Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion


The Bancroft Dialogues: Advice On Good Manners

Today I’d like to introduce you to an important little book commonly referred to as the Huehuetlatolli – Discursos en Mexicano, or by its English nickname “the Bancroft Dialogues.”  It’s a collection of early post-Conquest speech from the Aztec nobility, probably collected sometime in the late 16th century.  It’s valuable both to linguists for its preservation of numerous samples of elite, upper-class speech , and to anthropologists for its social content.  Frances Karttunen and James Lockhart produced the only English translation of the book in 1987 (out of print and difficult to find these days, I’d scan and post my copy for all to read if I could).  If you can read Spanish, you may be able to acquire Angel Garibay’s edition, published in volume 1 and 2 of the journal Tlalocan in 1943.

The extract I’ve chosen to share is a short speech given by an older nobleman to some youths under his care about how to behave well, both in public and private.  As the text identifies the listeners as “boys,” it’s possible this advice was given by a teacher at the calmecac or telpochcalli schools discussed in one of my earlier posts.  Without further delay, here it is!

Advice on good breeding from an old man to some boys

Let us go to the house of our Lord to pray and hear His holy offices.  Go along spread out in front of me, don’t go shoving each other, go along properly, don’t go looking sideways and making faces.  People will say the devil has gotten into you.  And if you meet someone somewhere, greet the person and speak to him.  If it is one of the nobles, or one of the lords your progenitors who rule the city, or an old man or an old woman, you are to stand to one side until they pass by and bow down to them.  Don’t shove people or knock them down.

Listen, my youngest ones, much sleeping is bad, for it makes people fall ill and grow idle.  Get up early in the morning, and that way you will live in health and not be heavy with sickness.  Were not the rulers who left you behind brought up in the same way?  How was it that it was said that I really spied and saw them?  (I.e. I know what I am talking about?)

Immediately the elder  begins with an exhortation to attend to worship.  At the time this speech was collected, he would have been referring to the Christian god, but the original pre-Conquest form of the dialogue would have referred to the traditional Aztec gods.  This inclusion of an emphasis on good relation with the divine is pretty typical of many of the huehuetlatolli I’ve read, even for ones that aren’t specifically about religious practice.  It descends from that lofty subject to more mundane instructions on what not to do so they won’t be scolded as little brats.  As the Aztec community was a heavily class-conscious society, much of the deference the children are told to display is directed at the aristocracy — you’ll note that all nobles are to be bowed to without any requirements of age, but only the elderly receive special honor without concern for their class.  Men and women alike are to be honored.

The elder leaves behind the instructions in etiquette and the external benefits from good manners to advise the kids on habits that will benefit them as individuals.  However, he reinforces the personal benefits of moderation in sleep by citing tradition, as their ancestral role models supposedly followed these habits.  In other speeches recorded in the Bancroft Dialogues, we see a recurring emphasis on health — many of the different greetings revolve around formalized questions as to how someone’s health is, and concern with avoiding illness and physical discomfort.  Linking this concern with vitality to the need for moderation hints at the key virtue of temperance in Mexica culture, something I’ve explored in more depth in an older post if you’re interested.


Lockhart, James. & Karttunen, Frances E. & Bancroft Library.  (1987).  The Art of Nahuatl speech : the Bancroft Dialogues.  Los Angeles :  UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, p.137

Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.


Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.

Ballads of the Lords of New Spain & the Cantares Mexicanos

Fantastic news!  I recently picked up a copy of John Bierhorst’s English translation of the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain (better known as the codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España), and discovered a note in the prefatory material of great interest.  The University of Texas and Stanford University have completed an incredibly generous project, something that I’ve been hoping someone would do for years.  Enough suspense, I’ll tell you what it is now.

Complete, full-text copies of both the Romances and the Cantares online, complete with commentary and material for comparative study of the two song texts, a Nahuatl-English concordance dictionary, relevant photos and scans from various codices relating to poetry and music, and even audio of performances of some of the actual sixteenth-century drum rhythms intended for the teponaztli, or wooden slit drum, based on the only piece of sheet music preserved recording actual Aztec music.

Folks, this is a huge deal, I can’t state it strongly enough.  This is the vast majority of pre-Conquest and early Colonial Aztec poetry and song that has been preserved, in English and Nahuatl, searchable and complete, available for absolutely free, for the first time ever.  Most of this material has previously been extremely difficult to get a hold of or flat-out unavailable (no complete English edition of the Romances existed before 2009), not to mention expensive.  I own a near-mint paper copy of Bierhorst’s translation of the Cantares Mexicanos, which was produced in a limited run by Stanford University and has been out of print since 1985.  It took me almost two years of scanning numerous international book selling services online to eventually secure a copy for under $250.  You will never have to go through this difficulty and expense to study this collection of breathtakingly-beautiful poetry, as Stanford University has generously put a full copy of the Cantares Mexicanos on this same website in PDF format, that you can download for free.

