Náhuatl (pronounced NAH-wah-tuhl) was the language spoken by the Aztec/Mexica, and it is still spoken today by thousands of people, mainly in Central Mexico.
Náhuatl is part of the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the largest Native American linguistic families. The Uto-Aztecan, or Uto-Nahuan, family includes many North American languages such as Comanche, Shoshone, Paiute, as well as Tarahumara, Cora, and Huichol in Mexico. The Nahuatl language probably originated in what is now Southwestern US.
Náhuatl is considered one of the southernmost members of the family and its speakers are believed to have entered Mesoamerica and reached Central Mexico sometimes around AD 400/500, during the Classic period.
According to historical and archaeological sources, the Mexica were among the last of the Náhuatl speakers to migrate from the north and reach Central Mexico.
- Read more about Aztec/Mexica migration and their original homeland, Aztlan.
Náhuatl Distribution under the Aztec/Mexica Empire
With the founding of their capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and the growth of the Aztec/Mexica empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, Náhuatl spread all over Mesoamerica. This language became a lingua franca spoken all over the empire by merchants, soldiers and diplomats, over an area including what is today northern Mexico to Costa Rica, and Lower Central America.
Náhuatl in Colonial Times
After the conquest, many Spanish friars learned Náhuatl as a way to both access the indigenous sources, and therefore know better their traditional beliefs and histories in order to eradicate them, as well as to translate Catholic religious texts and therefore diffuse Catholicism in the indigenous language.
The most extensive source on Náhuatl language is the book written in the mid-16th century, by friar Bernardino de Sahagún called the Historia General de la Nueva España, included in the Florentine Codex. In its 12 books Sahagun and his assistants collected a sort of encyclopedia about the language and culture of the Aztec/Mexica. This text contains parts written both in Spanish and Náhuatl transliterated in latin characters, since Náhuatl used a pictographic writing system.
Náhuatl was a language spoken by thousands of people in Mesoamerica and this culture left the majority of the pre-Hispanic and colonial documents until now survived. Furthermore, many contemporary place namea in Mexico and Central America are the result of a Spanish transliteration of their Náhuatl name (i.e. Mexico, Guatemala). Finally, many Nahuatl words have passed into the English dictionary through Spanish, such as coyote, chocolate, tomato, chili, cacao, avocado and many others.
Dakin, Karen, 2001, Nahuatl, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, vol. 1, edited by David Carrasco, Oxford University Press., pp: 363-365.
AA.VV. 2011, Los Nahua. Cultura Viva, Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. 19, Num. 109 (May-June)