General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 15 Dec 2017/4 Flower
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Stone figures of an Aztec woman and man

Aztec Sayings

’When an Indian dies, an encyclopedia dies with him’ (Fernando Benítez)

The Aztecs were great masters of their language, Náhuatl, and throughout time produced great poets and orators such as Nezahualcóyotl, Lord of Texcoco, anonymous contributors to texts such as the book of Aztec songs, Cantares Mexicanos, and the Florentine Codex. Here we present a selection of proverbs with the aim of shedding some light on the beauty or power of Náhuatl words... Main source: Patrick Johansson K., Machiotlahtolli: La palabra-modelo. Dichos y refranes de los antiguos nahuas, México, McGraw-Hill, 2004 (Written/compiled by Julia Flood and Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Special thanks for help in translating individual phrases from English into Náhuatl sent into us by the general public (at bottom of page) are due to John Sullivan and the team at IDIEZ in Zacatecas, Mexico - a link to their website can be found in our Aztecs Links pages, under Aztecs/Mexica (Teachers) - to Dr. Patrick Johansson of UNAM in Mexico City, to José Abraham Méndez Hernández, a historian and native Náhuatl speaker from Puebla, and to named individuals below.

Çan nomaccah in nix in noyollo inic ni nouatzaz. [anoço] inic ninocueponaltiz

The importance of flowers. Detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
The importance of flowers. Detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City

If it is to be it is up to me

This proverb, from Of the Manners of Speaking That the Old Ones Had: The Metaphors of Andrés de Olmos, is titled ‘Choice’, and its literary interpretation is as follows:-

It is only by my hand, by my face, my heart, my spirit
that either I will wither, or I will bloom,
I will become as green land, as tilled earth
I will germinate, I will sprout.

Ie onquiza naoalli: anoce ónquiz in naoalli

Tecolote or ‘owl-man’ (nahual), Codex Borgia pl. 7
Tecolote or ‘owl-man’ (nahual), Codex Borgia pl. 7

His nahual’s helping him

While some people work their hearts out to earn a living - or to study and learn a subject or trade - others are lazy, mess about, and don’t seem to do any work, and yet end up getting rich - or knowing a subject inside out with zero effort. Then it’s said that their nahual has come out (to help).

Whilst in ancient times the nahual was a person’s (animal) companion spirit or alter ego (with good and bad aspects) more recently it has taken on a more negative association, like a ‘goblin’ or even ‘devil’.

Ma chapultépec ninaalti

The hill of Chapultepec - part of the Aztecs’ migration story from the Codex Boturini, fol. 18
The hill of Chapultepec - part of the Aztecs’ migration story from the Codex Boturini, fol. 18

Time to bathe in Chapultepec!

When a great weight has been taken off the shoulders - following recovery from a serious illness, or freedom from a tortuous job - relax, celebrate... enjoy a swim in the waters of Chapultepec, sacred Hill of the Grasshopper and source of fresh water near Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Smile, strip off, let your hair down, treat yourself to a blessing in the holy waters of the famous spa. Cool!

Áiac xictli in tlaltícpac

One citizen scorns another, Florentine Codex Book 10
One citizen scorns another, Florentine Codex Book 10

Never ‘belly-button’ anyone...

The Náhuatl literally says ‘No-one is a navel or belly-button of the earth’; calling someone by this term might be the equivalent of calling them today a ‘waste of space’.

The message behind the saying is that we should never scorn or undervalue people: they might be wise, prudent, capable and above all, worthy of respect.

Oppa ícuitl quicua

Eating poo, Codex Borgia folio 10
Eating poo, Codex Borgia folio 10

You can’t have your ‘cake’ and eat it?

Some Aztec metaphors are almost too down-to-earth! The Náhuatl refers to someone who gives a gift (food, clothing) to a person and then later wants it back as a ‘double-poo eater’ -

- the idea being that the giver wants to consume again what has already left him or her (from whichever end of the body...); well, that’s one way of ‘pooting’ it!

