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Classical Nahuatl (also known as Aztec, and simply Nahuatl) is a term used to describe the variants of the Nahuatl language that were spoken in the Valley of Mexicomarker — and central Mexico as a lingua franca — at the time of the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mexico. During the subsequent centuries it was largely displaced by Spanish and evolved into some of the modern Nahuatl dialects in use today (other modern dialects descend more directly from other 16th-century variants.) Although classified as an extinct language, Classical Nahuatl has survived through a multitude of written sources transcribed by Nahuas and Spaniards in the Latin alphabet.


Classical Nahuatl is an Uto-Aztecan language of the Nahuan or Aztecan language. It belongs to the central dialects and is most closely related to the modern dialects of Nahuatl spoken in the valley of Mexico in colonial and modern times. It is probable that the Classical Nahuatl documented by 16th- and 17th-century written sources represents a particularly prestigious sociolect. That is to say, the variety of Nahuatl recorded in these documents is most likely to be more particularly representative of the speech of Aztec nobles (pipiltin), while the commoners (mācehualtin) spoke a somewhat different variety.



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Labial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
central lateral plain labial


Stress generally falls on the penultimate syllable. The one exception is the vocative suffix -e, used only by males, where stress falls on the final syllable, e.g. Cuāuhtlequetzqui (a name, meaning "eagle-warrior"), but Cuāuhtlequetzqué "Hey, Cuauhtlequetzqui!".


Unlike English, which allows up to three consonants to occur at the start or end of words (e.g. sprints), Nahuatl allows only a single consonant at the start or end of a syllable, and up to two consonants word medially across a syllable boundary. Also, there are restrictions on which consonants can occur where.


Writing system

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictographs supplemented with a few ideograms. When needed it also used syllabic equivalences; Father Durán recorded how the tlacuilos could render a prayer in Latin using this system, but it was difficult to use. This writing system was adequate for keeping such records as genealogies, astronomical information, and tribute lists, but could not represent a full vocabulary of spoken language in the way that the writing systems of the Old World or of the Maya civilization's script could.

The Spanish introduced the Roman script, which was then utilized to record a large body of Aztec prose and poetry, a fact which somewhat diminished the devastating loss caused by the burning of thousands of Aztec manuscripts by the Catholic priests (see Nahuatl transcription).

On the Nahuatl edition of Wikipedia, the language is written with a modified version of the Latin alphabet, including four letters with macrons or long vowels: ā, ē, ī, ō. Many other foreign letters such as "b" or "k" are used only in foreign names such as in "Francitlān" (Francemarker).

The 25-letter alphabet is:
a c ch cu e hu i l* m n o p qu t tl tz x y z ā ē ī ō ll* h*
  • "cu" and "hu" are inverted to "uc" and "uh" when occurring at the end of a syllable.
  • These (*) letters have no capital form except in foreign names.
  • "h" is used as saltillo.



Nahuatl literature is extensive (probably the most extensive of all Indigenous languages of the Americas), including a relatively large corpus of poetry (see also Nezahualcoyotl); the Huei tlamahuiçoltica is an excellent early sample of literary Nahuatl.

See also


  1. Ethnologue summary for Classical Nahuatl


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