Maria Sosińska

The presence of the Nahuatl language and its current significance in the
culture of Mexico

Nahuatl is the ancient language of the Aztecs, and it has been spoken in central Mexico
since at least the seventh century CE. Although the Spanish conquest led to the fall of the Aztec
Empire and caused a demographic collapse of the native population, Nahuatl managed to remain
present in the Mesoamerian societies. This essay will investigate the history and the presence of
Nahuatl, focusing on the regions of Mexico. It will also discuss its current significance in the
Mexican culture, as well as its current challenges and prospects for the future.

Nahuatl is a language belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family. Despite an initial
dispute over its origin, in late 20th century linguists agreed that the Uto-Aztecan language family
has its roots in the southwestern part of United States and northwestern Mexico1. Speakers of the
Proto-Nahuan language migrated to Mesoamerica around AD 5002. Before reaching the Mexican
Plateau, pre-Nahuan groups are believed to have spent a period of time in contact with other pre-
colombian languages, such as the Corachol, Cora and Huichol of northwestern Mexico. However, it
was not until the beginning of the 7th century that Nahuatl really began to crystalize. First Nahuatl
speakers were probably the people of the Toltec culture of Tula. By the 11th century, Nahuatl was
dominant in the Valley of Mexico and far beyond, with settlements including Azcapotzalco,
Colhuacan and Cholula.
One of the last migrations to the Valley of Mexico were the Mexica people, also known as
the Aztecs. They settled on an island in the Lake Texcoco were they founded their capital
Tenochtitlan. The Mexicas soon began to subjugate surrounding tribes. Their political and linguistic
influence rapidly extended into Central America, making Nahuatl a lingua franca among merchants
and elites in Mesoamerica3. With the growth of Tenochtitlan, the city became the largest urban
center in Central America, attracting speakers of Nahuatl from diverse regions. This eventually gave
birth to an urban form of Nahuatl with traits from many dialects. This urbanized variety of
Tenochtitlan is what came to be known as Classical Nahuatl.
Immediately after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, Nahuatl was displaced as the

1 T. Kaufman, The history of the Nawa language group from the earliest times to the sixteenth century, Norton, New
York 2001, p. 21.
2 J. Justeson, Historical linguistics and pre-columbian Mesoamerica, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 2009,
p. 34.
3 R. M. Carmack, The Quiché Mayas of Utatlán: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom, Norman,
University of Oklahoma 1981, p. 142–143.

colonization and christianization in this region4. the Europeans got a possibility to get to know the Nahua culture better and see it from a completely different perspective5. A great deal of autonomy was permitted by the Spanish in the local administrations of indigenous towns during this period. Furthermore. 43. the Florentine Codex provided explanation of the cultural origins of all the words. 8 Ibidem. The Florentine Codex. Cambridge University Press. which was an attempt to surpress the independence rebellions that were constantly growing in Latin America8. economics and the history of the Aztec peoplen but also a very precise dictionary. 72.. calling for elimination of the indigenous languages in the Spanish colonies. p. The Mesoamerian Indian Languages.. op. King Philip II's decision was significant in the history of Nahuatl in Mexico. translating the Nahuatl vocabulary into Spanish. 7 J. Historical linguistics. . cit. This was because the king believed that opening up for Nahuatl will facilitate the communication. It was also during this period that the famous Florentine Codex was written by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. The new succession of the government did not make any 4 J. Justeson. However. By learning and translating Nahuatl. This was to help friars and others to learn Nahuatl and to understand the cultural context of the language. p. Nicholson. because it allowed and inspired Spanish missionaries to study and document the language. The codex has been described as “one of the most remarkable accounts of a non-Western culture ever composed”6. After the war. banning the use of any language other than Spanish throughout the Spanish Empire. 6 H. 5 Ibidem. Cambridge 1983. and in many Nahuatl speaking towns the language was the de facto administrative language both in writing and speech. Colorado 2002. the alphabetic writing of Nahuatl disappeared as an official medium for documentation and communication. during the 16th and 17th centuries. 68.dominant regional language. p. 81. the linguistic situation in Mesoamerica remained relatively stable. p. this approach changed radically when Charles II issued a decree in 1696. However. originally titled as ”"Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva España" (The universal history of the things of New Spain) was an ethnographic research study documenting the culture. Fray Bernardino De Sahagún: A Spanish Missionary in New Spain 1529-1590.. This excluded Classical Nahuatl as a literary language. B. what mainly devastated the Nahuatl language was the extremely high mortality of Native Americans in Mesoamerica during the colonial period. Furthermore.. In 1570 King Philip II of Spain decreed that Nahuatl should become the official language of the colonies of New Spain. Even after Mexico gained its independence in 1821 Nahuatl continued to be surpressed. Spanish missionaries would even teach Nahuatl to Indians living as far south as Honduras and El Salvador7. University of Colorado Press. The situation worsened even more when another decree was issued in 1770. Until the ending of the 17th century. Classical Nahuatl was used as a literary language. Suárez. society. p. 51. Thus.

