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Article suitable for older students

La Escritura de los Mexica by Hanns J. Prem

Good introductions to Mexica writing

Each teacher and student of the Aztecs (Mexica) will have their own favourites when it comes to clear and simple introductions to their writing system - or ‘systems’, since they learned from the other/earlier cultures of Mesoamerica. Here are a few of our own humble suggestions, prompted by a question from an enquirer in Barcelona (go to the ‘Ask Us’ pages to see the original question). We hope others - particularly scholars and teachers - will provide more rigorous guidance...! (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Nahuatl Syllabary of Alfonso Lacadena (colour version from Wikipedia ‘La Escritura de los Aztecs’)
Pic 1: The Nahuatl Syllabary of Alfonso Lacadena (colour version from Wikipedia ‘La Escritura de los Aztecs’) (Click on image to enlarge)

This is NOT a guide to good books on Mesoamerican codices - there are plenty of those around. Nor is it a review of scholarly publications on Mexica writing and scripts - these too are abundant. More it is an attempt to offer pointers to clear and well presented entry-level studies that are accessible to (even if not necessarily written for) the lay person. We include works in English and Spanish. it is a short, eclectic list, anything but comprehensive. We focus on publications that we as a team have found particularly useful. We hope it makes a useful starting point...
One of the best introductions is the section on Pictographic-Phonetic Writing in Manual Aguilar-Moreno’s superb Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (2006); it includes the Nahuatl Syllabary (table of symbols representing syllables) proposed by the Spanish historian and epigrapher, who died sadly of cancer earlier this year, Alfonso Lacadena (pic 1).

Pic 2: Pages from ‘Atlas Cultural de México: Lingüística’
Pic 2: Pages from ‘Atlas Cultural de México: Lingüística’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Equally useful is the section on Aztec Writing in Marcus Joyce’s copiously illustrated Mesoamerican Writing Systems (1992). Annotated illustrations, we think, are essential; a good example you can see in the main picture (top of page), from the article by Hanns J. Prem La Escritura de los Mexica in the popular archaeology magazine Arqueología Mexicana (Nov-Dec 2004). In a single image from the Codex Boturini the author shows simple examples of glyphs for two people’s names, two place names and a date. But the prize here, in our eyes, goes to the full-colour illustrations in the ‘La escritura mexica’ section of Atlas Cultural de México: Lingüística (1988, coordinator Enrique Florescano), designed to be bold, bright and clear (pic 2).

Pic 3: ‘Para leer La Tira de la Peregrinación’
Pic 3: ‘Para leer La Tira de la Peregrinación’ (Click on image to enlarge)

One Mexican publisher - Ediciones Tecolote - has gone out of its way to produce handy paperback books on a series of codices, designed for younger and ‘novice’ adult readers to find easy and simple to follow. Page by page they take you through a particular codex including the original folio together with carefully researched and specially illustrated glyph-by-glyph explanations. They even include a short cartoon summary at the end! Shown here (pic 3) is Para leer La Tira de la Peregrinación (‘How to read the Codex Boturini’) (2000) by Joaquín Galarza and Krystyna M. Libura.

Pic 4: Examples of place name glyphs from the Codex Mendoza
Pic 4: Examples of place name glyphs from the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks to its ‘Rosetta Stone’ qualities, the Codex Mendoza makes eminent sense as a point of entry - easy to access and many fine commentaries and descriptions of it. In terms of the writing content, the best has to be Berdan’s chapter 7 ‘Glyphic Conventions of the Codex Mendoza’ in Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt (eds.), The Codex Mendoza, Vol. 1 (1992). An example of her clear explanations is shown in pic 4, describing the use of phonetic elements alongside pictograms in drawing place names (yes, Aztec writing was COMPLEX!)
If you’re keen to try leaping in at the deep end, we think you have two kinds of choices: there’s Elizabeth Hill Boone’s glossy Stories in Red and Black (2000), with explanations of ideograms, phonetic referents, place and name signs, dates and time, persons, events and action, even guides to page reading orders. BUT, it’s written by an art historian, not an expert in writing systems. At the other end of the scale, for a hugely authoritative introduction by a world expert, follow the link below to Gordon Whittaker’s The Principles of Nahuatl Writing (pic 5) - but note that, while being beautifully written, it is quite technical and academic!
Finally, follow the link below to the ever-useful website of the NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers, Oaxaca - its page on Writing/Language contains many valuable links.

Pic 5: Excerpt from Gordon Whittaker’s ‘Principles of Nahuatl Writing’
Pic 5: Excerpt from Gordon Whittaker’s ‘Principles of Nahuatl Writing’ (Click on image to enlarge)

NOTE: We’re aware that a) scholars tend to adhere to different ‘schools’ of thought when it comes to Mesoamerican writing systems and that b) some of our recommendations are rather dated now. That’s why we hope others will flag up some good recent resource material...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 31st 2018

emoticon Q. How do you make a book on the Aztec writing system exciting?
A. Make sure the ending’s a real ‘glyph-hanger’!

NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers, Oaxaca, 2015: page on Writing/Language
Professor Gordon Whittaker’s ‘The Principles of Nahuatl Writing’
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