General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Aztecs speaking and writing their language Náhuatl

The meaning of ‘Náhuatl’

Just what does the name of the Aztec language ‘Náhuatl’ actually mean? It’s still very much a living language, Mexico’s second in importance after Spanish, and is spoken today by between 1 and 2 million Mexicans, mostly by the Nahua (loosely, Náhuatl-speaking peoples). (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

According to experts, na_hua-tl means ‘someone who makes an agreeable sound, someone who speaks my language’.

na_huatlahto_l-li means ‘the Náhuatl language’, and

na_huatla_cah (plural) means the Náhuatl-speaking nation.
The root *na_hua- appears to mean ‘audible’, ‘intelligible’, ‘clear’.

Frances Kartunnen, author of An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, explains: "The use of the word Náhuatl as a language name and the term Nahuah as an ethnic term have been mined out of old sources, but I am not sure they were much used in precontact [pre-Hispanic] time.

"Nahuatlahtolli - ‘clear, intelligible speech’ - was contrasted with popoloca - ‘to speak gibberish.’ So the Mesoamerican world could be divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’ in terms of ‘people whose language is mutually intelligible with ours’ and ‘people whose language is unintelligible.’"

To put it crudely, the Aztecs thought their language was the only decent one (so they made it the language of their empire) and all other languages were rubbish!

With thanks to Anthony Appleyard and Frances Kartunnen via the Nahuat-l forum.

Learn more about Náhuatl...

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Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this suggestion, Mario - an interesting possibility...