numbers of Nahuatl speakers?

kammler at kammler at
Wed May 16 00:08:06 UTC 2001

The total number of speakers as well as regional numbers will probably
never be
exact because: who is a "speaker" (se below)?
INI's decision to classify people by the language the head of the household
speaks is a major step forward in estimating the population of ethnic
groups in
Mexico. Sometime in the future the linguistic criterion will probably not
be so
relevant anymore as more and more household tend to use Spanish with their
children leading to an irreversible language erosion. These children will
understand nahuatl as it is spoken in the community but will in turn not
use it
with their own children at all who will be monolingual in Spanish. The number
of speakers of Nahuatl is under these circumstances only not dwindling because
the birth rates in those communities that stick to the language are very high.
Thus, nahuatl loses territory whereas the number of speakers will stagnate
still we don't know how many they are).
In fact, in Guerrero there are prominent political leaders that claim to be
nahuas without having any substantial knowledge of the language (they come
communities nahuas that have ceased to use the language about 50 years
ago). In
statistics they will surely be counted as nahuas without being "speakers".
There are probably still many speakers that deny being one. On the other hand
it is becoming prestigious within certain non-indigenous sections of
society to
claim fluency in one of the "ancestral" languages, above all Nahuatl. The
will at any rate not assess those people's claim of fluency.
The statistics are also misleading in the assumption that "nahuas" are an
ethnic group. My personal observation is that nahuas from different regions
recognise their linguistic proximity without atributing much importance to it.
(Of course their are exceptions, especially among intellectuals of nahua
origin.) In conversation with each other they would use Spanish as it can be
quite a challenge to understand the other's dialect. An overarching "identity"
is more likely to be found under "indígena" or "campesino" or in some
cases "artesano".
Even in couples where the spouses come from villages within the same region
(again in Guerrero) will often speak exclusively in Spanish within their
houshold - the minor linguistic differences between them will often be
given as
one of the reasons not teach their children nahuatl. Whose Nahuatl should they
learn? Likewise the children of the current director of the INI, who is a
from San Juan Acatlán, Gro., are not learning their paternal language.
After all: What does a global number of speakers tell us about the
language? In
the case of Nahuatl there might be some unique regional variants with ten
elderly speakers left as well as some variants with 25.000 spekeras in all age
groups with a high percentage of monolinguals. They all are counted as
just my 2 cents...
ta môstla

John Frederick Schwaller                             schwallr at
Associate Provost                                        406-243-4722
The University of Montana                           FAX 406-243-5937

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