Noyollo iiztaia, moyollo iiztaia

You could imagine these two newly weds exchanging these words. They have literally just “tied the knot”. When looking at his bride, the groom might have said, Noiolo iiztaia, “My eyes became happy”.
You could imagine these two newly weds exchanging these words. They have literally just “tied the knot”. When looking at his bride, the groom might have said, Noiolo iiztaia, “My eyes became happy”.

My heart becomes white, your heart becomes white

On the subject of happiness... according to the Aztecs, the heart whitened on becoming happy. At first it yearned for it, as if it were thirsty or ravenous, and on seeing the object of its desire, it whitened.

In order to show each other affection when greeting, many modern day Nahuas, descendants of the Aztecs, say the word “pialli”, which means “I carry you in my heart”.

Ixtli, yollotli quitquitinemi

A mother teaches her daughter to weave
A mother teaches her daughter to weave

They begin to take on a face, a heart

This Náhuatl metaphor was used to describe youth and the steps young people took towards adulthood. The Aztecs considered it a special duty to educate their youngsters in the importance of hard work and honesty. The Florentine Codex and the Codex Mendoza (shown) both include sections dedicated to their efforts in this area. The following saying demonstrates how precious and delicate the Aztecs considered childhood to be:-

Xotla cueponi - ‘they grow, they flower’

Sixteenth century Nahua ‘tlacuilos’ (scribes) wrote of children as ‘rich feathers... precious stones’, because they were so important to society.

Ihíio, Itlátol

Look at the scroll that comes from this emperor’s lips. It is blue, the colour of precious stone.
Look at the scroll that comes from this emperor’s lips. It is blue, the colour of precious stone.

His breath, His word

This was a saying used to describe the emperor and the importance of every word that left his lips.

The sentence can also be used as a metaphor for the words used by the emperor to explain his reasoning to his advisors, as well as the speaker to the crowd that is listening.

