Calques in Otomi and Nahuatl

David Wright dcwright at
Sat Jan 30 23:10:10 UTC 2010

Muy estimados listeros:

We have become accustomed to equating language and culture, when in reality
language is but one element in the complex mosaic of learned behavior that
constitutes culture. After searching for three decades for significant
nonlinguistic cultural differences between speakers of Otomi and Nahuatl in
late pre-Hispanic and early colonial central Mexico (and not finding many),
I have reached the tentative conclusion that there was an essentially
homogenous plurilinguistic culture in this region. Nonlinguistic cultural
differences exist, but their distribution rarely coincides with linguistic
boundaries (which are, to say the least, quite fuzzy).

One way to put this idea to the test is to look at the words and phrases
used by different language groups to talk about aspects of culture. When
this is done with Otomi and Nahuatl we often find calques, sometimes
metaphorical in nature, in which key concepts cross language boundaries,
each group expressing the same idea in their own words. The list published
by Thomas Smith-Stark* is a useful starting point, athough the Otomi corpus
is inadequately represented; when 16th century vocabularies are considered,
the list expands enormously.

Needless to say, this has important implications for the interpretation of
pictorial texts, and explains in part why groups with languages as diverse
as Nahuatl, Mixtec, and Otomi used the same pictorial signs to express the
same concepts within a basically semasiographic system which straddles the
blurry border between the western categories of writing and visual arts
(although each group could use homophonic word plays to create glottographs,
which can be divided into logographs --which express morphemes, that is,
sounds with meaning-- and phonographs --which express sounds that are not
necessarily tied to meaning, like syllables and phonemes--).

In the new volume (no. 16) of Tlalocan, I look at Otomi and Nahuatl
calendrical terms, where calques are the norm. If anyone would like for me
to e-mail them a PDF file scanned from the published text, please let me
know at dchwrightcarr at

In another article, published on line, I explore Otomi and Nahuatl names for
social structures, where there are also many calques. I think I mentioned
this on the Nahuat-l list when it came out, but since it relates to the
Tlalocan article I'll provide the URL again:

Comments are welcome, preferably off-list, unless there is something that
you feel is a worthy topic for group discussion.



* Smith-Stark, Thomas C., “Mesoamerican calques,” in Investigaciones
lingüísticas en Mesoamérica, Carolyn J. MacKay and Verónica Vázquez,
editors, Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, Universidad
Nacional Autónoma de México, 1994, pp. 15-50. Some of the data presented in
the latter article also appears in: Campbell, Lyle; Kaufman, Terrence;
Thomas C. Smith-Stark, “Meso-America as a linguistic area,” in Language
(Linguistic Society of America), vol. 62, no. 3, September 1986, pp.

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