David Tuggy     

How to read 
in Orizaba Nawatl

The orthography most widely used for the Orizaba Nawatl language (ISO code nlv) is based on the proposals of Andrés Hasler (1995) and is described on the SIL-Mexico site. The following comments are based on that orthography, and are adapted for English speakers.

Underlined Nawatl words or phonetic representations are links to recorded pronunciations of them, and green underlined words are links to definitions or explanations.

Pronouncing the letters

Generally, the letters are pronounced as in Spanish, with the exceptions described below.


Nawatl has only four vowels: i, e, a, and o. In all syllables they are pronounced pretty consistently in a way which is close to how they are pronounced in Spanish. Unlike the case in English, they are never reduced to schwa [ə] and are not glides, moving from one vowel sound to another.  i is often like  English “short” i [ɪ], however, and o, especially when long or surrounded by k’s and w’s, may fall between Spanish o and u.

If pronounced as in Spanish the vowels are always understandable. The bad pronunciations in the last column of the chart, labelled “NOT:”, represent ways English speakers might be tempted to pronounce them.

Letter IPA As in: Gloss NOT:
i i, ɪ nikisa ‘I go out’ * [nəˈkʰisə]
e e nikew͎a ‘I bear it’ *[nəˈkʰeʲwə]
a a nikahsi ‘I reach it’ *[nəˈkʰɑsi]
o o, ʊ nikoni ‘I drink it’ *[nəˈkʰoʷni]

Word-final vowels are cut off sharply (clipped, pronounced with a final glottal stop) unless they are followed by h. Normal English pronunciation of final vowels corresponds phonetically to Nawatl Vh; thus the word he as pronounced in English would be written hih in Nawatl.

Contrasting words IPA Gloss
kisa [ˈkisaʔ] ‘he/she/it comes/goes out’
kisah [ˈkisaḁ] ‘they come/go out’
tinehnemi [tɪnehˈnemɪʔ] ‘you (sg.) walk’
tinehnemih [tɪnehˈnemɪɪ̥] ‘we walk’

Vocalic length is very elusive, and is not marked in the orthography. It will be pure chance if you make a distinction and get it right: on the other hand, people will understand you fine if you keep all the vowels about the same length.


Nawatl has 16 consonants (counting r). Some others, like b, d and g, occur occasionally in words borrowed from Spanish, and are pronounced as in Spanish.

As in Spanish (and unlike in English) the stops (p, t, k) are pronounced without aspiration, and t (and often n) is dental rather than alveolar.

Letter IPA As in: Gloss NOT:
p p paki ‘he/she is happy’ *[ˈpʰɑki]
t t tikah ‘you sg. are’ *[ˈtʰɪkə]
k k kikaki ‘he/she hears it’ *[kʰiˈkʰɑki]

s, m, n and y are pronounced much like in English or Spanish. The letter x is used for the sh sound [ʃ] of English. l is a “light” l as in Spanish, not the “dark” l [ɫ] of English. r is a flapped [ɾ] like in Spanish, or like the American English t in pity or tt in ghetto. (It occurs mostly in words borrowed from Spanish.)

h is, as in English, a brief pause during which air can flow freely through the throat and mouth. This includes cases when it is at the end of a syllable, where in English it is typically not pronounced. (It can be quite difficult to hear at the end of a word.) 

h does not occur at the beginning of words except in the case of words borrowed from Spanish. Inconsistently, the h sound in such words, especially proper nouns (names of people or places) is usually spelled, as in Spanish, with the letter J, which is otherwise not used.

(Other Spanish spellings will sometimes appear in borrowed words.)

Letter IPA As in: Gloss NOT:
x ʃ xochitl ‘flower’  
s s sesek ‘cold’  
m m mekatl ‘rope’  
n n, n̪ nakatl ‘meat’  
l l lamatzin ‘old lady’ *[ɫəˈmɑtsin]
r ɾ refreskoh ‘soft drink’ *[ɹiˈfɹeskoʷ]
y j yalla ‘yesterday’  
h h ahaw͎illi
‘he/she arrives’
‘they arrive’
J h Joel

The pronunciation of w varies from town to town and even, to some extent, from speaker to speaker. The two basic pronunciations are (rounded labial) like w in English or (flat labial) like v [ß]. Some speakers differentiate related meanings of certain stems by changing these pronunciations (see the ‘injure/hurt’ and ‘tree/wood’ examples below.)

In some materials, for instance on this page, or in my Lecciones para un curso, w is marked differently [] when the unrounded version is used in the particular town or by the particular person whose speech is being represented.

When either kind of w occurs after another consonant, or at the end of a syllable, it is likely to be voiceless. In this case it will sound like the wh of which (for those who pronounce that word differently from witch), or almost like an f [ɸ]. (Syllable-final w is often pronounced h; in those cases it is written h as well.)

