General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Aztec ruler Chimalpopoca (‘Smoking Shield’), Codex Mendoza folio 4v (detail)

Is there a name for the Aztec speech glyph?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Adrian: hi! I love your site, I was wondering, is there a name for the speech glyph found in the aztec codices? I’ve read the speech bubbles found in comic books nowaday are based off of it, and is there a glyph for the flower and song? I just love glyphs! can we have more glyphs!? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘[Aztec] writing was the visible form of noble speech’
Pic 1: ‘[Aztec] writing was the visible form of noble speech’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Cool, we love glyphs too!
As to whether ancient Mexican speech scrolls were the ancestors of speech bubbles/balloons and quotation marks, speech scrolls seem to have evolved independently on both sides of the Atlantic (in Europe they were in use before European contact with the Americas, but were drawn as complete - real - scrolls, with words written out within them; art historians call these ‘banderoles’). On the other hand quotation marks (and later speech bubbles) could well have come from Mexico, as, from what we can tell, the use of these symbols as typeface in printed books only began in the mid-16th century. Interesting and something for us to follow up...

Pic 2: The Aztec glyph for noble speech - ‘flower and song’, par excellence: detail from Codex Borbonicus, fol. 4
Pic 2: The Aztec glyph for noble speech - ‘flower and song’, par excellence: detail from Codex Borbonicus, fol. 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

As with everything Aztec, there are different levels of meaning to these things.
On one level, the spiral-shaped (‘volute’) speech scroll in pre-Hispanic codices was used simply to indicate the idea of speech itself, usually referring to ‘noble’, ‘wise’, ‘valuable’ - i.e. ‘true’ - speech. The Aztecs had a term in their language (Náhuatl) precisely for this, tlatolli. It’s rare to find examples of commoners’ speech, and even rarer commoners in subservient roles (such as porters or slaves) - hardly surprising since, in Joyce Marcus’s words ‘Writing was the visible form of noble speech’.

”Some hint of the importance of writing, speech, and words within Aztec society can be seen in the fact that Nahuatl terms for ruler, scribe, chronicler, poet, and ambassador were all derived from tlatoa (‘to speak’) or tlatolli (‘speech’). The occupants of these posts were all valued for their ability to use words, whether written or spoken” (Marcus 1992, p. 48).

Pic 3: The Aztecs depart from Aztlan: note the speech scrolls flowing from Huitzilopochtli (right), beckoning them forth...
Pic 3: The Aztecs depart from Aztlan: note the speech scrolls flowing from Huitzilopochtli (right), beckoning them forth... (Click on image to enlarge)

Two more key words used by the Mexica associated with the word for ‘speech’ were tlamatini (wise man) and huehuetlatolli (the words of [our] ancestors). The speech - indeed the breath - of Mexica deities was connected in mythical terms to the creation of the earth and sky. Parallel to this idea, smoke for the Aztecs was believed to be divine breath, and the glyph that scribes used to depict smoke was volute-shaped, very similar to speech scrolls. Chimalpopoca, the third Aztec ruler or tlatoani - note that the word means ‘Speaker’ rather than ruler - is depicted in the Codex Mendoza (main picture, above) with both (turquoise, or precious) speech scroll to stress his role as ruler and his personal name glyph ‘Smoking Shield’ - a double claim to divine authority!

Pic 4: ‘Listening to the admonitions [tickings off] of the Elders...’ Florentine Codex Book 9
Pic 4: ‘Listening to the admonitions [tickings off] of the Elders...’ Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

Visually emphasizing the Aztec belief that their language Náhuatl was the only ‘true’ language, speech scrolls showing individual Mexica authority figures - from rulers and army officers to teachers and parents - were always coloured turquoise, to represent ‘precious’, or perhaps even ‘royal’. Colours embodied a code of meaning, and were anything but arbitrary. Red very likely indicated anger: in Picture 4 wise Aztec elders can clearly be seen delivering (formal) reprimands [tickings-off] in Náhuatl!

Pic 5: Speaking with sharp tongues! Codex Selden, folio 7 (detail)
Pic 5: Speaking with sharp tongues! Codex Selden, folio 7 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Pre-Hispanic scribes refined these techniques further by attaching icons, such as miniature flint knives, to speech scrolls to indicate particularly hurtful speech: a well known example is this scene (Picture 5) from the Mixtec Codex Selden. In 1038 two ambassadors (top, left) are contracted to carry a Mixtec princess to join (and marry) her husband in another town. En route, as they pass by Hill of the Moon and Bumblebee Hill, they’re confronted by two local town officials (top, right) who verbally abuse them. (Bad move! The princess [6-Monkey, whose family story is related in the codex] subsequently returns with an armed escort to get revenge, captures the two who insulted her, and they end up getting sacrificed; part of a wider rivalry between two local dynasties.)

Pic 6: Macuilxochitl (‘5-Flower’) oversees a game of patolli, Codex Magliabecchiano, fol. 60
Pic 6: Macuilxochitl (‘5-Flower’) oversees a game of patolli, Codex Magliabecchiano, fol. 60 (Click on image to enlarge)

On another level the speech scroll, when painted in certain colours, could represent the number five. Coloured red, white and black, it served in these contexts as what some scholars call an ‘ideogram’. The number five, like most numbers in ancient Mexico, had many varied associations, generally unfavourable (five was a sign of excess, there were five distinctly unlucky days in the solar calendar...) The calendar name of the festive god Macuilxochitl was 5-Flower, and his connections with games and gambling can be seen clearly in Picture 6, from the Codex Magliabecchiano. Underneath the hugely popular boardgame patolli can be seen a clear reference to the calendar sign of the god looking on above: Five (Speech Scroll) Flower.

Oh, and BTW, Picture 2 above shows you the Aztec glyph for flower and song (poetry)...

Special thanks are due to Dr. Katarzyna Mikulska for reviewing this answer for us.

Pic 7: Aztec drummer (‘singer’) of the teponaztli; Codex Mendoza fol. 63r (detail)
Pic 7: Aztec drummer (‘singer’) of the teponaztli; Codex Mendoza fol. 63r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
• Marcus, Joyce (1992): Mesoamerican Writing Systems, New Jersey, Princeton University Press
• Caso, Alfonso (1964): Interpretación del Códice Selden, Mexico City, Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología
• Johansson K., Patrick (2012): ‘Nemontemi, “días baldíos”: Abismos periódicos del tiempo indígena’, Arqueología Mexicana, Mexico City, vol. 118, Nov-Dec, pp 64-70.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: Image from the Codex Mendoza (fol. 4v) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 1: Detail from screen mural painting of the Spanish Conquest by Roberto Cueva del Río, 1976; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Borbonicus scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Boturini, p.1, scanned from our own copy of a hand-drawn facsimile edition (personal collection)
• Pic 4: Image from the Florentine Codex, scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 5: Image from the Codex Selden scanned from our own copy of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología facsimile edition, Mexico City, 1964
• Pic 6: Image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 7: Image from the Codex Mendoza (as above)

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