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what was the Nahuatl couplet for ‘vagrancy’?
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Presione para ir a la versión en español Mercedes Montes de Oca Vega

‘Diphrases’ or couplets in Náhuatl

This article has generously been specially written for us by Dr. Mercedes Montes de Oca Vega, full time Researcher, Indigenous Languages Seminar, Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City. She introduces us to an aspect of Classical Náhuatl that is central to the language, yet not so easy to grasp - that of ‘diphrases’, sometimes called ‘semantic couplets’, ‘kennings’, ‘paired similes or metaphors’ or ‘parallelisms’...

Pic 1: Weaver with spindle, Codex Mendoza (original in Bodleian Library, Oxford) folio 68r
Pic 1: Weaver with spindle, Codex Mendoza (original in Bodleian Library, Oxford) folio 68r (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahua people had a special way of thinking and speaking. They considered that two ideas which belonged together could express a whole concept.

For example a skirt and a blouse in the Náhuatl language cueitl and huipilli are two words that together define a woman, so in their speeches, stories and poetry instead of the common word for woman cíhuatl they used in cueitl in huipilli:-

Ca yz tonoc in tiquauhtli in tocelutl

auh in ticueie in tiuipile


Here you are, you who are an eagle

you who are an ocelotl
(warrior)

And you who are the possessor of the skirt

you who are the possessor of the blouse
(woman)

Florentine Codex, p.79


Why a skirt and a blouse? Because these were two important garments that every woman wore in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards.

In Picture 1 there is an image that comes from a codex (the books of the Nahua [Aztec] people) and you can see a woman wearing a skirt and a blouse.

These two words used to name important things are called diphrases but they are also known as couplets, pairs, or binomials.
In Picture 1 there is a second diphrase depicted:-

in malacatl in tzotzopaztli

spindle, weaver’s reed = woman as a weaver

The diphrase represents weaving, one of the most important activities of women in prehispanic Mexico. Girls were taught to weave from an early age and it was an important duty for every woman. So a diphrase is composed of two attributes (or even more) that identify important things like a woman, a warrior, a city. The features that compose a diphrase are not random. They are closely related to the way Nahua people perceived and conceived important persons and things.

Let’s look at some more diphrases...



Pic 2: Eagle and jaguar warriors, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, folio 9
Pic 2: Eagle and jaguar warriors, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, folio 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

in cuauhtli in ocelotl

the eagle, the jaguar = warrior (Picture 2).

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, war was a very important activity and warriors were much respected. There were two military divisions: the Eagles and the Jaguars, daytime and night-time animals respectively. Eagles and jaguars are strong and powerful animals in their own ecosystems, so characteristics of both animals were used to identify warriors.


Pic 3: Arrows-and-shield, Codex Borgia pl. 25
Pic 3: Arrows-and-shield, Codex Borgia pl. 25 (Click on image to enlarge)

In mitl in chimalli

the arrow, the shield = war (Picture 3).

This is also another diphrase for war but this time it focuses on arrows and shields, which were the main weapons used by warriors in battle .

Pic 4: City, Codex Osuna, folio 34r
Pic 4: City, Codex Osuna, folio 34r (Click on image to enlarge)

In atl in tepetl

water, mountain = the city (Picture 4).

Pre-Hispanic cities were vital for Nahua people; perhaps you have heard of some of these cities: Tenochtitlan, Teotihuacan and Tezcoco...

Water was one of the most important elements needed to maintain a city. Pre-Hispanic people thought that water originated in the mountains that were also considered as big places of storage where water was kept.

Pic 5: Giant cypress (‘ahuehuete’) and silk cotton (‘ceiba’) trees
Pic 5: Giant cypress (‘ahuehuete’) and silk cotton (‘ceiba’) trees (Click on image to enlarge)

In ahuehuetl in pochotl

cypress tree, silk cotton tree = protection (Picture 5).

This diphrase expresses protection; this function could be carried out by different people like parents, rulers, priests. These trees have characteristics like strength and lots of foliage that give shelter from sun and rain and in this way they stand for people who were capable of giving security and protection.


Pic 6: Wooden coffer, reed basket (adapted from Codex Mendoza)
Pic 6: Wooden coffer, reed basket (adapted from Codex Mendoza) (Click on image to enlarge)

In toptli in petlacalli

coffer, reed basket = secret (Picture 6).

In toptli refers to the idol that was kept in the coffer and which was used in some rituals, it was kept out of sight. Both containers were used to hold valuable things that were kept out of sight, hidden and secret.


Pic 7: Night and day, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer pl. 25
Pic 7: Night and day, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer pl. 25 (Click on image to enlarge)

In yohualli in tonalli

night, day = an entire day (i.e. 24 hours) (Picture 7).

This diphrase is found in other Mesoamerican languages and it means the complete solar cycle. Day and night were important concepts for the Aztecs because they meant the renewal of life, so they developed two calendars, one for day-to-day and another for the ritual cycle.

Pic 8: Figure symbolically holding an eye/bone and heart, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer pl. 3
Pic 8: Figure symbolically holding an eye/bone and heart, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer pl. 3  (Click on image to enlarge)

In ixtli in yollotl

eye/face, heart = the person (Picture 8).

This diphrase refers to the person, the human being. The sense is made by combining two essential ideas: vitality and emotion (yol) and perception (ix).
The eye/face is the most prominent external region of a human being and the heart is one of the most important internal organs that relates to movement, living and emotions.


Pic 9: Stone and stick, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, folio 3
Pic 9: Stone and stick, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, folio 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

In tetl in cuahuitl

stone, stick = punishment, both physical and moral (Picture 9).

Several types of punishment existed for serious wrongdoing, one of them by means of throwing stones and hitting people with sticks. But there was having icy cold water thrown over you or having to breathe in chilli smoke.


Pic 10: Detail from the ritual calendar round, Codex Cospi, p. 3
Pic 10: Detail from the ritual calendar round, Codex Cospi, p. 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

In tlilli in tlapalli

the black, the red = codices, wisdom (Picture 10).

Black and red were important colours because they were the basic colours in which codices were painted. Codex drawing was a task done only by specialised officers known as tlahcuilohque. So this diphrase refers to pre-Hispanic books. The couplet in tlilli in tlapalli has an additional meaning that refers to wisdom; books are a way of preserving knowledge.

Why did pre-Hispanic people use this particular way of expression? Because they wanted to give certain things honoured status; in other words, to consider them with respect because they were special. And since this way of naming ideas was distinctive not everything had a couplet name made up of two nouns together.

Picture sources:-

Photos of trees from Wikipedia/cypress and Huiquipedia/pochotl

Codex Mendoza images scanned from our copy of the 1992 facsimile edition by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt

Codex Osuna image supplied by Julia Flood

Coffer image by Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore

Other codex images scanned from our copies of respective facsimiles published by ADEVA, Graz, Austria.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 24th 2008

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