Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

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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12 responses

  1. Xuchilpaba

    So the ‘y’ is pronounced like the English! Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this! I just need to memorize the other letters that I missed on here.

    ‘Tz’ always reminded me that it was said similar to the Japanese ‘ts’ like in the word for moon; tsuki. (In fact i believe Nahuatl is similar in pronunciation and in other terms to Japanese.)

    Now as for ‘tl’, is this were you put your tongue on the top of the roof of your mouth when you say it with the ‘l’?

    And there’s this vid on this money that’s got Tlaloc’s name, the Brit reporters pronunciation is atrocious, but is it similar to how the Spanish speakers are saying Tlaloc’s name?

    Tianguis Tlaloc

    January 15, 2009 at 10:37 PM

  2. cehualli

    You’re welcome! 🙂

    I’d agree with that observation about the pronunciation of tz and the Japanese ts. You also see it in Mandarin Chinese, written as x or hs. (Depends on whether the writer is using pinyin or Wade-Giles romanisation.)

    I think I get what you’re describing with the tl, and I think that’s pretty much it. It’s not pressed hard against the palate like a typical American hard L sound, just lightly. It’s a very soft L sound from what I’ve heard, which admittedly isn’t much.

    I think it is similar to the Spanish speakers’ pronunciation in there. (And you weren’t kidding about the British mangled pronunciations, holy shit. They didn’t even try to pronounce the Tl…)

    January 16, 2009 at 6:43 PM

  3. Bob

    are there any recordings of native speakers? or the language on tape or disc.

    January 29, 2009 at 1:46 AM

  4. cehualli

    Hi Bob,

    There are, but they’re tough to find. Some universities have recordings for their Nahuatl language programs — I would check with whichever university libraries are nearest to you. Outside of university course materials, I have been unable to locate any significant recordings. (Trust me, I’ve looked, learning pronunciation from books is a poor substitute for listening.)

    There was one website, Edgar’s Mesoamerican Art Page, that had scattered recordings of place and deity names done by a trilingual researcher. The website is down now due to AOL discontinuing the entire Homestead hosting service, but most of the WAV files can be recovered via the Internet Archive.

    I am trying to track Edgar down to get permission to rehost the files on my blog, but have yet to get a response. If I do not receive word from him in about a month, I may host them anyway with a public notice explaining my inability to contact the owner and asking him to get in touch to discuss.

    The URL for the site, via the Internet Archive, is:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20060212171126/members.aol.com/emdelcamp/edgar2.htm

    It’s slow, so please be patient, but most of it is there. The slow speed is why I don’t have it linked in my language section, as it would be much better for me to just rehost the files if I’m not forbidden from doing so.

    I would also check YouTube, GoogleVideo, and Blinkx, you may be able to find a few examples in video.

    Mexicolore has some recordings, but they are nonnative and appear to be of poor quality — certain crucial sounds like the “kw” sound spelled “uc” or “cuh” are mispronounced as “koo” for example. I do not link their recordings because of this.

    -Best,
    Cehualli

    January 29, 2009 at 4:27 PM

  5. Xuchilpaba

    If you don’t mind I am going to re-post this to your credit on the LJ community.

    I was thinking too, of making a Aztec recon blog in English similar to this with research I’ve found and other things.Do you think this is a good idea?

    February 11, 2009 at 12:06 PM

  6. cehualli

    Hi Xuchil,

    You have my permission to repost with credit to your LJ community. 🙂

    If you’ve got the blogging bug, go for it, though LiveJournal can easily serve the same purpose. Given that you’ve basically got a built-in forum and a young community starting there, that seems like a natural place for you to post research and articles, keeping things in one place. It’d increase the value of Teopixque even more as you add content, and attract discussion and sharing among readers. All of that would raise its visibility on the search engines which would draw more traffic, and possibly more people who would like to participate. That’s what I’d recommend based on the resources you’ve already developed. What do you think?

    February 25, 2009 at 5:58 AM

  7. Xuchilpaba

    Thanks i do think the LJ community can very much benefit from this.

    Hm. I think you have a point there. I might try it in two ways; community and my own blog. I want to reach a lot of people if i can. I know some people absolutely hate LJ. lol

    I do have a question that i finally remembered. I take it that a majority of the time from what i have heard and read is that the ‘a’ is a long ‘a’ sound. But sometimes you here it being a short ‘a’ with words like Yucatan and Cancun. So in a word like Tlalocan, which is it; Tlalocahn or Tlalocan like the english word ‘can’? Sorry, but this has been bugging me for like two freaking years.

    *God i recently switched my email notices and its not notifying me of all your responses, damn it.

    February 25, 2009 at 2:30 PM

  8. cehualli

    You’re welcome, and I’m glad you think so.

    I can see that, it would avoid the LJ-hating issue. It should work so long as you integrate the two nice and tight so traffic flows naturally back and forth among them. Maybe grab the name Teopixque as well for the blog, and show how the two are two halves of the same project?

    Re: pronunciation — I thought the preference was for the “ah” pronunciation of “a” in Nahuatl? The English “cAn” sound is very rare in other languages from what I understand.

    It’s quite possible that what’s tripping us up is a difference in pronunciation across dialects or classical vs. modern. A lot of places are useless and don’t make it clear what dialect or time the pronunciations they give are from.

    Lockhart and Kartunnen in their work on Carochi indicated that the difference between long and short vowels in Classical Nahuatl is literally how long you say the sound, rather than changing the sound itself as in English. It’s just like classical Latin that way, actually, though without the automatic stress of long vowels.

    Anyway, to make a long story short, I’m pretty sure it’s TlalocAHn, but I could be wrong.

    February 25, 2009 at 5:34 PM

  9. Xuchilpaba

    That’s how i have been saying it to cover my ass. Although I like the sound of the short ‘a’ in Tlalocan, its wrong ahahhaa.

    Yeah that’s a good idea. I have a dead Teopixque group i made about 2 years ago on Facebook, but i think a word press job would be much better. thanks.

    February 25, 2009 at 7:39 PM

  10. Xuchilpaba

    I’ve been giving the ‘a’ + ‘n’ thing a lot of thought.. and then it hit me. I know i have been pronouncing Tenochtitlan with a short ‘a’ correctly. So maybe this is just a theory when paired with ‘n’ the ‘a’ becomes short.

    March 9, 2009 at 5:07 PM

  11. tlatlauhqui

    Such an incredibly helpful article! Thank you so much for putting this together! 🙂

    January 30, 2010 at 4:24 AM

  12. Yaotl

    This is great . . . Love to see people interested . . . I have all this info in my notebook it’s great to see it all written out . . .

    Thank you for your time and effort . . .

    May 21, 2011 at 3:39 PM

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