Letter IPA As in: IPA Gloss
w w nechkohkowa
‘it/he/she injures me’
‘very big, big plural’
/ w β nechkokow͎a
‘it/he/she hurts me’
  ɸ iahw͎itz
‘its wing(s)’

There are four phonemes that are written with two letters. ch is the same as in English (or Spanish); phonetically it is a combination of t and ʃ (tsh). ku is pronounced like the qu of English quick. tz is pronounced like ts in tsetse fly.

tl is the most difficult of these four sounds for English speakers to pronounce: the l is completely voiceless [ɬ] and the combination is as quick and unitary as is the of ch. tl is never pronounced as a separate syllable.

Letter IPA As in: Gloss NOT:
ch chilli
‘chile, hot pepper’
ku kualli ‘good’  
tl tlalli
tz ts tzahtzi
‘he/she shouts’
‘there he/she/it comes’

Doubled consonants

Consonants which are written twice are generally pronounced long (though in some towns they are pronounced short, just like single consonants). The most common of these is ll, which occurs in words like kalli ‘house’ or tlaxkalli ‘tortilla’.

Almost always doubled consonants occur where a morpheme ending in the consonant is followed by another morpheme beginning with the same consonant.

When ch or tz is doubled, it is generally pronounced as a long t followed by a single release, though it can also be pronounced and understood as a doubly-released sound.

Doubled letter IPA As in: Gloss
ll kalli
‘corn plant’
nn innaw͎ak ‘in/on/next to them’
pp sappa ‘once, at once’
tt nikitta ‘I see it/him/her’
kk nikkow͎a ‘I buy it’
chch tːʃ / tʃtʃ nechchiw͎ilia ‘he/she/it does it to me’
tztz tːs / tsts mitztzakuilia ‘gets in your way, cuts you off’
w͎w͎ βː nonantzitziw͎w͎an ‘(my dear) ladies’
yy nopayyoh ‘my shawl’

Syllables and accent (stress)


Syllables (except in a few words borrowed from Spanish) never have more than one consonant at the beginning, and one at the end, of a syllable.

Every vowel is in its own syllable. This includes the cases (ia is the most common) where two vowels are written next to each other.

The general rule: Penultimate stress

The accent (stress) falls on the penultimate (next to last) syllable except in the cases mentioned below.

When there are two final vowels, stress falls on the first of them. For instance, niktlalia ‘I place it’.

(Unfortunately, you have to know what a word means, in some cases at least, to be absolutely sure if you are dealing with one of the exceptions below, and therefore where the stress should fall. Nevertheless, the rules will work more than 95% of the time even if you don’t know the meaning.)

Antepenultimate stress

On the following types of words, the stress is antepenultimate on the third-from-last syllable), as long as the word has at least three syllables. (If the word only has two syllables, the stress will be penultimate.)

Words ending in: For example: Gloss:
C-tli or l-li, where -tli/-li is the absolutive suffix. (Usually these are nouns.) tepostli
(a) -tzin-tli (where -tzin is the diminutive/honorific suffix) always has the accent on -tzin.
(b) A few other words with penultimate stress
C-tih, where -tih is the plural suffix. (Usually these are nouns.) maw͎ilantih ‘baskets’
C-ki, where -ki is a preterite singular or a nominalizing/adjectivizing suffix.
     (When words end in V-ki, it is a different suffix.)
‘he/she/it ran/jumped’
‘dead dog’
‘he/she/it fell (hard)’
‘he/she/it should arrive here’
Exception: If a three-syllable verb ending in C-ki starts with o- ‘past tense’ (or y-o- ‘already-past’), it takes penultimate stress. owetzki
‘he/she/it fell’
‘it came to an end, stopped’
‘he/she/it already walked’
C-ko, where -ko is a locative.
     (When words end in V-ko, it is a different suffix.)
‘(on/in) his/her lap’
‘on earth’
‘he/she/it came and fell’

Ultimate stress

A few words have ultimate (last-syllable) stress. Most of them end in -in ‘here, this, hither’ or -on ‘there, that, thither’. Some of these forms are pronounced with ultimate stress in some towns, but penultimate in others.

ihkin ‘thus, in this way’
ihkon   ‘thus, in that way’
(In some towns:)
ihkuakon ‘then, at that time’
amo ‘no, not’
derivatives of amo such as
‘not any more, no longer’

Single-syllable words

Many single syllable words are quasi-clitics. These are usually pronounced with relatively little stress. However, some single-syllable words, including personal pronouns and 1-syllable nouns, do receive fairly strong stress. (The following list of common words in each category is nowhere nearly exhaustive. And the amount of stress a word receives may vary in different contexts.)

The stress of a one syllable word can only be assessed in comparison with the words around it. It is for this reason that more extensive contexts are given in the examples in the following list. The examples are also given a word-for-word gloss in square brackets. ‘3ps’ as used in these glosses means ‘third person singular subject’. When several words are joined together by periods, the grouping of them corresponds to one Nawatl word.