The map below shows the number of Nahuatl speakers per state in Mexico according to the 7th General Census of Population and Housing of INEGI in the year of 200011: By looking at this map. Significant amount of Nahuatl speakers are also found in the State of Mexico. p. p. this proportion had fallen to 1. 10 Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas. Olko. Veracruz. with smaller communities in Michoacán and Durango. Geografia e Informática. Perfil sociodemográfica de la populación hablante de náhuatl. and Guerrero. 11 Ibidem. one can clearly see how the largest concentrations of Nahuatl speakers are mainly found in the states were the Aztec Empire ruled before the Spanish conquest. 6. 68. The situation of Nahuatl looks much worse in states lcoated further away . Colony. Hidalgo. Nahuatl was spoken by over 5% of the population. One hundred years later. Aguascalientes. Morelos. p. A Brief History of the Nahuatl Language. These regions include the states of Puebla. Mexico 2000. However. and so the writing stopped to link Nahua people and their communities to each other within and between regions where the language was spoken9. Colloquia humanistica. and Globalization. increasing the differences between regional linguistic variants. . Nahuatl speaking communities exist today in all states in 9 J. Warsaw 2013. and the Federal District.during the 20th century Nahuatl became extinct in the states of Jalisco and Colima. Empire.49%10.important advances toward integrating indigenous communities into the rest of the Mexican society. San Luis Potosí. In 1895. 63. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda. This caused the communities to became more and more isolated from each other.

Studies have also shown that there are more females than males among the Nahuatl monolinguals. Nahuatl is today spoken by approximately 1. The states of Guerrero and Hidalgo have the highest rates of monolingual Nahuatl speakers relative to the total Nahuatl speaking population. and the Mexican government policies began to open up to indigenous and linguistic rights. speaking both Nahuatl and Spanish12. 12 Ibidem. as well as developments of accords in the international rights arena. 13 J. This is because of internal migration within the country. 15 Ibidem. p. respectively. As a result. eventually led to legislative reforms. p 25.6%. today there is no group of Nahuatl speakers having attained general literacy in Nahuatl.. This means that in most states more than 95% of the Nahuatl speaking population are bilingual. Some dialects have already become extinct within the last few decades of the 20th century14. cit. Females make up about two thirds of the total number. Berlin 2002. Domestic pressures such as such indigenous social movements and political agitation by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. while their literacy rate in Spanish also remains much lower than the national average.000 of them are monolingual. 92. Language death in Central Mexico: The decline of Spanish-Nahuatl bilingualism and the new bilingual maintenance programs. and discouraging the use of any pre-colombian languages13. According to the 2000 census issued by INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía). Rolstad. and Nahuatl managed to pass on to the next generation. bilingual and intercultural education15. The 20th century was a period of big surpression of Nahuatl. Decentralized government agencies like National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) and Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (INALI) were created. educational policies in Mexico focused on hispanicization (sometimes also called ”castellanización”) of the indigenous communities. including Nahuatl. For most other states the percentage of monolinguals among the speakers is less than 5%. Suárez.2% and 22. It was not until the 1990's that the approach to Nahuatl saw radical changes. at 24. The Bilingual Review. This law also granted access to compulsory. which corresponds to 14.9% people speaking Nahuatl only. as "national languages" by the federal Ley General de Derechos Lingüísticos de los Pueblos Indígenas (General Law on the Language Rights of the Indigenous Peoples) in 2003 . . This meant teaching merely Spanish to all Mexican students.Mexico. A particularily significant moment was the recognition of all the country's indigenous languages. Until around the mid 1980's. the amount of speakers is now significantly smaller.. Around 198. 14 K. This gave the indigenous people the right to use their languages in all spheres of public and private life. p 33. 71. op. p.. The Mesoamerian .. Although the hispanicization did not succeed completely. with the aim of promoting and protecting indigenous communities and their languages.45 million people.

