Náhuatl coursebook by Enrique García Escamilla
Cartoon in Náhuatl coursebook by Enrique García Escamilla (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahuatl is a fun language. It allows us to make new words by combining old ones. The Aztecs didn’t have computers like we do. But we have a Nahuatl word that we use to refer to a computer, it is: tepotzpoani. That literally means "a metal thing that counts." It comes from tepotztli, for metal; and poa, a verb meaning to count. The -ni- on the end means "someone or something accustomed to doing the action", here of counting. So in the end, it is really difficult to know how many words there were, or are, because the language is constantly changing.

Image sources:

1: Benson Latin American Collection, General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, USA

2: Cartoon, page 6 of ‘Tlahtolnahuatilli’, vol XV, basic course in Classical Náhuatl by Enrique García Escamilla, Plaza y Valdés SA de CV, Mexico City, 1995

Dr. John F. Schwaller has answered 7 questions altogether:

Why did the Aztecs only use wheels for toys and not for transport?

Do we only get food words or are there other English words derived from the Aztec language?

How many words were there in the Aztec language?

Why didn’t the Aztecs ask their gods to save them?

Is Náhuatl taught in Mexican schools today?

Why is the emperor called Montezuma [in England] and not Moctezuma?

Did the Aztecs say a prayer before eating?

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