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Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Frances Karttunen, expert on the Aztec language Nahuatl

Náhuatl Borrowings from Spanish

This article has generously been written for us by Dr. Frances Karttunen, retired Professor of Linguistics and Senior University Research Scientist, Linguistics Research Centre, University of Texas, prolific author and expert on Náhuatl.

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After the trauma of the Spanish Conquest, when human relations in Central Mexico had settled into difficult but survivable stasis [stability], two very different peoples - Nahuah and Spaniards -began an active exchange. The Columbian Exchange of plants, animals, and pathogens [germs] famously elucidated by Alfred W. Crosby has a parallel in the vocabularies of the indigenous peoples and the Europeans. Into Mexican Spanish and thence to the outside world went the words for tomato, chocolate, chile, avocado, peyote, coyote, ocelot, and more. Staying more or less at home in Mexico and parts of the U.S.A. that were once part of Old Mexico/New Spain are others, such as tamale, mole, comal, epazote, guajalote, and zopilote.

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Into Nahuatl went a great many Spanish words. Their adoption was not at all random. The first to be borrowed were nouns, and among the borrowed nouns, the first were for objects and concepts new and alien to Mesoamerica. The astronomically determined 365-day year was not new, and the Nahuah continued to use their own word, xihuitl. Likewise, the lunar month of 28 days was enough like the months of the European year that the Nahuatl word me:tztli ‘moon’ could serve. On the other hand, the seven-day week was new, so by the mid-1500s Spanish semana had been borrowed into Nahuatl along with names for the days of the week, sometimes so integrated into Nahuatl as to not be readily recognizable. Xapatoh for sábado is an example. Likewise, the Spanish names for the months of the years were borrowed, even though the word for ‘month’ itself was not.

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The Catholic missionaries brought the vast vocabulary of their religion and imposed it, along with their faith, upon the indigenous population. The friars made considerable effort to draw from Nahuatl words for such concepts as sin and redemption and for personages such as God the Father and the Blessed Virgin, but the Spanish words for priest, friar, prior, bishop, and all the administrative apparatus of the Church went in wholesale from Spanish with hardly any adaptation to Nahuatl.
Likewise, all the terminology of Spanish government - the realm of governors, alcaldes, regidores, deputies, judges, petitions, ordinances, law suits, oaths, and so on - were taken into Nahuatl.

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Many animals were introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spaniards, the most immediately impressive of them being the horse. For a while, the Nahuah referred to horses as teo:maza:tl ‘super deer’ and then settled for cahuayoh from Spanish caballo. Likewise, there were huacax ‘cattle’ from Spanish vacas. European pigs became a highly valued source of protein in the diet of Mesoamericans, but it was not necessary to borrow Spanish puerco, since Nahuatl had two words already, coyametl and pitzotl, both referring to the hairy little native peccary [American pig].

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The Spaniards brought different sorts of clothing and to some extent imposed it on the indigenous population. Spanish camisa ‘shirt’ became camixahtli in Nahuatl, and zapato ‘shoe’ was also borrowed to co-exist alongside Nahuatl cactli, originally referring to the Mesoamerican high-backed sandal. Sombrero became xompeloh in Nahuatl.

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It took awhile for Nahuatl to develop a way to borrow Spanish verbs. When it finally happened, Nahuah all over Central Mexico pretty much simultaneously began adding the ending -oa: to the infinitive of Spanish verbs, thereby creating verb stems to which Nahuatl’s verbal suffixes could be attached. Firmar ‘to sign one’s name’ was a very important early verb borrowing, becoming firmaroa:. Once this got started, any verb could be borrowed, right down to this day, when the English verb to pitch from American baseball terminology has turned up in modern Nahuatl as pitzaroa:.

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On the other hand, some Nahuatl verbs began to be used as equivalents of Spanish verbs, even though they did not originally mean exactly the same thing. The Nahuatl verb piya meant ‘to have stewardship of something, to be responsible for something,’ but it came to be used as an equivalent of Spanish tener ‘to have, possess something.’ Used in this sense with property, for instance, the meaning of piya underwent a conceptual change. And then piya began turning up in translated Spanish idioms such as tener derecho ‘to be right,’ and tener veinte años ‘to be twenty years old.’ Translated into Nahuatl with piya, these would make no sense at all to a Nahuatl speaker of the 1500s, but over time they became perfectly understandable to Nahuah of later years.

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It can be argued that Nahuatl did not originally have a class or words that we would call adjectives. Since there is no grammatical gender and little number agreement in Nahuatl, anything in older texts that might be understood as an adjective can also be understood as a predicate noun or a noun embedded in an attributive construction. Nahuatl was slow to take in Spanish adjectives and generally treated them as nouns until perhaps as late as the beginning of the twentieth century.

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Grammatical particles are generally expected to be resistant to borrowing into other languages, but in the 1700s, Nahuatl acquired como ‘as,’ de ‘from,’ a ‘to, at,’ and today hues from Spanish pues is pervasive.

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Some modern Nahuah have been distressed by the ubiquity of Spanish loans of all sorts in their vocabulary and have made efforts to “purify” their language by creating neologisms, new words for new concepts such as cars, trains, and telephones, from core Nahuatl lexicon. This sometimes intimidates their fellow Nahuatl speakers and has the unintended effect of making them use their own language less and Spanish more. Purism has generally been a negative force in the preservation of modern Nahuatl.

(The examples cited here are drawn from Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period by Frances Karttunen and James Lockhart.)

Illustrations:-
Scanned from Alfabetos Aztecas by Dr. Antonio Peñafiel, Mexico City, 1900

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 14th 2010

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Scott Hadley from San Miguel Canoa, nr. Puebla, offers this suggestion: ‘If it refers to a person: tlauhtiani; also ahuiztic means something marvelous or amazing especially if it should be revered.’
Mexicolore replies: No time to get this checked by one of our experts, I’m afraid, but a quick dictionary check suggests you’re very much ‘on course’! Neltoca is certainly ‘believe’; Teyacanani means leader or director; Patlani is basically to fly (rather than let fly); olinia is the root for to move. So I would say you’re pretty close in spirit to what you’re trying to put across. Congratulations, and good luck with the opera...!
Mexicolore replies: Cool, Jesse, we love it! Thanks so much for sharing...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for writing. If we weren’t so snowed under with work as a teaching team I’d add sound files of these words for you. At this rate, by the time I get around to it, your (I assume) son will be middle-aged...! Good luck.