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: • noxocoyotl strictly means ‘my (youngest) child’
conetl is the word for a child - generally younger than 9 or 10
• to specify son or daughter you must add a specifying word: so cihuaconetl is daughter and oquichconetl is son
• by using pilli instead of conetl you can refer to an older child, and at the same time add the association with ‘noble’. In Nahuatl it would be culturally more valid to add an honorific suffix (-tzin) only to an older son or daughter, so for instance oquichpiltzintli would be ‘honoured son’ (to make it ‘my honoured son’, just add no- as a prefix, so ‘my honoured [older] daughter’ would be nocihuapiltzintli).
We’re aware that there are complications though when specifying ‘my...’ in the singular, and we’re getting out of our depth here, so this can only be a guide, and we need a native speaker to answer all your questions!
Mexicolore replies: We’ll give this a go, though we’re not experts!
-tzin is a reverential suffix
-huan is a plural possessive suffix
pilli means ‘noble’, but when you add the reverential -tzin it always means (honoured) children
• the plural of -tzin is -tzitzin
xocoyotl means (literally ‘youngest’) child
• the plural would be xocoyomeh (youngest) children.
One way to write ‘(They are) my (honoured) children’ would be nopiltzitzinhuan
If you want to use xocoyotl, we reckon it should be noxocoyomehtzitzinhuan. But we would go for the first option - shorter and probably more classic(al)!
We’re afraid we have no knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet so can’t help on that one...
Mexicolore replies: Camelia García from San Miguel Canoa, nr. Puebla, offers the following: Xictemo huan ticahciz.
Mexicolore replies: Scott Hadley, from San Miguel Canoa offers this: yohyolitzin, roughly equivalent to ‘little by little’.
Mexicolore replies: Excellent and intriguing point. It’s worth pointing out that, though most Náhuatl dictionaries translate xictli as ‘navel’, Thelma D. Sullivan (‘one of the foremost Nahuatl scholars of the twentieth century’) in ‘A Scattering of Jades’ translates the whole phrase as ‘No-one on earth is an umbilical cord’ - ie, something that is thrown away. She also points to a play on words, with xictli as ‘umbilical cord’ and xictia as ‘to look down upon someone’.
Mexicolore replies: See below, Crystal...
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson recommends as the best translation of ‘power’ or ‘strength’ chicahualot(tl).
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson tells us that there’s isn’t a term in Nahuatl for ‘weather’ as a concept: Nahuatl speakers simply make every-day statements such as tlahuel tonal (‘It’s hot’) and tlahuel cehua (‘It’s cold’). Makes sense really!
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson provides this answer: nochicahualo tonelhuayo itech quiza, which means ‘My strength comes [from] our root’.
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson provides this answer for ‘everything happens for a reason’: nochi mochihua ipampa ce tlamantli nozo occe. Sorry, we forgot to ask about the other bit!
Mexicolore replies: Scott Hadley from San Miguel Canoa, nr. Puebla, offers the following: tetlazotlaliztli noyecnemiliz ca. Thanks for your kind comments!
Mexicolore replies: Whilst we can’t answer your question directly, we picked up this gem recently at a Nahuatl workhop in London (thanks to Dr. Patrick Johansson): the Nahuas apparently referred to the language of the Spanish invaders as coyoltlahtolli - ‘the language of coyotes’!
Mexicolore replies: Scott Hadley from San Miguel Canoa, nr Puebla offers this:-
icuauh nemiliztli.
Mexicolore replies: Anna, please see answer no. 50 above...
Mexicolore replies: Scott Hadley from San Miguel Canoa, nr Puebla offers this:-
itztic chichiualayotl (a typical Nahuatl compound literally meaning “frozen milk”).
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, David, for your help again!
Mexicolore replies: Cheers, David, thank you for your help!
Mexicolore replies: David Bowles has kindly provided an answer (above)...
Mexicolore replies: Wish we could help here - haven’t yet found any! It does occur to us that as your tattoos match, and as the Aztecs placed a particularly high (even sacred) value on the idea of twins (see, eg, the double-headed serpent mosaic in the British Museum), you might consider using the name Quetzalcóatl (‘Precious Twin’); as you probably know, cóatl has morphed today into the iconic Mexican word cuate (partner or buddy). Just an idea...
Mexicolore replies: Prof. John Sullivan of IDIEZ, Zacatecas tells us that the phrase to use (for ‘I am Aztec’) would simply be niaztecatl. Dr. Patrick Johansson adds the following: to stress ‘I am Mexica’, you would say nehuetl ni mexica. Or ‘We are Mexica’ timexicatlacah. Hope this helps...
Mexicolore replies: We like this one, from the Cantares Mexicanos:-
I have come, oh our friends,
with necklaces I gird you,
with macaw feathers I adorn you...
With gold I paint,
with quivering quetzal feathers,
I surround friendship...
With a circle of songs,
I give myself up to the community.

- Lovely and poetic, it encapsulates the ideals of Mexica education. Our source for this - and there are plenty more where this came from! - is ‘The Aztec Image of Self and Society’ by Miguel León-Portilla (University of Utah Press, 1992)
Mexicolore replies: Please see David Bowles’s reply above (comment no. 44)
Mexicolore replies: Raúl Macuil Martínez provides the following answer: nochipa nochi in xiuitl (‘Forever, every year’). Sorry this is late in coming!
Mexicolore replies: This may or may not be suitable for you but it emphasizes the transitory nature of life in the Mexica worldview:-
By chance does one truly live on earth?
Not forever on earth: here only briefly.
Although it may be jade, it breaks,
although it may be gold, it wears out,
although it may be quetzal plumage, it tears apart,
not forever on earth; only briefly are we here.