the intellectuals encouraged Mexicans to speak in Nahuatl in order to forge a new national identity. This awereness and sense of unity has been crucial is several culturas aspects. which are Nahuatl words or parts of the Nahuatl grammar.. p.. 301. The Balsas Nahuas are known for their succesfull production and marketing of different crafts. This fact has abided for a strong sense of ethnolinguistic unity. rather than destroying it. Mexican Spanish has incorporated many so called ”náhuatlismos”. one of the most marginalized and poor states of the country. Idioms such as overuse of the diminutives and reverential language have been proven by researchers to be of Mexica influence. London 2006. this enablines Balsas Nahuas to generate an considerable economic wealth.g. the language still holds a significant position in the Mexican culture. 18 Ibidem. a Spanish word for an animal. Nahuatl also had and has an influence on the Mexican culture. . An example of this is the fact that after the Mexican Revolution. Constitutional Reform and the Conflicting Meanings of Multiculturalism. the indigenous organizations reacted stating that that ”they would even fight with their lives 16 J. 305. p. Oxford Press. Given the relatively low agricultural productivity of the region of Guerrero. plant. 57. When the Mexican government spoke about activating this project. words ending with the absolutive suffix "-tl" in Nahuatl. Good. thought to be difficult for Spanish speakers to pronounce at the time of colonization. Thus. p. The commerce within Balsas's communities themselves mainly occurs in Nahuatl19. Also. An example of this are the Balsas Nahuas. This was for instance the case of the successful movement of resistance against the construction of the long-term planned hydroelectric San Tetelcingo dam in the state of Guerrero. Apart from Nahuatl's influence on Spanish. an indigenous community living along the Balsas river basin in the state of Guerrero. p. Mexico 1988. with some of these developing further into political ones. The Mesoamerian . food or home appliance widely used in Mexico ending with "-te" is highly likely to have a Nahuatl origin16. based on pride in a mythologized version of Mexico’s indigenous past17. One of the obvious examples is its influence on the Spanish language. 41. 19 C.. preventing internal Mexicano dialectal fragmentation and creating an awareness of Mexicano instrumental and ethnic values. Haciendo la Lucha. evolved in Spanish into a "-te" ending (e. 17 P. cit. Although the popularity of Nahuatl is decreasing. Also. Fondo de Cultura Económica. Mexicano communities feel more connected and united not only to their indigenous past. Suárez. op. selling them in several locations all over the world. Guillermo. but also to eachother18.. A New Mexican Nationalism? Indigenous Rights. The continuous production of crafts for the tourist market has been a successful integration of Nahuas’ cultural legacy. Arte y Comercio Nahuas de Guerrero. axolotl = ajolote). by speaking and promoting Nahuatl.

