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Flyer for the 2nd London Study Day and Workshop on Nahuatl

2nd London Study Day and Workshop on Nahuatl

On February 20th-21st 2015, the Institute of Latin American Studies, London, hosted the 2nd Study Day and Workshop in an exciting series ‘Speaking and Writing Aztec (Nahuatl)’, splendidly organised by Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano (UCL Institute of Archaeology). Following the very successful initial study day in 2014 (link below), led by Dr. Baquedano and Dr. Patrick Johansson (Institute of Historical Research, National University of Mexico) which focused on language, this year’s session - attended by two of our team members - was led by Professor Gordon Whittaker (University of Göttingen) and focused on the Mexica writing system. The theme of the opening lecture and of the Study Day was ‘The Brilliance of Aztec Hieroglyphic Writing’ (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore).

Pic 1: Gordon Whittaker explains a traditional ‘flowery’ Nahuatl expression of friendship
Pic 1: Gordon Whittaker explains a traditional ‘flowery’ Nahuatl expression of friendship (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Brilliance’ was a title carefully chosen by Professor Whittaker to underline his aim of demonstrating the power, resilience, versatility, breadth of expression, eloquence and sheer creativity of the ‘Aztec’ writing system - a far cry from the image it has suffered under for generations of being nothing more than simple ‘picture-writing’. There are often, he showed us most vividly, several subtle layers of meaning to be discovered within it, and plenty of fun to be had exploring it. Through his witty and infectious sense of humour we were given a hint of the capacity of the Mexica tlacuilo (scribe) to indulge in light-hearted amusement while tackling serious subject matter...

Pic 2: Professor Alejandro Madrigal opens the Study Day with an insightful look at the role of interpreters in the Spanish conquest of both Peru and Mexico
Pic 2: Professor Alejandro Madrigal opens the Study Day with an insightful look at the role of interpreters in the Spanish conquest of both Peru and Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s a system with a long and fine pedigree: traces of exactly the same writing tradition have been found at Teotihuacan, gracing it with two millennia of continuous development. Broader and more flexible than the Maya writing system, the Aztec was clearly at the forefront of the independent development of writing - a rare phenomenon in the world - in Mesoamerica, despite the concerted efforts of the Spanish invaders to destroy it (not that they were the only burners of books in the region, it turns out...). Two of the key ‘weapons’ in the Spanish armoury - infectious diseases and the crucial and powerful role of interpreters - was a theme presented most effectively at the start of the Study Day in a scene-setting talk by Professor Alejandro Madrigal, Pro-Provost for the Americas at UCL.

Pic 3: Xiuhcaque, one of the founders of Tenochtitlan; Codex Mendoza, fol. 2r (detail)
Pic 3: Xiuhcaque, one of the founders of Tenochtitlan; Codex Mendoza, fol. 2r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In the precious few Mexica manuscripts that still survive, it’s common to find lists of Aztec names - of people and places. From these we know that Nahua names were commonly written as sentences, such as Tepalecoc (‘He got there with somebody’s help’!) - echoed in the way we name a flower ‘Forget-me-not’. Incidentally, this hints at the possibility - even if we don’t have extant examples - that the Mexica wrote many things down in sentence form, not just names. But how ARE they written? Using (hiero)glyphs, typically ‘attached’ to the named individual via a short black string/line (pic 3). ‘Thanks’ (some are dodgy!) to the Spanish glosses added to the Codex Mendoza (a veritable Rosetta Stone for Aztec books) we’re given the reading of these names. Yet even in ‘simple’ examples - such as the name of one of the ten Mexica leaders who founded Tenochtitlan, Xiuhcaque (‘Person Shod with Turquoise-Coloured Sandals’ or ‘Blue Shoes’ for short - pic 3), we’re presented with a vivid example of how crucial colour is in the Aztec writing system: without it, half of the meaning is immediately lost!

Pic 4: Eagle, cactus, stone: all elements that feature in the naming of the Aztec capital city; Codex Mendoza, fol. 2r (detail)
Pic 4: Eagle, cactus, stone: all elements that feature in the naming of the Aztec capital city; Codex Mendoza, fol. 2r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Now this is where the fun often starts: Aztec glyphs - in common with most world writing systems - incorporate phonetic components or signs (indeed BI-syllabic signs, one of only three such systems in the world, the others being Mesopotamia and Japan); compounds; word signs (logograms); superimpositions; abbreviations (like field notes - to be read back later by the writer); size changes used to vary meaning; and they can even be seen to play an ‘active’ role in the scene being depicted, blending right into the event itself (Whittaker treated us to several delightful examples, including the armadillo who’s clearly engaged in the story unfolding in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, at Ayotochcuitlatlan - ‘Where there is Armadillo Poo’). Nothing, but nothing is purely decorative or redundant. Everything goes, in what Professor Whittaker referred to as an organised ‘free-for-all’ of writing creativity. We are left to try to unwrap the meaning, often layer by layer. We were presented with the intriguing possibility that Tenochtitlan itself was renamed twice, evolving via Tenochco (honouring the legendary founding leader Tenoch) from the original Cuauhnochtitlan (‘Place of the Eagle’s Prickly-Pear Cactus’, referred to in the Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas). Why else would the eagle be so centrally placed in both page and name glyph (pic 4)...?