Go HERE to the home page of the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain!

And go HERE to download a full PDF copy of the Cantares Mexicanos!

Also HERE for a full PDF copy of the Nahuatl-English Concordance & Dictionary volume for the Cantares Mexicanos!

Finally, go HERE for a list of post-publishing corrections to the Cantares!

In short, many thanks to the University of Texas, Stanford University, and Mr. Bierhorst for making this amazing resource available to all, it’s a move reminiscent of the great wave of public library and museum foundings in the USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries that have been such a force for learning and research.  To my readers, I highly encourage you to pick up a print copy of the Ballads in order to support more projects like these in the future, and to give back to those involved in this one.  Besides, it’s just nice to have a physical copy of a good book to curl up with.

I’ll be back to discuss these two works of Aztec poetry and song later on, but I just couldn’t wait to share these books with you now.  Happy reading!

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus


All links updated & more materials uploaded by U.Texas linked on 2/24/2013, courtesy of an alert reader.  Thanks M.P.!

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.


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]


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 regularly falls on the second last syllable of a word.


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.*

New Nahuatl Language Links

I’ve added a new Links section over on the righthand side of the page, called Nahuatl Language.  That section is where I’m linking material around the Net that relates to learning Nahuatl, particularly Classical Nahuatl (the language as it was a few hundred years ago).  This stuff is always handy for reference, and to get your feet wet if you’re interested in learning how to read some of the primary sources that were written down in that tongue after the Conquest.

These links relate to reading Nahuatl written alphabetically, not reading the glyphs/pictographs that were used in the Codices prior to the Spanish invasion.  I’m looking for material online that teaches a bit about the glyphs, though, and will link what I find.

Finally, the links in there now are in a mix of languages.  Molina’s classic textbook and dictionary are antique Spanish and Nahuatl; I included them for those who can read old Spanish (not me!) and due to their foundational significance in the study of the language.  The html version of Renee Simeon’s 1885 dictionary is Nahuatl to French, but I would expect the numerous free online translators could handle the short snippets of relatively-recent French without much trouble.

For my English-language audience, the Nahuatl Learning Environment is available in English (it’s also available in Spanish).  Just log in with the ID and password noted in the link title (repeated in the tooltip if you hover your mouse cursor over it), and you’re good to go — there’s no registration or anything like that.  Finally, the Freelang Nahuatl dictionary is a Nahuatl-English dictionary, and can be downloaded for offline use, or used via the web.  Handy and free!

I’ll do a post sometime soon on basic pronunciation to go with all these links.  I’ve seen the very formal charts on pronunciation that use the technical symbols and whatnot, but frankly I can’t read them, and I don’t know many who can.  If you have a copy of Frances Kartunnen’s Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, I find her notes on pronunciation to be the most helpful I’ve come across.

Anyway, enjoy, and I’ll add more to this section as I find it.

Library Acquisition: The Codex Mendoza & More

Wow, it’s been a while. Sorry about that. The stuff I’ve been trying to write about kinda pulled a Three Stooges with a narrow door type thing, which was not helped by adding a dash of summer laziness.

Anyway, I’ve had some amazing strokes of luck lately in expanding my library. I’ve acquired a copy of the Bancroft Dialogues, a tough to find Post-Conquest Era volume of Mexica upper class speeches, greetings, and other daily life bits of talking. It’s a significant text because it’s the only early book that has full marks indicating pronunciation, so anyone who wants to learn Classical Nahuatl needs this one. It’s also interesting because it shows how the nobles spoke to their equals and superiors. As the relationship between the Aztecs and their gods was often framed as a noble/subject relationship, I believe the examples likely hint at how they spoke to the Teteo when offering worship. I’m looking for some nice examples to post that people might find interesting.

Another major acquisition has been a copy of the deluxe four-volume Anawalt & Burdan edition of The Codex Mendoza for a stupidly good price. It’s a lovely piece of printing that makes this bibliophile get excited in unhealthy ways. Bound in three quarters Morocco leather, HUGE format, and printed crisply on good alkaline paper, it’s physically well-made. And the info is delightful. There’s a full-color facsimile, a black and white facsimile with parallel text translating the Spanish commentary, and two volumes of essays about the codex and its contents. Very nice! There’s an essay on the honorific warrior uniforms that was particularly interesting and will likely provoke a post at some point. It also gave me a lot of tips on how to spot priests in the codices based on dress and body/face paint.

Lastly, the same gentleman who sold me his copy of the Mendoza just agreed to part with his Dibble & Anderson edition of the Florentine Codex to boot, for a price I never thought I’d see on that set.

The upshot of all this frenzied book-greed for my readers? If you have questions that relate to stuff that’s covered by these texts, I may be able to help. My time’s limited, but so long as it’s reasonable I can try to look something up for you.