(‘Cantares Mexicanos’, fol. 17r)
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson provides this answer:-
Tetlazotlaliztli zan tetepitzin tetzahuitl. This last word means miracle or mystery.
Mexicolore replies: Raúl Macuil Martínez provides the following: Notlazoueytatli ica in iluicatl. Sorry this is so late in coming!
Mexicolore replies: Thank you, Professor Maffie, for adding this extra layer of meaning to the original phrase...
Mexicolore replies: Raúl Macuil Martínez provides the following: Teuatzin san ce. Sorry this is very late in coming!
Mexicolore replies: Raúl Macuil Martínez provides the following: tinech tlazotla ica cualli (‘Amame por lo bueno’ in Spanish). Sorry this is very late in coming!
Mexicolore replies: Great question! These seemingly simple slogans carry cultural baggage with them: for starters, there is no term for ‘liberty’ in Náhuatl; and many Nahua women spent/spend many hours in the day working on their knees (at the grinding stone, etc.). So our hunch would be that they wouldn’t have had straightforward Náhuatl translations at all...
Further info: our good friend Pablo Rogelio Navarrete, who lives and teaches near Puebla, has written: ‘Historians say that Tierra Y Libertad appears only in documents issued by the Flores Magón brothers and in the declarations that Zapata issued in Náhuatl he signed Tierra Libertad y Justicia in Spanish; ie, he never used the slogan Tierra y Libertad and never in Náhuatl...’
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson provides this answer:-
Amitla quipanahuia tetlazotlaliztli itechpa chicahuac.
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Edward. We consulted another Náhuatl expert, John Bierhorst, on this one. He told us -
in = the
otin = roads
ihuan = and
in = the
tonaltin = days
nican = here
tzonquica = end
’Here end the roads and the days.’
Mexicolore replies: José Abraham Méndez Hernández, a historian and native Náhuatl speaker from Puebla has kindly provided this translation:-
ni mitz tlazohtla huan nicpia noyolo (I love you and I have you in my heart).
Mexicolore replies: José Abraham Méndez Hernández, a historian and native Náhuatl speaker from Puebla has kindly provided these translations:-
ocachi nimotlazohtla (I love myself more)
amo Nicon nechnamiqui (Don’t disrespect me, or similar: the word ‘respect’ is hard to translate, so this is the equivalent of the Mexican Spanish phrase no me encares)
chicahualiztli (strength).
Sorry for the delay in getting these translated!
Mexicolore replies: Good question, José - this intrigues us too. But remember, the world age of Nahui Ollin HASN’T finished: we’re still living in it today! It’s the fifth, last but still current one, and, according to the Mexica, if we (get it into and) keep it in balance (!) it need never end...
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson gives the following translation for ‘I’ll always love you’ -
Nochipa nimitztlazotlaz.
Mexicolore replies: John Sullivan of IDIEZ writes: ‘In modern Huastecan Náhuatl there are 3 possibilities:-
1. Timomelahuazceh is used only between men, and it means something like, “Nos vemos después”
2. Teipanyoc (the “n” isn’t pronounced) means, “Hasta luego”
3. Moztlayoc, “Hasta mañana”.’
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson provides this answer:-
In yoliztli ca ce temictli, zan miquizpantiízah.
Mexicolore replies: Dr. Patrick Johansson provides this answer:-
Toteouh ihuen(tzin).
Mexicolore replies: John Sullivan of IDIEZ writes: ‘In Modern Huastecan [Náhuatl] you could say, Tlazcamati pampa cualli intlacaquih.’
Mexicolore replies: Feel free! None of us have actually studied Náhuatl! Ian learned his very basic conversational Náhuatl living as a volunteer in the village of San Isidro Buensuceso, near Puebla - a village with one of the highest rates of native speakers of Náhuatl in the country.
Mexicolore replies: According to our experts at IDIEZ, ‘This isn’t the kind of thing the Aztecs would have said’. Sorry we can’t help on this one!
Mexicolore replies: John Sullivan of IDIEZ explains: ‘Tlazohtla is the verb for love in older Nahuatl and it can refer to love of people, animals or things. But you can‘t say it is comparable to the reverential form of older English. In Nahuatl you could say Nimitznotlazohtlalia. That would be, I love you, in the reverential form. But Nahuatl reverentials don‘t show reverence or respect to specific people, rather they elevate to tone of a conversation to that of reverentiality or respect.’
A big thank-you to John for all his help here.
Mexicolore replies: The closest in Náhuatl would be: ‘You wounded me but you didn’t beat me’ - Tinechcocoh huan axcanah tinechtlanqui.
Mexicolore replies: John Sullivan of IDIEZ writes: tlazohtla is not used in Modern Huastecan Nahuatl. A shortened form, tlaztla, is used but it means, celar a alguien. So nimitznequi is what you want for “I love you.” Remember ni- and mitz- are prefixes, so you would never write “ni mitz nequi.” There is another verb, icnelia, “to have strong feelings for a person or an animal; or to be overprotective of someone or something.” I guess you could translate it as “to care very much for someone.” Niquicnelia nochocho, “I care very much for my younger sibling.”
Mexicolore replies: Sorry for the delay in responding to these!
• ’Please do not worry yourself’ would be Axcanah ximocuezo. John Sullivan of IDIEZ adds: ‘cuezoa is the word in Modern Nahuatl for “to sadden or worry someone.” So “Don’t be worried” would be Axcanah ximocuezo. The Classical Nahuatl word for “worry” was tequipachoa, but this is not used with the same sense in Modern Huastecan Nahuatl.
• ‘I want to thank you for this meal you have given me’ is Nicnequi nimitztlazcamatiliz ica ni tlacualiztli tlen tinechmacac.

