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|Pic 1: The meeting between Motecuhzoma and Cortés: screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Rio, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
One of the most profound effects of the Spanish conquest of Mexico was the encounter of the Spanish and Nahuatl languages.
This began from in the first confrontation between Motecuhzoma and Cortés, in the spectacular setting of the lake city Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztecs (pic 1).
Motecuhzoma, the Aztec tlatoani (literally “speaker”) or king, addressed Cortés in a lordly speech, reflecting the norms of the huehuetlatolli, “the sayings of the ancients”. These were part of the long-standing syllabus at the calmécac “the house of the lineage”, a school for the sons of Aztec nobility.
Totukyoe, ōtikmihiyōwiltih ōtikmoziyawiltih
“Our Lord, how you must have suffered, how fatigued you must be.”
|Pic 2: Motecuhzoma and Cortés converse, through an interpreter... Illustration by Keith Henderson (Click on image to enlarge)|
This was conventional greeting, although there would have been few whom the tlatoani of all Mexico would address as teukyoe “Lordship”.
ō tlāltiteč tommahzītīko, ō īteč tommopāčiwiltīko in mātzin in motepetzin, Mešihko, ō īpan tommowetziko in mopetlatzin, in mokpaltzin, in ō ačitzinka nimitzonnopiyalīlih, in ōnimitzonnotlapiyalīlih...
“You have graciously come on earth, you have approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you.”
The language was, of course, completely unintelligible to Cortés, but he was fortunate to be given a running interpretation, by courtesy of a couple of bilinguals who worked in tandem.
|Pic 3: Nahuatl: ‘the lingua franca of a multinational and multicultural empire...’ (Click on image to enlarge)|
The Nahuatl [nawatl] language has a name that literally means “speaking up, eloquence”, and was the native speech of the Aztec nobility, as well as many other allies, and some peoples not subject to them (including even their inveterate enemies the Tlaxcala). It was not spoken universally even in the realms where the Aztecs claimed sovereignty. Instead, the Aztecs had planted officials, especially tribute overseers, in all the major cities, and ensured that the subject peoples provided a corps of nauatlato, “interpreters”, to ensure effective transmission of the rulers’ wishes.
Before the Spanish conquest, Nahuatl should thus be seen as at best an effective lingua franca of a multinational and multilingual empire: the empire included areas where the indigenous population to this day speak Zapotec, Mixtec, Tarascan, Otomí, Huastec and Totonac languages, none of them related to one other or to Nahuatl.
|Pic 4: Cortés meets three Aztec ambassadors; Gerónimo de Aguilar and Doña Marina interpret for him. Illustration by Keith Henderson (Click on image to enlarge)|
Cortés’s interpreters were Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish friar, and Doña Marina, originally Malinalli Tenepal, a young woman who spoke Nahuatl natively. Gerónimo had suffered shipwreck on the coast of Yucatan, and spent 8 years in captivity with Mayans: he therefore knew Spanish and one dialect of Mayan. Doña Marina, known in Nahuatl as Malin-tzin (with an honorific suffix), had grown up speaking both Nahuatl and another Mayan dialect. She had acquired her Nahuatl in Coatzacoalcos, on the Caribbean coast 50 km south of the border of the Aztec empire. But later in childhood, she had been traded to Xicalango, close by, but in a Mayan-language area. She had subsequently been among 20 slaves given to the Spanish victors by natives of Tabasco after losing the battle of Centla in 1519.
It was possible therefore for Malin-tzin and and Gerónimo working together (pic 4) to mediate between Nahuatl and Spanish, with some kind of Mayan as interlingua. Later, Malin-tzin was able to learn Spanish herself. She continued as interpreter (and some say, counsellor) to Cortés for some years thereafter. She may have been the first bilingual in Spanish and Nahuatl, and ca 1522 she became the mother of Cortés’s son Martín, one of the very first Spanish-Nahuatl mestizo children.
|Pic 5: Moteuhzoma meets Cortés. Illustration by Keith Henderson, who pictures the Aztec leader ‘leaning on the arms of the Lords of Tezcuco and Iztlapalapan’ (Click on image to enlarge)|
This first encounter of an exchange of thoughts in Nahuatl and Spanish was fraught with difficulties, resulting both from the high political and religious significance of what was being transmitted, and also from a distinctive discourse strategy that was customary in Nahuatl, and which Motecuhzoma perhaps could not avoid in his own speech.
