Nahuatl word formation

Michael McCafferty mmccaffe at
Tue May 6 14:00:44 UTC 2008

A very important cautionary tale, and for every language.

My two centavos worth,


Quoting "Campbell,  R Joe" <campbel at>:

> Nocnihuan,
>   One of features of Nahuatl that makes it fascinating to us is
> the wealth of metaphors captured in its word formation.  Words like
> "acitlalin", 'dewdrop' (atl [water] - citlalin [star]) catch our
> attention, please us like a well-formed phrase, and even make us
> want to find more of them.
>   One source of assistance in appreciating Nahuatl word formation
> is J. Richard Andrews' _Introduction to Classical Nahuatl_ (either
> the first edition or the revised edition).  It also presents us
> with suggestions for analyses of words which should make us stop
> and consider where sober analysis ends and where dubious
> suggestions begin.
>   One example is the suggestion that "te:na:nquilia:" 'he answers
> someone' is derived from a source stem no longer extant, "*na:nca"
> 'to act in the manner of a mother'.  Most people would not object
> to the idea of a productive stem which does not occur
> independently (if there is no stem "xel(-li)", we might have a
> difficult time accounting for "cuaxeltic", "xexeltic", "xelihui",
> and "xeloa").  (A side remark: I am very wary of phrases like "no
> longer" in the discussing the structure of a grammar, since I am
> afraid that the user is *really* thinking of the historical
> development of the language, rather than the grammar as it exists
> at a given point in time.)
>   "*na:nca" leaves us with two problems:
> 1) we have no pattern of derivation to arrive at "te:na:nquilia:".
> When we have derivations like "pi:tza" 'blow' > pi:tztli 'whistle,
> something blown' > "nipi:tzoa" 'I use a whistle, I whistle', where
> the processes are seen as parallel to the same processes in the
> formation of other words, we have support for our trust in the
> hypothesis, but here it is lacking.
> 2) the semantic stretch between "mother" (i.e., act in the manner
> of a mother") and "answer" *might* bear some weight if that link
> were evident in other places in the language, but without that
> support, one's willingness to believe fails.
> ---
>   Another example is the suggestion that "te:lpo:chtli" is derived
> from or related to "po:ca" 'it smokes'.  Obviously, there are many
> Nahuatl words with the string "po:ch" involving the application of
> smoke, the act of incensing.  ...but where is the semantic bridge
> between "youth" and "incense".  I admit that there may be one and I
> would be happy to hear of credible evidence.
> ---
>   These two examples are intended as an introduction to my main
> topic:  "ohuihcan" 'dangerous place' (and many other examples
> involving danger and difficulty).  In his first edition, Andrews
> presented these words as being derived from an obsolete verb
> "*ohuia" (note that I have abandoned long vowel marking).  There
> was no implication that "ohuia" might be divisable then, but in the
> revised edition, the source for the well populated family of
> "ohuia" word is "ohhuia" (ohtli-verb suffix) 'to be like a road,
> to present danger'.
>   Again, I can imagine that this is a possibility, but there is no
> evidence elsewhere linking 'road' and 'danger'.  Further, there is
> no *clear* evidence of a "-huia" intransitive suffix meaning 'be'.
> (One possibility: "coyohuia" 'they howl' [they are like coyotes])
>   It is very interesting that the element is no longer "ohuia",
> but "ohhuia".  While much of the material in Andrews' books rests
> heavily on Carochi's grammar, his belief in the 'road' / 'danger'
> relationship (without supporting parallels) motivates changing the
> shape of the data.  He points out that Carochi does not show a
> glottal stop.  But he changes his image of what the date is because
> it fits his theory (based on a tightly stretched semantic
> relationship).  Granted, there is only one occurrence of a relevant
> piece in Carochi's grammar (f53v).
>   Obviously, I believe that when we describe the morphology of a
> language, we should err on the side of caution.  If we stretch the
> semantic bridges too far, the overall description is fragile and I
> worry about the expenditure of all that time on something too
> easily collapsible.
>   What do y'all think?
> Iztayohmeh,
> Joe
> p.s. references to Andrews are below...
> *************
> Andrews, revised edition
> p. 441
>          ohhuihca =  it is in the manner of a thing that has become
>          dangerous/difficult; i.e., with difficulty, with danger
> p. 574
>          ohhuia = to be like a road; i.e., to pose a danger;
>          to be dangerous/difficult
>          Carochi does not show a glottal stop closing the first syllable
> p. 579
>          ohhuiti = to have a road; i.e., to be in/face danger
>          Carochi does not show a glottal stop
> ***************
> Andrews, first edition
> p. 31
>          In certain instances, the source verb is obsolete:
>          ohuihca* = with difficulty [Class C pret theme:
>          -(ohuih)0-.  Compare the co-derived adjective ohuih,
>          "it is difficult"]
> p. 32
>          The adverbials in *ca* may be negated by this procedure:
>          ayohuihca* ~ aohuihca* = easily, without difficulty
> p. 257
>          Occasionally the source verb is no longer used: ohuih = it
>          is difficult [Compare (ohuih-0-ca*-yo*)-tl, "difficulty,
>          danger," and (ohuih-0-ca)-0, "with difficulty," both from the
>          same preterit theme.
> p. 322
>         Itlah ohuih i*pan mochi*huaz.
>          = Something dangerous will happen to him.
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