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“Those Who Speak Nahuatl Are Worth More”

That’s what my Mexican friend said, at least. Add to that the French proverb, “Une personne qui parle deux langues vaut deux personnes,” and I’m on my way to being quite valuable!

At any rate, I’ve got Nahuatl on the brain (a good thing, by the way), and I thought I would explain something that few know about this enigmatic language. You see, it’s actually a bit misleading to refer to Nahuatl as a language, because it is actually a family of closely related but widely varying dialects. Back during the Aztec Empire, Classical Nahuatl was the lingua franca of the meso-American peoples, but after the conquest, Spanish took control, and even though people still spoke Nahuatl, it started to fragment due to its relegation to a local instead of national language. That’s why today we see a great many dialects of Nahuatl scattered across the nation, and some vary to the point of being mutually unintelligible.

Of course the classification of these dialects is somewhat artificial, a thing invented by curious linguists. I have been studying Western Huasteca Nahuatl (NHW), because that’s what they speak in the Huasteca of San Luis Potosí. There is another very closely related dialect to the east, called by the linguists “Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl” (NHE).

When I first started talking to the Nahuatl speakers here in Georgia, I immediately noticed that they didn’t talk quite the same way as I was used to. For example, to say “I don’t know” in NHW, you would say Amo nijmati. However, these folks are from the state of Hidalgo, and they say Ax nijmati. From my studies, I thought that the use of ax instead of amo was a sure sign that these people were speaking the eastern dialect. I was OK with learning a different dialect, although I somewhat dreaded having trouble switching back and forth when I actually went to Mexico. But I am happy to report that upon further conversation, I have discovered that my Hidalgo friends’ language is much more western than eastern.

This only goes to show that those lines linguists draw between dialects are somewhat arbitrary, and certainly not objective. I have a map in one of my Nahuatl books that shows such a line, with a different shade for each dialect, but I imagine it is actually more of a gradient. And in the case of my friends from Hidalgo, their speech uses elements from both dialects.

I hope that didn’t bore you; personally I find it fascinating! Stay tuned for more news from my Nahuatl adventure in the near future.

A New Language Mission: Nahuatl

When I decided to move to Georgia, I knew I wasn’t just moving to another culturally homogeneous southern city. I had been there, and seen all the Koreans and their many Hangul signs along the roads. I fancied myself as moving to a mini Korea, where I could immerse myself in their culture and learn a lot along the way.

I was right, but I also far underestimated the linguistic diversity of this Atlanta suburb. Let me tell you about this place where I live.

When you turn off the main highway through town to get to my apartment complex, you’ll see a shopping center with business names in Korean, Spanish, Chinese, and English. When I walk to work every day, I hear Spanish, and go past signs in Chinese and Korean. But this is only scratching the surface! Go into some of the apartments of the Mexicans who live here, and a whole new linguistic world is revealed. Many of them speak Nahuatl, and others speak Mixtec, Otomi, and various other indigenous Native American languages. Yes, if I was looking for Multilingual U.S.A., I have found it!

But one language at a time, here. When I first got to Georgia, I started learning Korean. Not by talking to the people, but just getting the basics down first, studying on my own. I hadn’t gotten very far when I moved to this apartment, and since I will be returning to Mexico in November, I decided to put Korean on hold for now, and really focus on Nahuatl. My goal is this: to reach a conversational level in Nahuatl by the end of November. I currently speak it very haltingly, and when I hear it, I can only understand a little. “Four months is plenty for a mission of this size,” I thought, for I began this mission a month ago. I thought about asking around to see if anyone knew of anyone who spoke Nahuatl, but I wasn’t very optimistic. “Nahuatl in Georgia? That’s absurd!”

But very soon I found out I was mistaken, and I have just returned from my next door neighbours’ apartment where nearly everyone speaks Nahuatl, with much encouragement, and a promise that I can come by any time and practice!

As you can imagine, I am elated. Just think of the consequences of this fact:

  • I have a very good chance of reaching my mission if I take advantage of the proximity of native speakers to practice with
  • I have a chance to use my interest in the language to build relationships and shine Christ’s light
  • Because I live in a place where Nahuatl is spoken, I can actually add this language to those that I use on a daily basis, and not just whenever I go to Mexico (once or twice a year).

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am really busy right now with preaching, teaching, and website building, but I know I will make time for what’s important to me, and if I’m motivated enough, I can be conversational in Nahuatl by November. ¡Ma tiyakaj!

¡Xijyeko nawatl! – Numbers

I know the previous post in this series was a few months ago, so let me catch you up a little bit. Nahuatl is the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico, being the language of the Aztecs of old. However, it can be somewhat deceiving to refer to it as a language—there are actually a number of different dialects spoken across the country, and all are different from Classical Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec Empire. The dialect I am presenting in this basic tutorial is the Western Huasteca dialect, spoken in the states of Hidalgo and San Luis Potosí.

The previous post was about the alphabet and phonetic system of the language, which is really very simple compared to some languages. If you need to go back and review, feel free to do so, then come back here and let’s learn some numbers. Read More

¡Xijyeko nawatl! – The Alphabet

Welcome to the Nahuatl language! This is to be the first in a series of posts on the basics of Nahuatl; a simple effort to make available what I’ve learned since I started studying this language, as there is relatively little information available on the subject, on or off line. I will begin with the alphabet.

Now, the Aztecs had a writing system in place before the Spaniards arrived in North America, but this was not a true phonetic system, and was mainly used to help the reader along with an oration that had already been memorized. When the Spaniards arrived, they brought with them the Roman alphabet, and it wasn’t long before people started using it to write Nahuatl. It worked surprisingly well, but as Spanish was established as the language of New Spain, it never really caught on, and to this day Nahuatl is primarily an oral language.

But the Roman alphabet still works well with Nahuatl, and in the rare case that it is written, it is done with the Roman alphabet. Read More

Back from Mexico

I have returned from the land of banana trees and iridescent butterflies, the land of the Huastec and Nahuatl-speaking Indians, and I am happy to report that the trip went very well, and that my father and I have returned home safely. If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ll surely know that there’s quite a bit of conflict going on along the border of Mexico right now, and although we did see some drug cartel members along the highway in northern Tamaulipas, we got past unscathed, knowing that God was with us the whole time (although it is rather disturbing to see people with guns in Mexico who are neither military or police). As for the Huasteca Potosina, the area where we spent the week, things are much more peaceful there.

As always, a week was not enough, but I was just thankful that I was able to return there again after two and a half years absence. It was a time of renewing old friendships and making new ones, and I was also able to practice speaking Nahuatl. Most of my attempts at carrying on a conversation ended when the person with whom I was speaking uttered a sentence that went past my ears uncomprehended, and then I would resort to Spanish. I probably could have done better, but I am pleased with my progress, and of course everyone was tickled pink that I was learning their language. The Huastec dialect remains a mystery to me, but as we met a good number of Huastec people on this trip, they endeavoured to teach me some of their language as well. It is a Mayan language, entirely different from Nahuatl, and it has a very unique sound, full of glottal stops and ejective consonants. Read More