Morphemes, Graphemes

David Wright dcwright at
Sun Sep 2 20:50:32 UTC 2007

You just opened up a big can of worms. People have been arguing about this
for over two centuries and they're still at it. I've been looking hard at
this question for the last decade or so, and I'll briefly summarize what
I've come up with.
Part of the problem are our European semantic categories of "writing" and
"visual arts". Central Mexican pictorial writing is right on the blurry
border, and ancient Mesoamericans didn't really distinguish between the two
concepts, as the early colonial vocabularies reveal. The old (and today
largely discarded) concept of the "evolution" of writing systems, in which
alphabetic writing is supposedly more advanced and "civilized" than
"primitive" picture writing, is another problem. Overzealous defenders of
the relative sophistication of Mesoamerican civilization have tended to
exaggerate the phonographic nature of central Mexican picture writing, in
order to claim a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder for the natives of
this region.
Central Mexican pictorial writing, in general, is essentially
semasiographic, which means that most of the painted or carved signs
represent ideas, which can be expressed in any of the many languages spoken
by people who participated in the plurilinguistic culture of this region.
(By "central Mexico" I mean most of Mesoamerica, excluding much of western
Mexico, whose participation in this graphic system was minimal, and the Maya
region, where a different graphic tradition emerged.) Another problem is
that people tend to simplistically equate linguistic groups with "cultures",
when in reality language is but one of many overlapping aspects, with blurry
borders, that constitute culture. This rich and complex system of visual
communication, while essentially semasiographic, also lends itself to
homophonic (or quasi-homophonic) word play, like rebus writing, in which a
pictorial sign representing one thing is used to express something else,
exploiting the fact that both ideas are associated with identical or similar
sounds. A classic example is the representation of teeth, in association
with some other sign (for example a stylized representation of a mountain),
to express the Nahua postposition -tlan ("next
to/near/with/under/in/inside", usually preceded by the ligature -ti-) or the
locative suffix -tla:n ("with/in/between/next to/place of"). This is
possible because in Nahuatl the word for "tooth" or "teeth" is tlantli,
whose absolutive suffix -tli is detachable. Similar homophonic word play has
been found in pre-Hispanic historical manuscripts from the Mixteca region,
and there are possible examples from early colonial Otomi manuscripts (see
articles on my web site, the link to which is at the end of this message).
Thus the Nahua, the Mixtecs, the Otomi and other linguistic communities that
participated in the central Mexican cultural system painted and carved the
same signs and understood each other through the same pictorial language,
whose roots go back to Olmec times (ca. 1200-600 B.C.) Occasionally they
employed the homophonic principle to create glottographs, which can be
subdivided into logographs (expressing morphemes or words, as in the example
given in the preceding paragraph) and phonographs (expressing syllables or
phonemes). The pre-Hispanic texts from central Mexico have fewer
glottographs than some of the colonial period texts; this may be due to the
influence of European phonographic (i.e. alphabetic) writing in the latter.
During the early colonial period some native scribes produced purely
semasiographic manusripts, while others developed a style that includes an
abundance of logographic and phonographic signs, particularly in the Texcoco
I'm using Geoffrey Sampson's terminology here because the words usually used
by Mesoamericanists can be somewhat vague and ambiguous, having been the
source of quite a bit of misunderstanding and fruitless discussion.
This said, yes, there have been many attempts at producing pictorial
dictionaries based on Nahua codices. Some of the more notable are: José
Ignacio Borunda (18th century); José Fernando Ramírez Álvarez (mid-19th
century), whose card file was used after his death by Manuel Orozco y Berra
(late 19th century); Robert H. Barlow and Byron McAfee (study published in
1949), and Joaquín Galarza, in several studies (ca. 1980-2000). Galarza's
disciples continue with his method; among them are Marc Thouvenot, Luz María
Mohar Betancourt, etc. Several digital editions are forthcoming. See also
the studies published in the 1992 edition of the Codex Mendoza, edited by
Berdan and Anawalt.
David Wright


De: nahuatl-bounces at [mailto:nahuatl-bounces at]
En nombre de Owen Thomas
Enviado el: Viernes, 31 de Agosto de 2007 07:08 p.m.
Para: nahuatl at
Asunto: [Nahuat-l] Morphemes, Graphemes


I understand part of the Linguistics according to Andrews. My question:
since the original memory system for Nahuatl was graphic has anyone
attempted to index, or produce a lexicon, based on graphic elements in Nahua

Success in deciphering the remains of Mayan carving leads me to wonder if
the Verbal and Nominal complexes could be understood from a graphic
approach. Sahagun concentrated on a sort of lexical approach  by use of
phonemes. Has any graphic lexeme survived or is anyone attempting to  create
such a lexicon? 

We are connected

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>
-------------- next part --------------
Nahuatl mailing list
Nahuatl at

More information about the Nahuat-l mailing list