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Notes on Nahuatl orthography
graphic: Verb conjugation, Carochi (1645)

The pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Nahuatl-speaking ones, did not have an alphabet, properly speaking; they used different kinds of more-or-less ideographic writing. (For further information about pre-Columbian writing see Kevin Callahan's web pages on Mesoamerican writing systems.)


The Nahuatl orthographies developed in the sixteenth century and since then have, naturally enough, usually been based on the Spanish writing system. For the majority of the Nahuatl phonemes, the correspondences were unproblematic, but for others there have been differing customs among those who have written Nahuatl.


These notes are by no means exhaustive, especially in regard to the writings of classical and colonial times; they only deal with some of the more common variations.

Vowels

(See the Nahuatl vowel chart)

The short vowels have always been written as in Spanish (a, e, i, o). The vowel /o/ is sometimes written u when its pronunciation approaches that of Spanish /u/. Length has typically gone unrepresented. When it has been written, the most common convention has probably been the use of the macron (ā, ē, ī, ō). We follow that convention in these electronic pages. Sometimes, for typographical reasons, the circumflex (â, ê, î, ô) or the dieresis (ä, ë, ï, ö) has been used instead, and sometimes double vowels have been written (aa, ee, ii, oo).

Consonants

(See the Nahuatl consonant chart)

Phoneme Orthographic Forms

p, t, l (r), n, m

Written as in Spanish (and English); p, t, l, r, n, m.

ƛ [tƚ]

tl

¢ [ts]

tz or ts (e.g.: tzicatl or tsicatl)

č [tʃ] or [tš]

ch

š

x

s

s, z, ç; and, when preceding a front vowel, c (e.g.: se, ze, çe, ce represent /se/)

k

c when preceding a back vowel or a consonant, and qu when preceding a front vowel (e.g.: can and quen are /kan/ and /ken/), or k in all cases.

kw

cu (or qu when preceding a back vowel), cuh (or uhc) in syllable final position; or ku; or kw.
Note that cuh is not a syllable. Accordingly, although an incorrect trisyllabic pronunciation is common, tecuhtli 'lord' has only two syllables CVC.CV /tekw.tƚi/.

y

y (sometimes i)

w

hu (in syllable initial position) and uh (in syllable final position) (e.g.: Huauhtla is /wawtla/). Or, w in all cases, or u in all cases. Also written as b or v when labial. Also written as o in older documents and names. (For example, Oaxaca is /waxakan/.)

ʔ or h
("saltillo")

Not written, or written as h, j, ', or a grave accent mark (e.g.: à is //).


A number of Nahuatl languages permit a sequence of /l/ + /l/, which, naturally enough, is written ll. It appears in words such as calli 'house' or tlaxcalli 'tortilla'. This is not at all like the Spanish ll, which in Mexico is generally pronounced [y]; rather it is a long /l/ sound. In some varieties of Nahuatl the length of this [ll] has been lost, and it is pronounced and written as l: e.g. cali 'house' and tlaxcali 'tortilla'. In other varieties it is pronounced [hl] (and typically written jl) e.g. cajli 'house' and tlaxcajli 'tortilla'.


--David Tuggy

For more information:


The graphic at the top of this page is a facsimile of a portion of Horacio Carochi's 1645 Arte de la lengua mexicana.