Versión en español

Dr. Miguel León-Portilla
Professor emeritus of UNAM and member of El Colegio Nacional
Prologue to the Nahuatl Dictionary of the northern state of Puebla (translation)

Accompanied by a descriptive grammar, a new dictionary of Nahuatl has been published. It is based on the modern Nahuatl currently spoken in the northern part of the state of Puebla. Note that this variety is very close to the one known as Classical Nahuatl, which is to say, the one spoken in the 16th century. This valuable contribution was authored by Earl Brockway and his wife, Trudy Hershey Brockway, both of the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano [Summer Institute of Linguistics]. Leodegario Santos Valdes, a teacher, made the tremendous contribution that only a native speaker could give. Sr. Santos Valdes is a native of Tlaxpanaloya, in the district of Naupan in Puebla. I recall that the Brockways went to live in Tlaxpanaloya in 1953. They lived there over a period of at least twenty-five years studying the Nahuatl language and preparing materials such as primers, story books and translations of parts of the Bible. The goal of presenting these written materials to the native speakers of that variety of Nahuatl was always in mind. All of this commendable work was accomplished with the assistance of Leodegario Santos Valdes as well as other native speakers of Nahuatl. Some of them are mentioned in the Acknowledgement section of the book. In that same section, gratitude is expressed for the help of another distinguished linguist, Dr. David Tuggy.


I want to clarify the principal characteristics of this dictionary and grammar. The first 266 pages contain hundreds of Nahuatl words as main entries with a translation equivalent in Spanish. The next section lists the Spanish translations followed by the equivalent words in Nahuatl. This section is comprised of 100 pages. It is considerably briefer than the Nahuatl-Spanish section but it is comprehensive enough to serve as an aid to finding the Nahuatl words. The grammar is extremely well constructed and is clear and easy to follow. The final section of the book is a bibliography. In its totality, the dictionary is a model presentation of a modern variety of Nahuatl. In itself and as a contribution to a fuller understanding of this language, the resulting book is highly admirable.


The Brockways describe at the beginning of their book the structure of the dictionary entries. Anyone who carefully reads this descriptive material should be able to understand the wealth of material in each entry. Another outstanding feature is the inclusion of qualifying comments about the sense of the word when used in a given context. Illustrative sentences demonstrate the use of the entry word. This last feature is what gives this publication the characteristics of "an authoritative dictionary", the authorities being those who use the Nahuatl language in their daily lives.


This dictionary is also enriched by a system of cross-references. This means that in the entries for compound words, each root of the compound is noted with the form to look up for the basic information found in its main entry. It should also be noted that synonyms and homonyms are included in some entries and subentries list other words formed with the same root as the word that is the main entry.


I want to address one point which from the perspective of complementary information is of benefit to those who use this dictionary. I refer to the spelling of those nouns whose roots end in the consonant l and have been suffixed with the absolutive morpheme -tli. In the majority of the Nahuatl texts and vocabularies, the spelling of such nouns overtly shows that assimilation has taken place. That is, a double ll is written even though it is pronounced as one single long consonant. Examples include tlal-li, pil-li, mil-li.


The authors of this present dictionary set aside this orthographic convention probably to simplify the pronunciation of these nouns avoiding the problem of some pronouncing them as though the double ll were the elle [y] of Spanish.


While recognizing the practical utility of eliminating one l, it should be noted that to go in this direction is to create a problem especially when presenting compound words. Someone who consults the dictionary and finds in the section for words written with only one l, like cohuili, parasito; tlili, tizne; xali, arena; among many others, would think that the -li is the nominal suffix and therefore, the root of each one respectively would be cohui-, tli- and xa-. That would not explain why, in the corresponding compounds, these roots are written cohuil-, tlil- and xal-. Although I have noted this problem, it is not my intention to criticize valuable work but to contribute to its greater usefulness.


Regarding the grammar that accompanies the dictionary, I will only add that the authors have adapted the idiosyncracies of Nahuatl to the traditional grammar model with great success. They did this to make it easier to consult. One could say that in this grammar, the traditional system functions as a reference tool.


This does not mean that the traditional outline is followed slavishly. The reader will note that some of the first grammars of Nahuatl were arranged according to this pattern. Included are those of Friar Andrés de Olmos (1547), Friar Alonso de Molina (1571), Antonio del Rincón (1595) and Horacio Carochi (1645). One must pay special attention to the singular characteristic of Nahuatl called "frasis" in current discussion. Under the term "frasis" have come to be covered all the peculiarities of Nahuatl morphology and syntax.


Having summarized in this brief fashion the outstanding features of this book, we congratulate the authors and the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano on its publication.


There continues to be great interest in this language that has been the carrier of many literary expressions and continues to be spoken by approximately three million people. This new dictionary is an instrument for plumbing even greater depths of the Nahuatl language through its grammar as well as its rich vocabulary.