Newbie questions.

Ricardo J. Salvador salvador at
Thu Jan 16 21:08:48 UTC 2003

On Thursday, January 16, 2003, at 01:32  PM, Alexander Wallace wrote:

> I would like to learn Classical Nahuatl, but, is that possible? (Is
> there
> enough material to learn and carry on a conversation with anotherone
> who
> learns the same?)
> If one learns a dialect, which would be the closest to clasical
> nahuatl? Which
> one would be the one spoken by more people?
> If one learns classical or any other dialect of nahuatl, would it be
> possible
> to comunicate with someone that speaks another dialect?

Hello Alexander,

Sure you can learn classical Nahuatl. There are plenty of materials and
scholarship to support that learning. Learning to SPEAK classical
Nahuatl will be a more equivocal exercise, since we have no living
speakers to either facilitate your learning or provide a standard for
pronunciation, but your fundamental question is whether learning the
classical language would help you understand present-day speakers. I
would say that as long as you're not learning any specific dialect,
then learning classical Nahuatl would certainly give you the foundation
needed to quickly acquire a number of contemporary dialects.

Since you know Spanish, one source for classical Nahuatl grammar and
several texts that you may find useful is Llave del Nahuatl, by Angel
Maria Garibay Kintana. It is available from PorrĂșa Hnos. for $60 pesos
or $6.38 USD plus shipping. See:

One way of thinking about what you propose is to apply the same
question to English. Go back 500 years and you're in Elizabethan times.
You're asking the equivalent of whether you can learn Elizabethan
English and whether other English speakers would be able to understand
you. Since you seem to be interested in this primarily for the
exercise, the following may not be relevant to you, but I think the
best setting for learning a language is via immersion among its
speakers. That is no shattering insight, but if you are writing from
central Mexico you would certainly have the opportunity of doing that
in any number of places.

Some time back another subscriber asked questions in a similar vein and
I quote that discussion below. Some of the content is a bit dated, but
it addresses much of what you've asked.

