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First London Nahuatl Study Day flyer

First London Náhuatl Study Day and Workshops

On February 7th-8th 2014, two of our team attended the first ever Náhuatl Study Day in London (and the UK, as far as we know) hosted by the Institute of Latin American Studies at Senate House, the initiative of and tutored by Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano (UCL Institute of Archaeology) and Dr. Patrick Johansson (Institute of Historical Research, National University of Mexico)... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Dr. Patrick Johansson gives the inaugural lecture on Náhuatl
Dr. Patrick Johansson gives the inaugural lecture on Náhuatl (Click on image to enlarge)

Both Elizabeth and Patrick are friends and members of our Panel of Experts. Patrick, award-winning scholar and world expert on Náhuatl, has authored several books and journal articles on the language, and gave an illuminating inaugural lecture, entitled ‘The Unconquered Náhuatl Language’. Why this title? Because, as he says, Náhuatl is alive and well - not only still spoken today by some 2 million Mexicans (more than speak Welsh! Náhuatl is Mexico’s second language, after Spanish, in a country where 65 different languages are spoken today) but also a living part of Mexican Spanish, with its countless nahuatlismos...

Some 25 attendees took part in the workshop...
Some 25 attendees took part in the workshop... (Click on image to enlarge)

So extensive was Náhuatl’s reach by the early 16th century that the language was the lingua franca of the Mexica (Aztec) empire, and a nahuatlato quickly became the standard word in colonial Mexico for ‘interpreter’ (of any language). For the Nahuas, unless and until you ate maize (ie had been weaned off the mother’s breast) and spoke Náhuatl, you had yet to become a ‘person’ in this world! This was literally true: if a babe died within its first 2-3 years of life while still not on solid foods, it was not given a funeral, and was ‘sowed’ back into the earth, whence it came...

When we got stuck, (world class) help was always on hand...!
When we got stuck, (world class) help was always on hand...! (Click on image to enlarge)

Náhuatl is at heart an oral, free, highly poetic language, full of metaphors, in which the meaning is often, in Patrick’s words, ‘floating’. To philosophize in Náhuatl is to speculate, to ‘let your heart wander’, and knowledge - tlamati - is to ‘feel’. Truth is literally at or in ‘the root’ of things, and the very word Náhuatl means ‘clear’. Today there are three branches of the language: Náhuatl, Nahuat and Nahual. The numbers speaking these dialects today may actually be underestimated: people may SAY they don’t speak Náhuatl, when they’re actually being shy and modest. Illustrative of this is the legendary Nahua tradition of looking down to the ground, in modesty, before being spoken to - and of waiting for an elder to speak before offering an opinion...
Náhuatl is also a language whose meaning and content often needs to be explored and communicated in visual terms - in much the same way as the Nahua text in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex should be ‘felt’ and conceived of as pictures. ‘No’ for the Nahua could be shown most effectively by pictorial means - the face turned away (without speaking).

Note Mexicolore’s worksheet on the 20 Aztec Calendar Signs (foreground) - one of the Náhuatl Study Day resources
Note Mexicolore’s worksheet on the 20 Aztec Calendar Signs (foreground) - one of the Náhuatl Study Day resources (Click on image to enlarge)

This of course provided the ‘meat’ of the Study Day: being introduced not only to the basics of the Náhuatl language, but also to some of the protocols and nuances involved in interpreting and reading ‘Aztec’ codex imagery. The three speakers, Johansson, Baquedano and Estafanía Yunes (who gave a short but fascinating talk on how Franciscan missionary Pedro de Gante’s 1553 Catechism served as a primer in three languages [Latin, Spanish, Náhuatl] for learning to read) helped us to decode images from several key (early colonial) codices - Boturini, Mendoza (the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for Mesoamerican scripts), Aubin...
Elizabeth pointed out that there is considerable disagreement among scholars (Lacadena, Whittaker, Galarza, Boone, Johansson...) as to how best to analyze Mesoamerican writing systems. Her hope is that next year we will be treated to a two-day workshop based on Gordon Whittaker’s ‘Principles of Náhuatl Writing’. Definitely something to look forward to...!

Congratulations to Elizabeth and Patrick on a pioneering and highly successful day...
Congratulations to Elizabeth and Patrick on a pioneering and highly successful day... (Click on image to enlarge)

We were chuffed that Elizabeth included in the day’s workshop resource sheets our own worksheet on the 20 Aztec Day/Calendar Signs: no. 20 is ‘Alligator/Crocodile’ and we were equally delighted that Patrick’s parting gift to us was how to say in Náhuatl ‘See you later, alligator...’ -
Titottazque, cipactli!

As new Náhuatl study sessions - indeed regular classes - are already being planned, we will of course keep you posted on these exciting developments. See you there!

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 16th 2014

You can download (in colour!) Mexicolore’s sheet of the 20 Aztec Calendar Signs, drawn by Felipe Dávalos, here...

Read about the 2nd. Náhuatl Study Day, 2015!

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