The tlatoani addressed Cortés as if he, the Spaniard, were a long-awaited lord returning to take up rightful possession. This mysterious offer of fealty would have seemed inexplicable to Cortés (suspecting perhaps a mistranslation?) and yet remarkably convenient, if he were to take it at face value. He could not know that it was the Nahuatl practice, in rhetoric, to use affectionate endearments as symbols of actual respect, even at the highest level. So much so, that we still do not understand quite what the intended effect was, when deference was expressed, as here, so humbly. A royal attempt at irony to make the interloper feel ill at ease through the evident inappropriateness of what was being said?
|Pic 6: Motecuhzoma leads Cortés on a tour of Tenochtitlan. Illustration by Keith Henderson (Click on image to enlarge)|
We shall never know, and this in itself is a humbling lesson in the perplexity that may stem from linguistic diversity. At any rate, Cortés – while implicitly accepting the offer – kept up the show of apparent diplomatic courtesy, as an eyewitness, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recounted:-
’Cortés replied through our interpreters (lenguas “tongues”), who were always with him, especially Doña Marina (Malin-tzin), and told him that he did not know with what to repay him, neither himself or any of us, for all the great favours received every day, and that certainly we came from where the sun rises, and we are vassals and servants of a great lord called the great emperor Don Carlos, who has subject to him many great princes, and that having news of Motecuhzoma and of what a great lord he is, he sent us here to see him and ask him that they should be Christians, as is our emperor and are we all, and that he and all his vassals would save their souls.’
|Pic 7: Motecuhzoma is shackled by the Spanish. Illustration by Keith Henderson (Click on image to enlarge)|
So immediately, after a mention of an imperial master, there was talk of Christianity, and the obligation to accept it (whatever it may be), and the saving of souls (whatever that might involve).
Relations did not break down at this stage. But it may be that the exchange of diplomatic civility (drawn out even longer by the need for two stages of serial translation for each utterance) was part of what caused Motecuhzoma fatally to lower his guard. Six days later, dismissing his own guards, he delivered himself into Cortés’s power: the result was that he was held captive by foreigners within his own capital city, a tactical mistake from which he – and the Aztec empire – never recovered.
The Spanish conquest took its course, as incredibly some 300 men took total control of the Aztecs’ empire of millions: the first, seemingly miraculous chapter in the saga of a whole continent’s surrender to European adventurers, fortune-hunters and missionaries.
|Pic 8: Painting of mestizos at the end of the 18th century or beginning of 19th century. Unknown author, public domain (Click on image to enlarge)|
The major channel by which Nahuatl, and its dozens of language peers in Meso-America, became known to the new Spanish masters and their agents was the institution of mestizaje, mixed unions that generated families of children bilingual in Spanish and some other language. They would have arisen naturally as the Spanish immigrants, overwhelmingly male, took Indian wives or mistresses (mancebas) and began to raise families with them. Among the famous conquistadores, almost every one had mestizo children, often with several different women, and (in these cases at least) they were fully recognized as heirs to their fathers. Cortés, Pizarro, Benalcázar, Alvarado all conform to this tradition. There were large numbers of less celebrated Spanish men who did the same.
Combined with the school education that the Spanish began to supply to the children of elite Nahuatl-speaking families, this actually led to something of a literary flowering.
|Pic 9: Early attempts to document Nahuatl literature; detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazarene, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
There were not only interpreters, but also literary translators and authors. Fernando de Alva Ixtilxóchitl (d. 1648), from the line of the kings of Tezcoco, sometime allies of Cortés, was known as the “Livy of Anáhuac”, author of the Historia Chichimeca (Livy being one of the most celebrated Roman historians, Anáhuac “water edge”, the Aztec name for the central basin of Mexico). And his brother Bartolomé adapted into Nahuatl two popular Spanish plays by Lope de Vega, and another by Calderón (late 17th century). The literary use of the language continued until 1704, when in a drama entitled “Discovery of the Holy Cross by Saint Helena”, Manuel de los Santos y Salazar imagined the yearnings of the Roman emperor Constantine to see the true God, and the triumph that the miraculous cross gave over the machinations of the Devil – himself depicted as Mictlanteuctli, Aztec god of the underworld. The maxim that the first Christian emperor famously received, In hoc signo vinces “In this sign you will conquer”, here appears in Nahuatl form: Huel yca ynin machiotl titexicoz: but the verb at the end means not so much “conquer” as “trick, outwit”.
