FW: nahuatl.info for nahuatl info?

John F. Schwaller schwallr at mrs.umn.edu
Thu Jan 9 14:44:46 UTC 2003

Date: Thu, 9 Jan 2003 02:31:59 -0600
Subject: Re: FW: nahuatl.info for nahuatl info?
From: "Ricardo J. Salvador" <salvador at iastate.edu>
To: Nahuat-L Discussion List <nahuat-L at mrs.umn.edu>

On Sunday, January 6, 2003, at 20:29:43 -800 (PST) , nahuatl at nahuatl.info

>We are poor graduate students, using a few Nahuatl coursework
>resources, and our own money to maintain the nahuatl.info website.  We are
>certainly NO EXPERTS - in fact, we are beginner students ourselves (as if we
>need to inform you of this).  Mainly, we offer Nahuatl study in an online
>We don't have the money to take expensive Nahuatl courses at any U.S.
>university - and we certainly don't have the money to travel to Mexico
>and take real Nahuatl classes.


Understood. Since it is clear you have a genuine interest in learning
Nahuatl, I am assuming you care about learning the language properly.
I think this is particularly important since you seek to guide others
in their learning and because an ultimate objective of yours is to
communicate with native speakers of the language.

Let me offer some concrete suggestions for improvement:

(1) You've gathered a number of resources from around the web as
support materials for your lessons. These consist primarily of word
lists and the like. I must tell you directly that these sites are
spurious and you shouldn't rely on them. It is particularly
unnecessary for you to be limited in this regard because there is no
shortage of good learning materials for Nahuatl. I want to point you
to better resources, so I won't dwell on the various shortcomings of
the web links that I've seen on your site, but I do want to give you
one example so that you know what I mean. The NativeWeb link offers a
particularly nonsensical list of words that it claims are from the
"Nahuatl language of the Mayas of Mexico," and then proceeds to indeed
offer an unholy mix of Mayan and Nahuatl words (with all sorts of
egregious errors to boot). The same site then continues to expound on
the "Zapotec language of the Mayas of Mexico"...

When the Nahuat-L discussion list began it was common for some
subscribers to join seeking support for learning the language. I put
together a list of resources then to guide such folk, and your
predicament (as described above), has spurred me to update it. Though
I must still update many of the print materials given in this list,
I've augmented it with a number of excellent, substantive resources
that are now available online, including dictionaries, grammars, texts
and lessons. It is these low-cost materials that I think will be of
greatest value to you. Imagine the situation that would obtain if
well-meaning beginners with plenty of zeal and energy all referred to
one another and reinforced inaccurate information. You've managed to
do this (and I'll suggest my explanation for this before I'm done),
but you can do better, by referring to authoritative materials. So,
just for you, the updated list of resources for learning Nahuatl is at:


One huge limitation that you will have in your efforts is the lack of
opportunity to hear the language and to gradually build your listening
ability and conversational skills. You clearly know this. Imagine my
surprise when I discovered that in your media files you have a
recording that I put online many years ago to illustrate the 20-day
calendar round. You've edited this and added English gloss plus a
repetition of the Nahuatl (I take it the English speaker is you.)
Being frank, the pronunciation that you are offering as a guide for
learners needs to be improved. EVERY sound that is key to proper
Nahuatl is terribly mispronounced, in spite of the fact that you're
following a recorded version of those sounds. I think I know why.
These are unfamiliar and unknown sounds to you and you simply need to
hear the sounds often and to understand how they are produced. I'm
confident that with a little explanation of this and a lot of
opportunity to hear the language you can improve markedly. This is a
component of language learning that will be particularly difficult to
supply electronically, and perhaps a number of us on the list could
work toward making dialogues and various expressions available online,
but that will take the cooperation of native speakers (who of course
must agree to this) and a bit of concerted effort. In the meantime,
following are a few sustained monologues in Nahuatl, spoken by by
native speakers (these should be more useful than the ones you
currently offer and they should help you and your companions perfect
your hearing sense for the language):