A few more (José Abraham Méndez Hernández, a historian and native Náhuatl speaker from Puebla has kindly provided these translations:-)
nechmaca chicahualiztli (Give me strength)
tiahue cuitihue in tlacual (Let’s get some food)
huelica, huelicazquini (both = should)
occaquini tenimicelia (You should listen to me)
¿cano yazquia? (Where should I go?)
¿tlen nicchihuaz? (What will I do?)
nochtin cate motecoztoque (ti tlatoltitoque) (We’re all connected, linked together)
xitlachia ocachine in ompa tezcatlipoca (Look beyond the smoking mirror)
xinechecana axan (Guide me today)
mahuiztic motlahtol, ni nen paqui tlenon nechtlapoih (Your words are wonderful, I’m happy you told me them).
Mexicolore replies: ‘I love you’ in (classical) Náhuatl is Nimitztlazohtla. Hope this helps...
But see note above from IDIEZ!
Mexicolore replies: Sorry for the delay, José! Here’s your answer:-
Zan ta tihueliz ticpatla monemiliz
Mexicolore replies: Yohual(li) is certainly darkness. Tlahuil(li) I think means (flash)light or torch - perhaps not what you had in mind? Of course ‘tonatiuh’ (sun) also means day in modern Náhuatl; perhaps this comes closer to your idea?
Mexicolore replies: Well, we asked Dr. Frances Karttunen (on our Panel of Experts) for advice on this, and she wrote back with the following caution:-

’One might think “light and dark” is universal, but from the point of view of Nahuatl, one needs to know whether one is thinking in terms of colors or of night and day, and if the latter, then with respect to each of them the time. For instance, one would most likely pair dawn/first light with the darkness of night. Also, X and Y constructions are un-Nahuatl., but leaving out the conjunction, one is left with X,Y. In this kind of difrasismo, it would be odd for the two elements to be opposites. Instead they should be either close synonyms or two characteristic aspects of an entity to which one is referring.’

Clearly Náhuatl has a totally different set of cultural reference points...
Mexicolore replies: In principle, yes, if we can! It may take a while as we will need to consult experts higher up than us...
Mexicolore replies: One of our Panel of Experts, Frances Karttunen, replies: The answer is easy. There is no different form. The Nahuatl phrase xotla cueponi does not have a personal subject: no “they” or “she”. The phrase means that blooming happens and compares the process to shining, burning, exploding. A very intense image.
The ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’, and the ‘cue’ is pronounced ‘kwe’. Hope this helps, and good luck with the tattoo! Why not send us a photo when it’s done...?