With approximately 1.5 million speakers in central Mexico, Nahuatl is one of the most widely-spoken indigenous languages of the Americas. During the 15th century at the height of the Aztec empire, Nahuatl served as the Aztecs’ principal language of administration, culture, and commerce. The variety spoken in their imperial capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) spread rapidly across Mesoamerica. Once partially written with pictographs, Nahuatl has employed a Latin-based alphabet since the Conquest. A rich literary tradition flourished, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, including poems, myths, historical chronicles, administrative documents, and texts in other genres.
Linguists have classified Nahuatl as belonging to the Aztecan branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which extends as far north as eastern Oregon. Today the Mexican government recognizes 30 distinct and sometimes mutually intelligible varieties of Nahuatl; the Ethnologue catalogue recognizes 28. English words that derive from Nahuatl include “avocado”, “chili”, “tomato”, “chocolate”, and “coyote”.
Less than 15 percent of Nahuatl speakers are monolingual, according to one recent survey, and Spanish literacy by all accounts greatly exceeds Nahuatl literacy. After a long period of Hispanization, Nahuatl has in recent years achieved greater recognition as a “national language” of Mexico in the regions where it is spoken. Some varieties have already disappeared and many others are severely endangered, although the number and geographic range of Nahuatl speakers ensures some continued viability.
Classical Nahuatl, spoken at the time of the 16th century Conquest, is comparatively well-attested and researched. Missionaries published several detailed grammars of the language, the best-known of which is Horacio Carochi’s 1645 Arte de la lengua Mexicana, a pioneering work in the history of descriptive linguistics. Several modern textbooks and dictionaries also exist, particularly of Classical Nahuatl and the larger dialects, while some smaller dialects remain virtually undocumented. Studies by Canger, Dakin, and Campbell and Langacker have been influential in recent debates about the history of Nahuatl varieties and how they are relate to each other, including proposals for a fundamental east-west division and a “center-periphery” model that proposes a grouping of central dialects in the valley of Mexico surrounded by three peripheral groups: western, eastern, and Huasteca.
Along with Mixtec, Nahuatl is likely the mostly commonly spoken indigenous Mexican language in New York, and those in the metropolitan area with some knowledge of the language may number in the thousands. One of them is Irwin Sanchez, a Nahuatl speaker originally from La Resurrección, Puebla who works as a chef reviving Indigenous Mexican foodways while also teaching and writing in Nahuatl. In collaboration with Mano a Mano, a local non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Mexican culture, ELA helped organize Nahuatl classes with Irwin, which were featured on NPR.
ELA has also worked with speakers of others dialects of Nahuatl (from Xalpatlahuac in Guerrero, from San Luis Potosí, and elsewhere), both supplementing existing documentation and creating pedagogical materials with audio.
ELA also produced a sample podcast which students anywhere can utilize to learn the language, covering things that can be seen in the sky, fruits, vegetables, things in the kitchen, furniture, people and some simple actions.
Right click here to download: Nahuatl Podcast
The material for this podcast is largely based on the Nahuatl picture dictionary produced by SIL, Mexico which can be downloaded from here.
ELA also collaborated with photographer Ed Lefkowicz on his exhibit New York’s native speakers of Nahuatl.
Among those participating in the workshops around literacy, health, and food at the Little Sisters of the Assumption in East Harlem have been several Nahuatl speakers who live in the area. Among Nahuatl speakers in Queens are some in Corona from Necoxtla in Veracruz, part of the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales. In Jackson Heights, a longtime collaborator of the Endangered Language Alliance originally from La Resurrección, Puebla is Irwin Sánchez, who is reviving the language through food. Based in the Bronx, the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales is a network of community groups formed by migrants from rural and Indigenous Mexican pueblos, including speakers of Nahuatl. Some of those living in the Bronx are originally from Teopantlán in Puebla.
Nahuatl speakers from Brooklyn live across a number of neighborhoods stretching at least from Sunset Park to Coney Island. A network of as many as 100 people from San Lucas Atzala (Puebla) are in Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, while others (part of the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales) are from Teopantlán (Puebla) or from San Francisco de Tetlanohcan (Tlaxcala), living in Coney Island. In 2010 and for several years after, organization Mano a Mano hosted Nahuatl classes in Brooklyn.
Linked to the community from San Francisco de Tetlanohcan (Tlaxcala) in Coney Island and likewise working with the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales is a significant community including Nahuatl speakers in and around New Haven, particularly in Fair Haven. Most have arrived within the past few decades, coming to form one of the largest Mexican groups in the area, proudly celebrating “el Día de San Francisco” and maintaining strong links to their hometown.