> From: salvador at (Ricardo J. Salvador)
> Date: Mon Sep 30, 1996  11:01:50  AM US/Central
> To: nahuat-l at
> Subject: Re: ?nahuatl's alleged musical qualities
> jacob.baltuch at (Jacob Baltuch) writes:
>> 1. are there any _tapes_ for nawatl? it's easy to come up with lots of
>>   written materials but so far i haven't seen any audio, which to me
>>   is the most important when learning a foreign language (esp. when
>>   beginning to learn one)
> There are no systematic recordings of Nahuatl that are available
> through commercial channels, as far as I'm aware. Scholars and
> linguists have their own recordings, made for specific purposes,
> though in most of their cases it would be troublesome to make these
> generally available, for both logistic and ethical reasons.
>> 2. since there are supposedly 16 dialects of nahuatl (17 if you
>> include
>>   pipil but i don't know if that is considered a nahuatl dialect)
> Yes, most decidedly Pipil is a Nahuatl dialect.
>>         a) how mutually intelligible are they?
> I'm sure the linguistics group has its measures of "distance" among
> the dialects, but my limited, lay experience with the dialects of
> central Mexico is that while there are many variants that are "strong"
> dialects (easily distinguished on clearly defined bases) they are all
> still mutually intelligible (i.e., none has become "Dutch" yet, ;-) ).
> One reason for this is, for good or ill,the strong syncretism with
> Spanish, which is often not the "bridge" of last resort, but of first
> resort when folks from different communities speak with one another.
> So, when you have need to express something new, or something old in a
> novel way, you don't necessarily innovate within Nahuatl, but simply
> borrow from Spanish.
>>         b) which one are you supposed to take as your model if you
>> study
>>            nahuatl as a foreign language and why?
> THAT is the question, exactly. One cannot possibly answer this on an
> objective basis. In fact what IS most often studied by outsiders
> happens to be central Mexican, either from Morelos or Mexico state,
> and the reasons are that due to certain historical community features,
> fanned by interactions with scholars, the Nahuatl-speaking identity of
> folks in some of these communities is unusually strong (e.g.,
> Tepoztlan, Milpa Alta, etc.), and therefore favorable for structured
> courses of learning. But the reality is, plain and simple, there are
> MANY versions of Nahuatl.What you learn will be decided by both your
> intended purpose and your access to learning environment/tools.
>>         c) are there attempts at standardisation within the nahuatl
>> speaking
>>            community, e.g. for writing or inter-dialect communication?
> None within the Nahuatl-speaking community, and the reasons are
> complex, but the primary reason is that there is no
> "pan-Nahuatl-speaking" identity to speak of in Mexico. The very notion
> is curious if you understand Mexico's unusual culture. You accomplish
> quite a bit, as an outsider, to just pry from a native speaker that
> she or he does in fact speak "dialecto," as it is something that in
> majority culture is not prized, and can instead be used to brand
> someone as backward. Much more to be said on this, but won't.
>> 3. is it true "nahuatl" means in nahuatl "harmonious, musical, having
>>   a pleasant sound"?
>>   is it true nahuatl speakers say of the sound of nahuatl that it is
>>   like "light birds flying off"?
> The part about "sonorous sound" I have READ, but never actually heard
> from a native speaker. The metaphor I've seen in print is "sonorous,
> as a babbling brook." You'd have quite a discussion on your hands to
> inform many native speakers that they speak Nahuatl. In some areas
> (such as the Morelos area alluded above) this wouldn't be so, but then
> owing to acculturation. Most native speakers refer to their language
> as "dialect," or as "Mexicano."
>>   is it true nahuatl speakers, even uneducated and illiterate ones,
>>   all display an uncommon pride in their language and especially what
>>   they consider are its musical qualities?
> Go to Tepoztlan and you will find many folks who display "uncommon
> pride in their langauge," but with most other speakers this would not
> be the case.
>> 4. is there a good reference on the use of nahuatl in mexico today
>> and the
>>   prospects for the future?
> Your question assumes a preocupation with the state of the language,
> ergo the state and collective identity of its speakers, and a concern
> for the preservation of the speakers, their culture and their
> language. Nothing resembling this exists in Mexico. One can make a
> very straight-faced argument that the only reason any native language
> survives to this day in Mexico is due to the economic neglect and
> marginalization of its speakers by the main stream culture. There are
> some exceptions, historically based, such as the Zapotecs of
> Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, and the Mayans of Yucatan state, where native
> speakers have preserved their language and identity while
> simultaneously integrating with the mainstream culture, but in the
> majority of instances to find monolinguals, or true bilinguals in most
> native languages, you must go to the hinterlands and find people who
> have been isolated, exploited and forgotten, and that is why they
> continue to preserve what they do of their ancestral cultural legacy.
> This being so, there are only occasional Quixotic efforts, usually led
> by middle-classed urbanites to somehow revive Nahuatl.
> These are my personal impressions, of course. The learned ought really
> to complement or correct these views as they see fit. The specialists
> on this list are in my estimation the best folks from whom to get a
> reliable assessment of the issues you raise in this question.
>> 5. what little classical nahuatl poetry i've read gives me the
>> feeling of
>>   having been originally meant to be sung. (i could go into a lengthy
>>   justification of this, but to keep it brief, there are certain
>> repetitions,
>>   certain "exclamatory words" which seem to point to a musical
>> delivery)
>>   if this is correct, do we have any idea what that music sounded
>> like?
>>   (not specific melodies of specific poems, which are no doubt lost,
>> but
>>   in a general way, what the music of aztec lyrical poetry sounded
>> like)
> As far as we can now understand, your perception is very accurate, as
> even in name poetry and song were strongly identified with one
> another. Good reading on this is Leon-Portilla's recently revised
> "Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World," Univ. of Oklahoma Press (a 1992
> update and translation of classic work long available in Spanish).

Ricardo J. Salvador          Voice: 515.294.9595
1126 Agronomy Hall         Telefax: 515.294.8146
Iowa State University        e-mail: salvador at
Ames, IA 50011-1010       WWW:

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