(a) Mexico's Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) has some short clips
of native speakers online. I'll link you to some that are a bit
comical but still very useful. The premise of one of INI's programs
(=Que lengua hablas?) is that an audio database of native speakers =
all of Mexico's languages will be useful to distinguish how individual
dialects differ from one another.  Of course, for these to be useful
then the speakers must be induced to pronounce the same utterances.
The idea is to prompt the speaker to nod their head if they understand
the language, then shake hands, and so on, and of course I smile when
I listen to them because I think "well.. what if the person doesn't
understand... ;-). But these ARE very instructive:

[You'll need RealPlayer to hear these]:

    - Mexicano from Puebla's Sierra Norte:


    -Mexicano from Tlapa, Guerrero:


    -Mexicano from Tancanhuiz, San Luis Potos=ED:


    -Mexicano from Zongolica, Veracruz:


    -Mexicanero from the mountains of Nayarit:


(b) Jonathan Amith has placed the following recording online, of
Inocencio Diaz of Amayaltepec, Guerrero describing the curative powers
of a little plant that is related to shepherd's purse:


You can follow the Nahuatl and English renditions as Mr. Diaz speaks,
at this address:


Listen to this as often as you can. Note not only the words
themselves, but the way sentences are constructed and how certain
things are repeated. Also notice how much Spanish is mixed in with
contemporary Nahuatl (incidentally, on Nahuatl.info you claim very few
people currently speak Classic Nahuatl. In fact, by definition, nobody
does so today. This is a label used to refer to the language as it was
spoken in the central valley of Mexico at the time of European

>What we do have is pride and a desire to learn what has been
>robbed from us(our language and culture) as the result of colonial
>invaders.  We're
>not out to impress Amerikan academic institutions, rather - we aim to be
>able to visit Nahuatl speaking communities - and to communicate with our
>people - whether that communication is poorly structured or not - at least we
>are trying to do something positive for our beloved culture.

(2) Bear with me, but this is where I'll posit why I think you've
gravitated toward poor and unreliable materials when in fact there is
plenty of excellent material available, even for those with limited
ability to pay. First let me give you this encouragement: the history,
experience, culture and cumulative achievements of the people of
Mesoamerica are sufficiently impressive as they are, without need to
embellish them, idealize them and otherwise romanticize them. Let me
quote you a passage that you may find interesting. The speaker is
Tlacotzin, who was the Cihuacaotl ("she-serpent" or counselor) of
Cuauhtemoctzin, the last legitimate Tlatoani (Lord or "eloquent
speaker") of the Mexica. The Cihuacoatl was a powerful personage in
the Mexica theocracy. The year is 1521, the location is Coyoacan (now
one of Mexico City's 'burbs) and the situation is that Cortez has just
consummated his military victory and is now concerned to consolidate
his power and obtain as much booty as possible. He has brought
Cuauhtemoc and his entourage before him and has asked them for an
explanation of the political divisions and lordships of the land he
has just conquered. We know this from the recounting of the chronicler
Fernando Alva Ixtlilx=F3chitl ("De la venida de los espa=F1oles y
principios de la ley evang=E9lica.") The she-serpent speaks (my

"Oh my prince, hear you god the little that I have to say. I, the
mexicatl, had no land, no fields to plant, when I came here amid the
tepanecas and the people of Xochimillco, among the people of
Aculhuacan and those of Chalco; they did have fields to plant, land
did they have. And with arrows and shields I made myself lord of the
others, and I appropriated their planting fields and their lands. Just
as you have done, who have come with arrows and with shields to
appropriate all of our cities. And as you came here from somewhere
else, so did I, the mexicatl, I came to appropriate the land with
arrows and shields."

It is the history of human beings that whenever a more technologically
powerful people encounter weaker people, they appropriate their
resources and either eliminate or absorb the original peoples. It is
what the Mexica did to most of the city-states of Mesoamerica, it is
what Zapotecs endeavored to do over 800 years of their imperial
history, it is what the powerful Mayan city-states endeavored to do to
each other over 1,200 years, what the Spaniards did to the Mexica,
what the English and Germans did with the aborigines of North America,
what the Romans did to the original Spaniards and ad infinitum going
back to what the Cro-Magnon did to the Neanderthals.

