Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

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Basic Nahuatl Pronunciation

As promised earlier,  I’m doing a quick writeup of basic Nahuatl pronunciation and spelling.  Or rather, I found a good one online that’s consistent with what the best modern dictionaries are using.  The guide below is shamelessly ripped from the Wikibooks entry that houses it, and is extended with a few notes of mine.  My thanks to the authors of this guide — Ptcamn, Icelandic Hurricane, and Jguk!  Go HERE to view the original entry on Wikibooks.  Or go HERE to have Wikibooks render a downloadable PDF of this guide (without my notes) for you.

UPDATE:  … and it appears that the guys who set up the Wikibooks entry ripped it from David K. Jordan’s Nahuatl page, and extended it with their notes.  The original is HERE, to give credit where it’s due.

Vowels

Nahuatl has four short vowels: a, e, i, and o. The vowels a, e and i sound similar to Spanish, while o can sound like either a Spanish o or a u. Unlike in English, where cuter and cutter have different vowels, the vowels of Nahuatl don’t change depending on what follows them.

Each vowel also has a long form, marked by a line or macron over the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō. They have the same sound as the short vowels, but are simply held longer. [Cehualli's note -- these macrons are often omitted in actual texts]

Consonants

Nahuatl ch, m, n, p, t, and y are pronounced like English.

As in English, c represents an s-sound when followed by e or i, but a k-sound elsewhere.

Cu is pronounced kw, like in Spanish, or like English qu. Its inverse, uc, is the same sound at the end of a syllable.

Hu is pronounced like English w. Like cu, it is reversed at the end of a syllable, so auh sounds like ow, and iuh sounds like eww.

H alone, when not part of ch, hu or uh, may have represented a glottal stop, as in the Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or it may have been a sound like English h. Unlike English h, it is pronounced at the of syllables: ah isn’t simply a vowel, but a vowel followed by a consonant.

Before a vowel, l is the same as English or Spanish l. Before a consonant or at the end of a word, however, it is neither dark like English l in full, nor clear like Spanish l. It is a voiceless sound, like Welsh ll. This isn’t important to understanding, though, and it can be pronounced like an English l without introducing confusion.

Double ll is simply l, held longer. It isn’t a palatal sound like in Spanish, or a single l like in English.

Qu is used to represent the k-sound before e and i, like in Spanish. It isn’t pronounced “kw” as in English.

X is pronounced like English sh.

Tl is pronounced like t with the tongue held in a postion for l [Cehualli's note -- when this comes at the very end of a word, the l is very quiet, almost a whisper.  Not pronounced "tul" as one might think!]

Tz is pronounced like German z, or like English ts except that the t is pronounced even at the start of words — not like tsar or tsunami, where the t is silent.  [Cehualli's note -- like the ts in "kits," in other words.]

Z is pronounced like English s.

Stress

Stress regularly falls on the second last syllable of a word.

Spelling

The spelling used here is a modern standardized system, in order to represent all the sounds of Nahuatl consistently. The spelling used in the original manuscripts did not always represent Nahuatl pronunciation accurately. In particular, vowel length and h were usually omitted.  [Cehualli's note -- in a rare few manuscripts, like Carochi, you may see diacritics and other odd marks.  Very rare, not something to worry about in general.]

Spelling & Pronunciation of Classical Nahuatl Words

Because the spelling of Nahuatl was originally based on spelling conventions in Spanish, Nahuatl texts are generally “pronounced like Spanish,” with the following exceptions and points to note:

  • Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U) regardless of final consonants
  • X is pronounced like English SH.
  • LL is pronounced like a long L (not as in Spanish).
  • TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
  • U does not occur as an independent vowel. The only Nahuatl vowels are A, E, I, and O, although each of them can be long or short.
  • CU and UC are both pronounced KW.
  • HU and UH are both pronounced W.
  • H without an adjacent U represents a “silent” glottal stop (as in go_over); in modern Nahuatl it sometimes has a sound similar to an English H and may have had that value in some dialects of Classical Nahuatl as well. (For an English speaker, pronouncing the H like an English H is not really wrong and has the advantage that it helps one remember that it is there.)
  • C before E or I is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
  • Z is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)

However over the centuries there has been considerable instability in the spelling of Nahuatl. Some common variations:

  • The letters U and O may be used interchangeably to represent the sound of O.
  • The letter U alone may be used instead of UH or HU to represent the sound of W.(At the time of the Conquest, the written letters V and U were usually reversed in Spanish from their modern values, so U indeed had the value of a modern English W.)
  • The letter H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written.
  • Vowel length may or may not be marked.
  • The consonant Y may be written with the letter I.
  • The vowel I may be written with the letter Y.
  • The letter Ç may be used in place of Z to represent the sound of S.

In this century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish (and “coincidentally” more English). Thus:

  • W may be used in place of HU or UH for the sound of W.
  • K may be used in place of QU/C for the sound of K.
  • S may be used in place of Z/C for the sound of S.  [Cehualli's note -- Ç is also in this category.]

In some cases weird letters, available on no keyboard and included in very few type fonts, are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds.*


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