Nahuatl language of pre-Columbian Mexico

5. History and development of language

Nahuatl is perhaps best known as the language of the once powerful Aztec Empire. It belongs to the Uto-Aztec language family, which consists of several Indian languages. Nahuatl is the main language of pre-Columbian Mexico, but where did it start? Most linguists today agree that Nahuatl originated in today’s southwestern United States. The speakers of the language moved to central Mexico around the year 500. After a hundred years of presence, Nahuatl became the strongest language in the region and retained that power in the 10th century. Nahuatl speakers spread in central Mexico far into the valley of Mexico and further south to Central America. Trade relations between different regions accepted Nahuatl as the lingua franca of the time. At the same time, the language spread to Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City.

4. Speaker diaspora

When the Spaniards attacked in 1519, Nahuatl lost its place as the dominant language. However, the language did not disappear. The Spanish conquerors made alliances with various Nahuatl speakers who became soldiers for the Spanish expeditions. These alliances, which existed mainly in central, western, and southern Mexico, allowed Nahuatl to expand into northern and southern Mexico. In addition to the military, Christian missionaries also played an important role in the spread of Nahuatl. The colonization of Mexico required the conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity. The missionaries used the help of Nahuatl speakers to achieve this goal. Eventually, the missionaries also learned the language, which helped preserve its use. Today, Nahuatl speakers live north to Durango and southeast of Tabasco. Nearly 1.5 million people still speak the language, of which 14.9% speak only Nahuatl. Women make up the majority of the monolingual population. The states of Hidalgo, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Veracruz have the most nahuatl speakers. Migration routes have even brought Nahuatl to the U.S. states of New York, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

3. Phonological properties and alphabet

In classical Nahuatl the consonants for the lips include the letters mi p. The alveolar consonants are: “n”, “ts”, “t”, “s”, “l” and “tɬ”. “Tʃ”, “ʃ” and “j” are considered palatal consonants, while “k”, “w” and “kw” are velar consonants. Finally, glottis contain consonants: “” ”and“ h ”. For vowels, “i” and “e” are front vowels, “a” are center vowels, and “o” are back vowels. Originally, the Nahuatl language was written in pictograms or ideograms, but this written system was not a complete representation of the entire dictionary. It was mostly a spoken language until the Spanish Inquisition when the Latin alphabet was introduced. The use of this alphabet allowed scholars to write important Aztec stories and poems at a time when the Spaniards were destroying original works. Different dialects influence the phonology and spelling of Nahuatl. Because of these inconsistencies, language teaching is a difficult task, although the Department of Public Education has tried to overcome difficulties by identifying a standardized alphabet.

2. Cultural importance

Colonizers around the world have destroyed thousands of indigenous languages. They also tried to wipe out Nahuatl. The government forced the use of Spanish as the only language because they believed that one language would unite all and promote equality. Fortunately, this attempt was unsuccessful. The Nahuatl language represents the majority of indigenous individuals and characterizes their culture. In 1992, the Mexican government recognized the importance of cultural diversity and committed itself to protecting its expression.

1. Threats

The total native speaker population in Mexico increased between 1970 and 2000. However, the number of nahuatl speakers has declined over the past decade. The loss of indigenous speakers is the result of many factors, including the loss of interest of Mexican youth in preserving Aztec culture. Young people often lose interest in their mother tongue because classical beliefs equate lower-class citizens with the use of their mother tongue. In the case of Nahuatl, classicism and emigration to the U.S. and Mexico City threaten this once dominant language.

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