As you know, the Spaniards were not gods and a small handful of them
with blunderbusses, horses and ships certainly did not defeat
Mesoamerica's most powerful army. What happened was that Mesoamerican
nations that had been invaded and in some cases enslaved by the Mexica
allied strategically with the invaders and rose against them. On the
Zapotec page, I've a modest gateway to Mesoamerican resources on the
web, and this is my summary of the Mexica, who had only been on the
scene as a major power for about 200 years at the time of European
contact (compare that with approximately 3,000 years of continuous
cultural development in Mesoamerica prior to this) and were rightly
seen as barbaric interlopers and pretenders by the city-states with
greater time-depth and cultural continuity in place:

"Aztec" Culture: They were the great economic and military oppressors
of Mesoamerica at the time the Spanish arrived. Their tyranny was
avenged by the majority of Mesoamerican nations, who allied themselves
with the Spaniards against the Mexica. Rarely in history has the
destruction and vanquishment of a great civilization by its conquerors
been so complete. Even so, their impact on the whole of Mesoamerica
was indelible, and in order to understand modern M=E9xico, its language,
many of its customs and its placenames, it is necessary to understand
the Mexica nation.=20

I applaud your self-awareness and motivation to assess the world of
knowledge critically, but I'd like to point out that it is not useful,
and in fact it is dangerous, to mythologize about matters of history.
One key lesson of history is that some of our collective peaks of evil
have come when individual peoples by their lineage or race perceive
that they are privileged over others. I may interpret incorrectly, but
from your site it seems to me that if not you, many of the people
associated with your site are perilously close to the boundary that
separates healthy interest in personal heritage and the very attitude
you decry above, the certitude of cultural superiority. In fact, I
know that a typical response to observations such as these goes along
the lines that that is historical propaganda. For example, in your
chat session on slavery, you have someone who just knows the Mexica
did not have slaves, and the support for the argument is something
like "I like my myth, it makes me happy; your facts do not support my
myth; therefore, your facts can't be right." And so it is natural that
you have gravitated toward the "educational offerings" of people with
similar outlooks. I don't mean to lecture, but to make clear that you
can count on plenty of support here for your honest interest and
diligence in learning Nahuatl, but to the extent that you wish to lard
that effort with crusading zeal for an image of the virtuous but
victimized Mexica I think you'll find yourself irritated and (at least
speaking for myself) you'll tend to frustrate others on here. But now
to some more positive vibrations...

>I have your analytical dictionary - and I try to read from it
>everyday - as well as the other Nahuatl resources that I have.  So please,
>offer any
>helpful resources or references to us, rather than your criticism.

I am sure you can appreciate, even though you've criticized "Amerikan"
academics above, the work that went into assembling the Analytical
Dictionary. The superb quality of this work, which you state is
valuable to you, is owing to the fact that its author is a rigorous
linguist and academic. You've also benefited from the work of Joe
Campbell, as I see you've found some of the trilingual word lists that
he and Fritz Schwaller have made available through the Nahuatl Home
Page and that you have linked them from Nahuatl.info. In addition,
consider the time that Joe took to provide you a detailed list of
improvements to increase the accuracy and trustworthiness of the
material you're purveying online. You're fortunate to have generated
that type of interest and support. And it is on the life work of
people like Fran and Joe, toward improving our collective
understanding of Nahuatl, that I want to end this note. You'll note
that one of the resources listed on the page for "Learning Nahuatl" is
the Campbell and Karttunen "Foundation Course in Nahuatl Grammar" (two
volunes). I highly recommend this to you and your students as an
accessible, methodical and effective resource for serious learners.
Since you've mentioned that you have economic limitations, I offer
that if you don't already have a copy of this for your tlahtolcalli, I
will be delighted to provide one for you.

Ricardo J. Salvador          Voice: 515.294.9595

1126 Agronomy Hall         Telefax: 515.294.8146

Iowa State University        e-mail: salvador at iastate.edu

Ames, IA 50011-1010       WWW: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~rjsalvad

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