Nahuatl word classes

Magnus Pharao Hansen magnuspharao at
Tue Jan 1 22:19:02 UTC 2013

Dear John

My point was not that word classes should be based on form instead of
function, but that they should be based on syntactic function instead of
semantic function.

I also don't think that I said that linguistic training is necessary to be
allowed to work with language, I certainly believe it is possible to make
oneself acquainted with linguistics without having a degree, and one of the
best Nahuatl linguists I've known was a 17 year old boy with no college
degree. But I think that it is a lack of respect for those who have spent
their lives describing the Nahuatl language (including Carochi to whom you
allude) to pretend that one can do a better job than them without first
taking the time to read and understand their work. That is not an academic
sacred cow, that is just about intellectual ethics, and about realizing
that making a contribution to any discipline is a lot easier when one has
knowledge of previous contributions.


On 1 January 2013 16:59, John Sullivan <idiez at> wrote:

> Piyali Magnus huan nochin notequixpoyohuan,
>         I've taken a long time to respond to this mail, but I assure you
> it is only because, on the one hand, I've had a lot of work, and on the
> other hand, it really helped me to clear up some of my ideas. The most
> important thing I got out of this was the realization that indeed I was
> confusing form with meaning. This isn't a negative thing: the fact that I
> came to the realization that noun structures had all of these functions in
> Nahuatl was very enlightening. I now realize that, as you pointed out, the
> word classes should be based on form, in other words, how they work, and
> not what they mean. And, also as you pointed out, this is the way all of
> the major Nahuatl linguists do it. So anyway, here are the categories for
> dictionary entries we will be working with:
> 1. tlatocaxtiliztli, "noun"
> 2. tlachihualiztli, "verb"
> 3. tlapantiliztli, "relational". And here, I am assuming that what people
> have called relational suffixes, etc., in the past, are actually the root
> of the word. Nouns can be incorporated into some of them, and some of them
> can take possessors and other affixes (reverential). I agree with you that
> these words are a form of noun. I think that they originated as nouns, but
> now work a bit differently. The main structural difference that I would
> used to separate them from the noun class is that they cannot take subjects
> (at least in the variants I work with).
> 4. piltlahtoltzin, "particles". These are words that are made of a single
> morpheme, or chains of single morpheme words, and perhaps, words that have
> become fossilized in some way. This is going to be the hardest class to
> work out.
> 5. tlatenmotzquiltilli, "affix"
> 6. tlamotzquiltihquetl, "ligature". There is only one, the "-t(i)-"
> ligature. "ca:-" can work as a ligature and in most cases is structurally a
> verb suffix, but sometimes it is used in cases where no verb is present
> (cualcan, macehualcayotl, etc.), and I have not made up my mind if these
> are actually two different morphemes.
> 7. piltlahcuiloltzin, "letter"
>         Listeros, please continue to criticize these categories. Tweeking
> makes perfect.
>         Second to last thing. I don't believe one has to go through the
> process of  linguistic academic preparation in order to have the right to
> work with language. For practicality's sake I have to say this, because if
> not I'd be screwed and would have to give up a job that I really love. I
> took an introductory class in linguistics when I was a freshman a long time
> ago, but I dropped out because I didn't like it. This is not to say that
> formal linguistics is boring. It is just boring to me. I deeply respect the
> work of linguists, profit from reading some of their work, and most
> immensely enjoy sitting down and talking about Nahuatl with them in person.
> It's just that I prefer to do this thing my own way. And I think the
> history of science is full of cases of outsiders making contributions to
> disciplines. And I'm not talking about re-inventing the wheel. It's just
> that it is very important to go over what scholars have done and look for
> ways to make things better. The idea of the academic "vaca sagrada" has
> always made me sick to my stomach: the idea that the purpose of getting a
> Ph.D. is to aspire to get into an academic club and wind up subordinating
> oneself to a big name (this is very common in Mexico, I don`t know if this
> is also the case in the US or in Europe). When you actually get know the
> big names who are the real thing, in the vast majority of cases, they are
> friendly, ego-less, accessible and generous with their time and research,
> and not at all interested in being king or queen of the hill.
>         And last of all, Magnus, in your list of eminent grammarians of
> Nahuatl, you forgot to include the greatest Nahuatl grammarian in history
> (so far).
> Best,
> John
> On Nov 6, 2012, at 6:27 PM, Magnus Pharao Hansen <magnuspharao at>
> wrote:
> >
Magnus Pharao Hansen
PhD. student
Department of Anthropology

Brown University
128 Hope St.
Providence, RI 02906

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