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Nahuatl Update – Week #12


I realize that I titled this post in such a way that might lead you to believe that I have been posting an update every week. And while I have certainly not done that thus far, I am going to begin this practice, mostly to ensure that I work hard to make sure there is something to report each week.

Yes, it’s week 12 of 17 in my mission to reach a conversational level in the Nahuatl language, and I would say it’s going pretty well. I’m not as far along as I would like, and I will blame that on a responsibility I took on to teach a Bible class on the prophets every Wednesday night. This has been taking up a lot of time, and while I don’t regret the decision, I do wish I had more time to devote to Nahuatl.

Be that as it may, I have been practicing on a regular basis with my Nahuatl-speaking neighbours. I set for myself the rule that at least every other day I will speak in a non-English language (preferably Nahuatl), in a conversation that is more than exchanging pleasantries. I’ve stuck to this, but it may be time to step it up, either by doing it more often, or setting aside time to sit down with native speakers and have an extensive dialogue more often.

I began learning Nahuatl five years ago, and up until this mission, I had just been studying the grammar off and on. As a result, I have a good knowledge of how the language works; I just need to work on proficiency and listening comprehension. Some of my neighbours talk rather fast, and it takes them repeating it a few times before I catch on, but that is just a stage in learning the language鈥擨 remember when I was there with Spanish.

So I have five weeks left to become conversational in Nahuatl, and that also means that in five weeks I will be traveling south to Mexico! I am very excited. It’s one of my favourite parts of the world, and I haven’t been there in two years.

隆Hasta mostla! Nimomachtijtok chikawak.

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.

“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 Potos铆. 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. 隆Ma tiyakaj!

隆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鈥攖here 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 Potos铆.

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