Words That Are Sentences

Mitla Ruina

Languages build words in different ways. English words can be long, but most are short. In some languages, words are almost always just one or two syllables. In Chinantec, most words are one syllable (like ton12 ‘guitar’); in Mixtec, most words are two syllables (like vehe ‘house’). Nahuatl can build very long words that take a whole sentence to translate into English, words like:

otikoninmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisaskiaya

which means: “You (honorable person) were going to up and suddenly cause them to scratch themselves on the left eyeball (but apparently didn’t).”

This long word starts with a relatively short one that can be added to little by little to make bigger and bigger words, as follows (each new part that is added is underlined):

1. ixtololo ‘eyeball’


2. opochixtolololeft eyeball’


3. opochixtololotatakascratch on the left eyeball’


4. kopochixtololotataka ‘He scratches him on the left eyeball.’


5. tikopochixtololotatakaYou scratch him on the left eyeball.’


6. tikopochixtololotatakaltia ‘You cause him to scratch someone else on the left eyeball.’


7. tikmoopochixtololotatakaltilia ‘You (honorable person) cause him to scratch someone on the left eyeball.’


8. tikmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinowa ‘You (honorable person) cause him to scratch himself on the left eyeball.’


9. tikmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisa ‘You (honorable person) suddenly cause him to scratch himself on the left eyeball.’


10. tikmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisas ‘You (honorable person) will suddenly cause him to scratch himself on the left eyeball.’


11. tikmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisaskia ‘You (honorable person) would have suddenly caused him to scratch himself on the left eyeball.’


12. otikmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisaskiaya ‘You (honorable person) were going to suddenly cause him to scratch himself on the left eyeball (but apparently didn’t).’


13. otikinmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisaskiaya ‘You (honorable person) were going to suddenly cause them to scratch themselves on the left eyeball (but apparently didn’t).’


14. otikoninmoopochixtololotatakaltilihtzinotikisaskiaya ‘You (honorable person) were going to up and suddenly cause them to scratch themselves on the left eyeball (but apparently didn’t).’