Author: Annika Ekrem
Nominator: Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo
Course: LING 3220 American Indigenous Languages, Fall 2021
Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztec civilization spoken today by the Nahua people in southern Mexico, has made a surprisingly profound impact on several languages, including English and Spanish. This far-reaching influence can be attributed to its status as a lingua franca in Mesoamerica. Another key factor behind this influence and longevity is the creative and metaphorical nature of Nahuatl word construction, which has allowed speakers to contrive rich, descriptive nouns that bridge the gap from ancient to modern times.
Nahuatl noun construction typically follows a straightforward convention in which complex concepts are built from simpler, preexisting words in the language. These constructions often rely on metaphor, which allows many Nahuatl words to paint a vivid picture of the concepts they describe. Numerous Nahuatl nouns contain components that date back to the ancient ideograms used in the original Aztec writing system. Some of these building blocks include atl ‘water’, calli ‘house’, and tepostli, ‘metal’.
Examples of ancient Aztec ideograms
The impact of Nahuatl on English often goes unnoticed since many Nahuatl loanwords have been adapted into the English sound system. However, by investigating the etymologies of these words, it becomes evident that many names for the flora, fauna, and foods of Mesoamerica have roots in Nahuatl. Take, for instance, the word chocolate. At first, it’s difficult to discern how the word chocolate could have originated from Nahuatl, but upon converting its spelling into the Nahuatl convention and breaking the word down into its smaller morpheme units, a story emerges about the word’s origin:
Originally, chocolate was a thick, unsweetened drink that the Nahua people prepared by mixing ground cacao nibs, chiles, corn, and spices with water. This drink, referred to as ‘bitter water’, eventually evolved into the unmistakable sweetened, solid bars that we consider chocolate today.
An obvious Nahuatl loanword in English is axolotl. These salamanders are native to lakes near Mexico City, the center of what used to be the Aztec empire. The meaning of their name is almost as adorable as the axolotls themselves, as axolotl is derived from atl ‘water’, and the Aztec deity Xolotl, who was often represented as a dog or a monster. Depending on the interpretation of Xolotl, the word axolotl can translate directly to either ‘water dog’ or ‘water monster’ (Watson, 1938).
A captive axolotl
A third example of a Nahuatl word used commonly in English is chipotle, which has been popularized by the Mexican grill of the same name. This Nahuatl word can be deconstructed into chīlli ‘chile’, and pōctli ‘smoke/smoked’, describing a smoked chile pepper, or in colloquial English, a famous restaurant chain.
A sign for Chipotle Mexican Grill™ brandishing the namesake smoked pepper
More English words that originated in Nahuatl include coyote, ocelot, tomato, chile, sapote, avocado, and chia.
Nahuatl loanwords are also partly responsible for Mexican Spanish having multiple words for the same concepts. In many cases, one form of a word can be traced directly from Nahuatl. For instance, Mexican Spanish has two words for owl: búho and tecolote. Tecolote is derived from the Nahuatl word tecolotl. Similarly, the term elote, meaning corn, is derived from Nahuatl elotl, which refers to fresh corn before it is dried and converted into maiz.
Other Spanish words adopted from Nahuatl follow a similar loan process to the English examples, such as the word papalote from papalotl, or butterfly, or the word cacahuate from tlācacahuatl, meaning peanut but literally translating to ‘earth bean’ (Silver and Miller, 1997).
More Spanish words that originated in Nahuatl include mapache ‘raccoon’, chicle ‘gum’, molcajete ‘mortar and pestle’, chile, zapote, aguacate ‘avocado’, guacamole, and mole ‘sauce’, among hundreds of others.
The flexible metaphorical nature of Nahuatl word construction allows speakers to create neologisms for new concepts in the language instead of borrowing words from other languages, helping Nahuatl to adapt to a rapidly evolving world (Hadley 2021). Nahuatl neologisms generally follow the same template as older words like xocolātl and axolotl, but many of these new constructions center around the concept of metal, especially for metallic inventions. Take the word airplane, for example. Nahuatl speakers have devised multiple compound neologisms to describe airplanes:
Similar to airplanes, trains can also be described through an animal-centered metaphor or more directly by characterizing their behavior:
The inventive, poetic word generation of Nahuatl makes this language impressive and versatile. From forming a substantial unseen portion of English and Spanish vocabulary to adapting to the challenges of an increasingly oppressive world, this native language has not only survived but has made a significant impact on the very languages that constrain it in modern times.
Header image created by Annika Ekrem
Hadley, Scott. “How Nahuatl Uses Compound Words to Adapt to an Ever-Changing World.” Mexicolore: Bringing Mexico and the Aztecs to Life in Schools and the Community, 3 July 2021, https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/language/how-nahuatl-adapts-to-chang....
Olko, Justyna, and John Sullivan. “Toward a Comprehensive Model for Nahuatl Language Research and Revitalization.” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, vol. 40, 2014, p. 369., https://doi.org/10.3765/bls.v40i0.3149. Silver, Shirley, and Wick R. Miller. American Indian Languages: Cultural and Social Contexts. University of Arizona Press, 1997.
Sullivan, Thelma D. “Characteristics of the Nahuatl Language.” Thelma D. Sullivan's Compendium of Nahuatl Grammar, edited by Wick R. Miller and Karen Dakin, translated by Neville Styles, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1988, pp. 1–44.
“University of Oregon Online Nahuatl Dictionary.” Edited by Stephanie Wood, Welcome to the Nahuatl Dictionary! | Nahuatl Dictionary, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2020, https://nahuatl.uoregon.edu/content/welcome-nahuatl-dictionary.
Watson, George. “Nahuatl Words in American English.” American Speech, vol. 13, no. 2, 1938, p. 108., https://doi.org/10.2307/451954.