|Pic 10: Auctioned copy of Antonio Rincon’s ‘Arte Mexicana’, the first published work by a mestizo, first indigenous-language work written by a native speaker, and first work in an indigenous language of Mexico written by a Jesuit (Click on image to enlarge)|
But besides “natural increase” of bilingualism after the conquest, the Catholic Church, and particularly its orders of friars, applied a technology that arose from a new conceptual revolution, to multiply artificially the number of bilinguals, and especially of bilingual priests. This was the advance now known as “grammatisation”, beginning in the late 15th century with Spanish and Italian, but then spreading all over western Europe: in this new movement, contemporary with the Renaissance, it was recognized that every language (not just classical Greek and Latin) could be characterized in an Arte, a treatise of grammatical rules, which – with a dictionary – could be used to learn the language as an adult, by the same familiar methods that all learned men had learnt their Latin. Language learning was – in principle – a solved problem.
|Pic 11: The arrival of the twelve Franciscan apostles (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala’, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 239v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)|
In May 1524 a group of Franciscan friars arrived, who would become known as “the twelve apostles of Mexico”. A month later, they had reached the region of the capital, Tenochtitlán, and the neighbouring land of Tlaxcala, and founded four separate monasteries. They at once set about learning Nahuatl:
’letting go for a time their personal dignity, at break times they would play with [the children] with straws and pebbles, to get beyond any awkwardness in communication. And they always had paper and ink in hand, and when they heard a word from an Indian, they would write it down, and the intent with which he said it. And in the afternoon the priests got together and talked over their scripts, and did their best to agree on the apparently most suitable Spanish equivalent for these words.’
|Pic 12: The home of the first printing press/print shop in the New World, at the corner of Moneda and Licenciado Primo Verdad streets in Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
After a decade of research, readers, grammars and dictionaries began to be published. Printing presses were installed in Mexico City in 1535, an immense investment in technology – just a generation after the first in Madrid in 1500. Their first known product, the Breve y más compendiosa doctrina christiana, which came out in 1539, was for ecclesiastical use, and written in Nahuatl. In 1546 it was followed by Fray Alonso de Molina’s Doctrina christiana breve traduzida en lengua Mexicana, and in 1547 Arte de la lengua mexicana by Father Andres de Olmos, and an accompanying volume Vocabulario de la lengua mexicana. In this, Lengua mexicana meant Nahuatl, at the time still the principal lingua franca of New Spain, as it had been of its predecessor, the Aztec (Mexica) empire.
|Pic 13: Evangelisation of Mexico: mural in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Calle 69 n53 -Av.6, Venustiano Carranza, Federal District, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)|
But the intent to involve Nahuatl in Christian worship was finally frustrated. In the Spanish empire (as in the Portuguese), the natives of America were never adjudged worthy to be consecrated as priests: this presumably on grounds of racial prejudice. This prohibition was included in a formal text of the Third Council of Lima in 1583. The Franciscans, having been the first missionaries in Mexico, had long aspired to bring up an indigenous priesthood, and indeed had founded a special college for Indian youth in the 1530s at Tlatelolco near Mexico city. But it functioned only between the 1530s and 1550s, and its purpose was ultimately thwarted by the Third Council.
New Nahuatl literature was composed also in the early attempts to win the Mexican people for Christianity.
|Pic 14: Page from the ‘Doctrina Cristiana’ book written in Nahuatl in 1583 by Franciscan missionary Pedro de Gante (Click on image to enlarge)|
One of the very first missionaries in Mexico, Pedro de Gante [Peter of Ghent, since that was his origin], who arrived in 1523, had had the idea of reaching the commoners - who were not being educated by the friars, unlike the children of nobles – through song and dance, since that seemed to be basic to their worship of their own gods:-
’For when they were to sacrifice for any purpose... before they killed them, they had to sing before the idol. When I realized this and that all their songs were dedicated to the gods, I composed some very stately verses concerning God’s law and the Faith, and how God became man in order to save the human race, and how he was born of the Virgin Mary though she remained pure and immaculate.’
