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ยกXijyeko nawatl! โ€“ 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. The orthography that I will present here is the one settled on at the Fourth Interstate Workshop for Normalizing the Writing of the Nahuatl Language, and presented in this document (in Spanish).

Fortunately for the learner, the sounds of Nahuatl are very straightforward, and if you speak Spanish, you are in luck, as it contains only a few sounds foreign to that language. Let’s start with the vowels.

Nahuatl only has four vowels: a, e, i, o. These are pronounced mostly like their Spanish counterparts: “ah,” “eh”, “ee”, and “oh.” If you listen to spoken Nahuatl, you might hear an “oo” sound, but this is simply another form of /o/, and it makes no difference if you use [o] or [u], as they are the same sound in the ears of a Nahuatl speaker.

That was easy! Now for some consonants. I’ll go through them by type–not that you have to know the phonological terms, but it’s just a handy way to organize them. The stops are p, t, k, ku. These are just like Spanish, and similar to English. If you pronounce them like P, T, and K in English, you will do well. As for /ku/, this is just like the “qu” in “quandry” or “quick”–just a K W sound.

The fricatives are s, x, j. S is pronounced as in English, X is like the English “sh” sound, and J is like the English H (think “jalapeรฑo”). m, n are the nasals, no surprises there. l, y, w are pronounced as in English, except that L has an allophone [ษฌ]โ€”but there’s no need to learn what that means unless you’re linguistically inclined. Now for the affricates. They are tl, ts, ch. “Ch” and “ts” are pretty self-explanatory, but “tl” is a combination you might want to practice. Technically, it is a voiceless alveolar lateral affricate, not just T + L, although you could probably get by with pronouncing it like that. I’m afraid I don’t have any tips on how to pronounce it (it would be like explaining to someone how to roll their Rs), but just keep in mind that it never constitutes a syllable by itself (for example, “nawatl” is pronounced NAH-wahtl, not NAH-wat-l). My best advice is just to listen to some native speakers, since that’s the best way to learn pronunciation.

One more thing to note is stress. Unlike some languages, Nahuatl is very predictable in this respect. Almost always (yes, there are a few exceptions), stress falls on the next-to-last syllable. If otherwise, I write the word using a stress mark as in Spanish, but exceptions are very rare.

So there you have it! Here are a few words for you to practice on:

tlaskamati tla-ska-MA-tee [tอกษฌaskaหˆmati] “thank you”
nimitsmakas nee-meets-MAH-kahss [nimitsหˆmakas] “I will give it to you”
tlaxkali tlahsh-KAH-lee [tอกษฌaสƒหˆkali] “tortilla”
moneki mo-NEH-kee [moหˆnษ›ki] “it is necessary”
ajwiyak ah-HWEE-yahk [aหˆhwijak] “delicious”

Hope you enjoyed this post! Let me know if you have any questions, and the next post will be about numbers. ยกTlaskamati!

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