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Iron Horse, Iron Bird, And Other Entertaining Nahuatl Words

Sometimes I forget that Nahuatl is a Native American language. After all, the people I speak it with are not feathered Indian chiefs riding the plains, nor are they ancient Aztecs who read from pictographic codices and make human sacrifices. They’re just normal, modern people who happen to speak a language that has been handed down to them from time immemorial by their ancestors on this same continent.

But there are a few words that do make me think of it as an “Indian” language. Among them are teposkawayo, tepostototl, and teposkamanali. These are all compound words, and the first element is the word tepostli, which means “iron” or “metal.” You may recognize kawayo as a loan word from the Spanish caballo (horse), and thus you have the Nahuatl word for “car” or “vehicle.” Very clever, eh?

The other two are similar. Tototl means “bird,” so naturally tepostototl is their word for airplane. Finally, kamanali means “word,” “speech,” or “language,” and adding tepostli to the front creates the term they use to refer to a radio.

I always think it’s nice when speakers of various languages coin new words by combining old ones, instead of just borrowing them from mainstream languages. Granted, Nahuatl has its share of Spanish loanwords, but these few iron words demonstrate the language’s flexibility in describing new things in this modern era, technology that Nezahualcoyotl would never have dreamed of.

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