.. Indigenous people must have access to these kind of materials if they are to be educated for successful participation in the rest of the society. the Consejo de Pueblos Nahuas del Alto Balsas (CPNAB). including the Mexican government. The protest showed to be succefull. 22 M. Nahuatl plays an important role in the way that the indigenous communities are perceived by the rest of Mexico. seek to avoid widespread anti-indigenous discrimination by declining to self-identify as Nahua in INEGI's census. Linguapax. Statistical information recorded about the Nahuas deals only with speakers of the Nahuatl language. still active to date. This has also encouraged a number of minority groups within different nation states to fight for their human and linguistic rights. separate language. 24. its future is full of challeges. 21 Ibidem. 98. p. . cit. though bilingual in Nahuatl and Spanish.. 23 J. which is stronly increased by the fact that they can communicate in their own.. This type of reinvention of ethnic identity plays therefore a crucial role in vindicating modern basic communities demands. maintenance and development in Mexico: the case of the Nahuatl language. Farfán. The government does not categorize its citizens by maintain their ancestral territory and impede the construction of the Tetelcingo dam”20. Despite various projects to keep Nahuatl alive as a language. This is caused by the negative stereotype of indigenous people which is present in Mexico until today. The condition of Native North American languages: The need for realistic assessment and action. such as the right to ancestral territory and education in the mother tongue. but by language22. They are however available in Spanish and in all the major world languages. New York 1998. The biggest threat to Nahuatl is the fact that many of its speakers simply prefer to speak in Spanish. The threat of displacement by the construction of the dam has also privileged and paradoxically toughened the awareness of Mexicano's severability. Although the Mexican bilingual education has grown recently. This is not always correct. Furthermore. Language revitalization. Barcelona 2002. Olko. some Nahuas. An example of this is the fact that Nahuatl and other indigenous languages lack the huge and crucial repository of works about any topic to be found in libraries and online. op. International Journal of the Sociology of Language. especially when taking under consideration the constantly growing globalization and multiculturalism in the world23. This fact is showing the strong connection that exists in these indigenous connections. It does therefore not include the unknown numbers of people of Nahua ethnicity that have decided to abandon the language and now speak only Spanish. p. Empire. frequently due to practical reasons. as the INEGI's decennial census contains biased information. This led to the conformation of a local opposing organization.. its goal of replacing 20 J. and for the first time in Mexican history an indigenous movement against the Mexican State project of constructing a dam had succeeded21. p. 6. p. A. Lastly. Krauss. Colony. 7.

which rises serious concerns. By being able to communicate in their own language. Lastly. both in speach and in writing. . the presence of Nahuatl in Mexico is still quite vivid in the central regions of the country. However. Thus. but are trained as technicians who are supposed to implement the ready-made material to their students. McCarty. not all Nahua speak the Classical Nahuatl. bilingual teachers are sometimes given jobs in communities that speak variants and even languages different from their own as there is lack of teachers that would speak in those variants. Although the survival of Nahuatl as a whole is not imminently endangered. but also an isolation from the non-indigenous population of Mexico. and whether or not they will have the will to keep their ancient language alive. p. they become useless. the progress towards institutionalizing Nahuatl and securing linguistic rights for its speakers has grown significantly throughout the last thirty years. The materials and curricula are produced almost exclusively by the federal Secretary of Education. 84. However.indigenous languages with Spanish has not changed24. p. Apart from all the work that is being put in order to promote Nahuatl. the ethnolinguistic features enhance a cultural unity between the Nahuas. and the teachers are not encouraged to participate in innovating curriculum development and research in the language spoken by their students. There is a large amount of dialects and variants that strongly differ from each other. These issues cause many school to encourge Spanish among the students and to stop speaking their native language at school. as textbooks are only produced for a limited amount of their variants25. This system is particularly harmful for indigenous languages. Moreover. The language has an important influence in the culture of Mexico when shaping the national identity and cultural divisions in the Mexican society. 25 Ibidem. the only people that can actually decide about Nahuatl's future are the Nahua people themselves. 24 T. the survival of its different dialects certainly is. Schooling. New York 1998. This is to a big extent caused by the fact that the Mexican elementary education is highly centralized. 86. the pace of this progress might be too slow. and American Indian languages. in situations where these materials are distributed in communities that speak another variant. In conclusion. International Journal of the Sociology of Language. The preparation of bilingual teachers mostly occurs in Spanish. resistance. Traditionally individual teachers do not participate in curriculum development.