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Nahuatl language

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Nahuatl is a language spoken by many of the native people, including the Aztecs, in what is now Mexico. It is still the most important Indian language in the country. Its 1.5 million speakers live mainly in the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Guerrero. Almost all but the most elderly speakers of Nahuatl are bilingual, having a working knowledge of the Spanish language. In general, modern Nahuatl shows strong influences from Spanish.

Nahuatl belongs to the Uto-Aztecan[?] subgroup of North American Indian languages, which also includes the languages spoken by the Comanche, Pima[?], Shoshone[?], Toltecs and other tribes of western North America. It is an agglutinative, flexive[?] language.

Nahuatl words adopted into English include "tomato," "chocolate," "avocado," "coyote," and "ocelot."

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictographs supplemented with a few ideograms. This was adequate for keeping such records as genealogies, astronomical information, and tribute lists, but could not represent a full vocabulary of spoken language in the way that the writing systems of the old world or of the Mayan civilization do. The Spanish introduced the Roman script and recorded a large body of Aztec prose and poetry. Thus, Nahuatl written in Roman script is pronounced as if it were Spanish with a few exceptions.

  • Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U)
  • U does not occur as an independent vowel.
  • X is pronounced like English SH.
  • LL is pronounced like a long L.
  • TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
    • TL is, in linguistic terms, a lateral affricate. This is a type of sound not found in European languages but commonly found in North and Central American indigenous languages.
  • CU and UC are both pronounced KW.
  • HU and UH are both pronounced W.
  • H without an adjacent U represents a glottal stop (as in "kitten" in some dialects or "go over")
  • Z is pronounced like English S.

Since the time of the Spanish conquest the spelling of Nahuatl has varied considerably.

  • U and O both represent the sound of O.
  • U alone may replace UH or HU to represent the sound of W.
  • H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written.
  • Vowel length may or may not be marked.
  • Y and I may both represent the vowel I.
  • I may replace the consonant Y.
  • The letter Ç may replace Z to represent the sound of S.

Recent American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look more like American English. Thus:

  • W may replace HU or UH for the sound of W.
  • K may replace QU/C for the sound of K.
  • S may replace Z/Ç for the sound of S.

In some unusual cases, non-ASCII symbols are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds.



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