Pic 5: Studying page 3 of the Codex Xolotl
Pic 5: Studying page 3 of the Codex Xolotl (Click on image to enlarge)

Professor Whittaker continued with a detailed and fascinating look at a single page from the Tetzcocan Codex Xolotl, part of a set of manuscripts dating probably from the 1540s that was studied by the often maligned 16th-century scholar Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl. His interpretations were included in the earliest known versions of his works (some of which are in his own hand) - important primary sources that were part of a collection that for many years was held by the (British & Foreign) Bible Society here in England and which ALMOST ended up being sold at auction last spring. Thankfully these valuable works were bought by the Mexican government, last summer, to rightful acclaim. Thankfully, too, Whittaker was able to make an extensive study of the documents before they were threatened with being sold off to the highest bidder. We all now benefit from his expert research...

Pic 6: Intrigue in the Codex Xolotl!
Pic 6: Intrigue in the Codex Xolotl! (Click on image to enlarge)

Related to other works that have received wider attention in the past - the Mapa Quinatzin, the Mapa Tlotzin, Monarquía Indiana and Anónimo Mexicano - the Codex Xolotl is far more than a map, it is replete with stories of marriages of alliance and devilish intrigue on a grand scale, worthy of any European state at the time! But it DOES also serve as a map (with standard Mesoamerican orientation, East at the top...), and the group took turns to study the large-format copy Whittaker had brought from Germany, looking both for obvious points of reference such as Xochimilco and for individual places of interest (Mexicolore Director Graciela can be seen in pic 7 searching for her native barrio Popotla or ‘Place of Straws’ in Mexico City...)

Pic 7: Gordon guides Graciela to her roots in the Codex Xolotl...
Pic 7: Gordon guides Graciela to her roots in the Codex Xolotl... (Click on image to enlarge)

After a quick sprint over the road during lunch to see the Mexico Gallery in the British Museum, we were thrown into the thick of it, tasked with coming up with English renditions of a set of Nahuatl poems from Momozco Malacachtepec in the Milpa Alta district of greater Mexico City. Despite being given handy vocabularies and plenty of generous guidance from GW, it was, if we’re honest, a bit of a struggle, but a pleasurable one at that. We gained valuable insights into the structure and tradition of Nahuatl itself - to give just one example, ‘a Nahuatl verb is a sentence in itself’, and the key element to look for in coaxing out the meaning of any Nahuatl passage.
The poetic force (maybe we should call this ‘flower power’?) of Nahuatl imagery came across not least in GW’s anecdotal illustration of traditional Nahuatl greetings: passable but perhaps least authentic might be Cualli tonalli (a copy of Buenos días); almost equally unoriginal could be Quen tica (‘how are you?’); tapping a little more into mexicayotl (‘mexicanness’) would be Quen(in) timotlathuilti (‘how has it dawned for you?’). But by far the most elaborately eloquent, and creatively courteous, would be something like Moquetzalizquixochitzetzeloa in icniuhyotl (see pic 1) - ‘Friendship is like a gentle rain of beautiful, sweet-smelling flowers’). Hardly street lingo, but highly cultured. Cool!

Pic 8: Getting poetical...
Pic 8: Getting poetical... (Click on image to enlarge)

A good time was had by all. Moreover, there’s talk of the next Study Day being a supersession, powered by Gordon Whittaker and Patrick Johansson and spread over two full days. Wow! Talk too of a Nahuatl teacher finally taking up residence in London this year; of a hieroglyphic writing revival (think bilingual street signs in Wales) in the Milpa Alta region; of attempts in Guerrero to document traditional Nahuatl; of the granddaddy of Nahuatl studies, Miguel León-Portilla continuing every year to get together with/inspire/enthuse fellow nahuatlatos from every Nahuatl-speaking community in Santa Ana Tlacotenco - ‘where Motecuhzoma’s Nahuatl is spoken’... Brilliant developments in every way.

Special thanks are due to the sterling efforts of Olga Jiménez at ILAS for hosting the event so generously and efficiently.

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 24th 2015

emoticon Q. Which 1950s hit rock song was inspired by the name of an Aztec leader?
A. Blue [suede] Shoes by Elvis Presley...
(Cheers, GW!)

The 1st London Nahuatl Study Day/Workshop, 2014

Institute of Latin American Studies website
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Mexicolore replies: At last we have details! Friday 22nd April 2016 at UCL Institute of Archaeology, London; inaugural lectures start 6 pm. Study Day 10.30 am to 5.30 pm Saturday 23rd. All in room 612. For registration contact e.baquedano@ucl.ac.uk
Mexicolore replies: Plans are definitely afoot for a 3rd Study Day on Saturday April 23rd in central London with an opening talk the evening before, so keep the date free! We still haven’t been given full details...
Mexicolore replies: We’ve heard from Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano that yes, there’s likely to be a third one in March or April 2016: date depends on the availability of Prof. Patrick Johansson... Hope to have more details soon...!