He had found this most effective in building enthusiasm, and continued it throughout a whole celebration of Christmas. The children proved gifted in picking up the new songs, and there was some spontaneous creation of new ones, or new words for old song-tunes. A new tradition of Christian song was born.
|Pic 15: Sahagún’s ‘Evangeliario en lengua mexicana’ (Catechism in Nahuatl) (Click on image to enlarge)|
Another comparable effort was written over 50 years later, in 1583. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who had become the great encyclopaedist of Aztec civilization, attempted to exploit the fondness of Mexicans for song and dance using his own knowledge of their languages, in a volume called the Psalmodia Christiana. His motivation can be summarized in his own words:-
’[The Indians of New Spain]... in most places, persist in going back to singing their old songs in their houses or their palaces (which arouses a good deal of suspicion as to the sincerity of their Christian Faith); for in the old songs mostly idolatrous things are sung in a style so obscure that none can understand them well except they themselves... In order easily counteract this mischief, ... these songs have been printed in the Mexican language so that they will immediately abandon the old songs, a penalty being imposed applicable to any who go back to singing the old songs.’
|Pic 16: Virgin of Guadalupe circa 1700s, oil on canvas painting, anonymous, Indianapolis Museum of Art (Click on image to enlarge)|
Sahagún’s work is not arranged around the Biblical book of Psalms, but the feast-days of the Catholic calendar. This means its content can range freely over significant moments in Christian history, provided only they are linked with some saint. It is a purely Christian work, with no allusions to the original Psalms of King David. It can hardly recall the characteristic spirit of Aztec poetry – a kind of elegant despair before an unyielding universe – but it is a highly competent stylistic pastiche of it.
Finally, we can mention another story, among the best known in the early years of Christian America: how the poor self-effacing Mexican Juan Diego was called by a mysterious lady – none other than the Virgin Mary – to visit the newly appointed bishop of his town, and so persuade him to dedicate a chapel to her worship. It is a tale of humble piety, reinforced through astounding miracles. It is told, in perfect Nahuatl of literary quality, in a tract entitled Huei tlamahuiçoltica “by a great miracle”, published in 1649, a century after the events that it recounts (“Ten years after the City of Mexico was conquered, with the arrows and shields put aside, when there was peace in all the towns... the year 1531...”) . Although there are – of course – secular doubts as to its historical truth, there are none as to its sincerity, or its significance in the story of how Mexico came to accept the Catholic faith from conquistadores.
|Pic 17: The ‘Real Cédula’ issued by King Carlos III in 1770 in Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)|
Nahuatl had gone on as a major medium of New Spain, its culture and its religion, until the second half of the 18th century, 1748-1800, when a series of three Archbishops of Mexico took it upon themselves to abolish all official use of “the language of the Indians”. In 1770 King Carlos III issued the Real Cédula:
’...in order that at once may be achieved the extinction of the different languages...’
Faced with this new attitude to languages, one that would be propagated thoughout the Spanish empire, Nahuatl was degraded socially.
|Pic 18: ‘The areas marked in green on the map are the traditional Nahuatl homelands where the Nahuatl languages are still spoken today’ - from the SIL website (Click on image to enlarge)|
The motive for this disruptive new policy was external, coming from new ideas of the European Enlightenment. They suggested that rulers might increase both general well-being, and their own wealth, by imposing new, more rational, government on their subjects. Linguistic diversity, seen as a needless complication, was an immediate target. So was the temporal power of the Catholic church, which was becoming resented for its old-fashioned ways: its tradition of easy-going acceptance of the old “savage” languages could be used to attack it.
Once the single and standardized lengua general of Mexico, it is now a language of scattered village communities, formalized by no norm at all, so that the Summer Institute of Linguistics, in a survey of the 1980s, discerned 19 quite different varieties.
• Pic 1: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Ditto (detail from the screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río)
• Pix 2, 4, 5, 6, 7: Illustrations by Keith Henderson, scanned from our own copy of The Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott (vol. 1), London, Chatto & Windus, 1922
• Pic 8: Image from Wikimedia Commons (‘Mestizo’), held in the Colección de Malu y Alejandra Escandón, Mexico City
• Pic 9: Photo by Eva Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: Photo from the auction site Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Co. - https://www.prbm.com/FeaturedBooks/_Rincon-Balli-Arte.php
• Pic 11: Image courtesy and by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
• Pic 12: Photo from Wikipedia (‘House of the First Print Shop in the Americas’)
• Pic 13: Image from Wikipedia (‘Christianization’)
• Pic 14: Image courtesy Benson Latin American Collection, General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, downloaded from -
• Pic 15: Image from Wikipedai (‘Bernardino de Sahagún’)
• Pic 16: Image from Wikimedia Commons (‘Virgin of Guadalupe - Google Art Project’)
• Pic 17: Image from http://realcanaldemanzanares.es/?q=node/3
• Pic 18: Map from the Summer Institute of Linguistics website on Nahuatl - http://www.mexico.sil.org/language_culture/aztec.
This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 01st 2017