Word Gloss For example:
ma ‘may
Onechillih ma niah.
‘He/she told me to go.’
[3ps.told.me may I.go]
  ok ‘yet, still’ Moneki ok naw͎i ma mohkuilokan.
‘Four people have to sign up yet.’
[it.wants.self yet four may they.write.themselves]
  tla ‘if’ Mach yaskeh tla amo tikintlaxtlawiskeh.
‘They won’t go unless we pay them.’
[not they.will.go if not we.will.pay.them]
  kox ‘whether,
Mach nikmati kox kinekiskeh kiw͎ikaskeh.
‘I don’t know if they will want to buy it.’
[not I.know.it whether they.will.want.it they.will.take.it]
  kan ‘where’ Tikimittas san kan tias.
‘You’ll see them wherever you go.’
[you.will.see.them just where you.will.go]
  yen ‘the X one’ ¿Kalyen mokarro, yen chichiltik o yen kostik?
‘Which is your car, the red one or the yellow one?’
[which.is.it your.car, the.one red or the one yellow?]
  yi ‘already’ Yi kahki n tlakualli.
‘The food’s ready.’
[already it.is the food]
  san ‘just’ Xikimilli n pipiltih makamo san motzatzahtzilikan.
‘Tell the kids to stop shouting at each other.’
[tell.them the children may.not just they.shout.to.self]
  tlen ‘what’ Ok onkah sekin tlen yalla otechmakakeh.
‘There’s still some of what they gave us yesterday.’
[yet there.is some what yesterday they.gave.us]
neh ‘I’ Anmati tlekan neh machok nikwelilia n lima.
‘Who knows why I don’t enjoy the taste of limes any more.’
[not.know why I no.longer I.deliciousize.it the lime]
  teh ‘you sg.’ Mach wel tiktlamamaltis n burroh san teh, Markos.
‘You can’t load the burro by yourself, Mark.’
[not possible you.will.load.it the donkey just you Mark]
  yeh ‘he, she, it’ Machchi ahsikin Lupe, yeh techmanilis n tlaxkalli.
‘Lupe hasn’t come yet, she’s the one who’s going to make tortillas for us.’
[not.yet she.arrives.here Lupe she she.will.flatten.for.us the tortilla]
  yon ‘that one’ Tlen okihtoh yon tlakatl amo melaw͎ak.
‘What that man said is not true.’
[what he.said.it. that.one man not straight]
  atl ‘water’ Techmaka sekitzin atl.
‘Give me some water.’
[you-me.give some.little water]
  etl ‘beans’ N etl poposokatok.
‘The beans are boiling.’
[the bean it.is.bubbling]
  tlitl ‘fire’ Nikik ximotokikan, inaw͎ak n tlitl ankateh anmahkatlimikiskeh.
‘Move over here; you’ll get too hot being there by the fire.’
[by.here move.selves near.it the fire you.are you.will.get.fearfully.hot]
  kech ‘How much?’ ¿Kanah kech ik monemakas?
‘How much do you figure it’ll sell for?’
[about how.much with.it it.will.sell.self]
  no ‘also, too’ Amo san yen metlatl moneki motlantis, tla no n metlapilli.
‘Not just the metate [grindstone] should be roughened, but the metlapil [grinder] too.’
[not just the.one metate it.wants.self it.will.tooth.self if also metlapil]

Odd cases

The verb stem maa ‘hit, fight’ (derived from maka ‘give’), is an unusual case. Probably the best way to analyze it is to say that the two a’s each has its own syllable (which is why it is written as two vowels), but if either is pronounced as stressed, the other will be too. This makes cases that would normally have penultimate stress  on the first a sound like they have ultimate stress. 

kimaa ‘he/she/it hits him/her, fights with him/her’
okimaak ‘he/she/it hit him/her, fought with him/her’
kimaas ‘he/she/it will hit him/her, fight with him/her’
kimaaskeh ‘they will hit him/her, fight with him/her’
kimaaskiah ‘they would have hit him/her, fought with him/her’

The word n ‘the, subordinator, etc.’ is not used in some towns. In others it is pronounced as a brief, unstressed syllabic n []. For instance, n neh ‘I’, n teh ‘you (sg.)’, and so forth. It appears several times in the following sentence (where the inadequacy of ‘the’ as a translation is obvious).

N kuaw͎itl ik chihchitokeh n nekateh n siyahtih, kualli, ok kalani n tikmahmas.
‘The wood that those chairs are made of is good, it still has a good ringing thunk to it if you rap on it.’
[N wood with.it they.are.made N those N chairs, good, yet it.rings N you.will.rap.it]

The voice that is heard pronouncing
the Nawatl words and phrases
is that of Victor Hernández de Jesús,
from the town of Rafael Delgado, Veracruz

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