THE AZTECS ARE ALIVE AND WELL: The Náhuatl Language in México
By John P. Schmal
“On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlán – the capital of the extensive Aztec Empire – fell to a large force of Spanish and indigenous soldiers. The magnificent city had been under siege for 79 days, as many of its Mexica warriors fought with great courage against an enemy that numbered between 100,000 and 150,000. However, with their lifeline to food sources and water supplies cut off, women, children, and men were dying from dehydration, starvation and disease at an incredible rate. According to Aztec historians, 240,000 inhabitants of the great city had died by the end of the siege.
The conquest of Tenochtitlán spelled the end of the great Aztec Empire. But even with the death of the political entity that had ruled over so much of central and southern México, the Aztec culture – together with the Náhuatl language that its people spoke – endured through much of central and eastern México. In some communities, the Aztec culture and language actually thrived over the centuries. The Mexican census of 2000 indicated that 1,448,936 persons spoke the Náhuatl language, representing 24.0% of all indigenous speakers in the country. And, among the Náhuatl speakers, 195,934 persons (or 13.5%) were actually monolingual and unable to speak the Spanish language.
After forging important alliances with several Indian leaders, Captain Hernán Cortés had led a large coalition of Spanish soldiers and indigenous warriors against the Mexica of Tenochtitlán. Once they had consolidated their position, the Spaniards laid waste to the city, leveling the majestic temples, pyramids and palaces that had dominated the capital’s landscape. Tenochtitlán itself was rebuilt as a Spanish-style colonial capital and was renamed La Ciudad de México (México City).
Although the Spaniards and their Christian Indian allies sought to remove all vestiges of the Mexica’s culture and heritage, Cortés and his military advisers also recognized that their victory was only made possible by the help of their indigenous allies, most of whom were, like the Mexica, members of the Aztec culture and speakers of the Náhuatl language.
The Mexica had ruled over the vast Aztec Empire from Tenochtitlán, but they were actually only one ethnic group of many that made up the Aztec culture. The Náhuatl language that they spoke was just one component of the widespread Aztec culture that dominated much of central and eastern México. The intricate relationships among the Náhuatl-speaking languages and their origins have been described in greater detail by this author at the following location:
At first, the Spanish authorities tried to persuade the native peoples of México to learn Spanish after they had converted them to Christianity and destroyed their temples. In 1560, King Charles of Spain decreed that all the Mexican natives were to be taught in Spanish. However, enacting laws was one thing, but putting the laws into action was clearly another. As the Mexican people clung to their language and many of their traditions, many Spanish Catholic priests decided to learn Náhuatl as a means to understand the customs of the local populations they planned to convert. In most cases, the friars discovered it was easier to convert the natives in their own tongue. As a result, a genealogical researcher in the present day will find that some Catholic Church records in Pueblo, Hidalgo and México State were actually written in the Náhuatl language well into the Eighteenth Century.
One Aztec group, the Tlaxcalans, had played an indispensable role in the conquest of Tenochtitlán and would spend the next few centuries working side-by-side with their Spanish compatriots, helping to colonize and Christianize many parts of central and northern México. The author Charles Gibson, in his work “Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century,” has explored the intricacies of the Tlaxcalan alliance with the Spaniards in great detail. After the conquest of the Mexica, the Tlaxcalans were given special concessions, and to some extent, they were able to maintain their old form of government.
Philip Wayne Powell, in Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War, explained that many of the Náhuatl-speaking people from central México played an integral part in the settlement of central and northern México. According to Dr. Powell, “Indians formed the bulk of the fighting forces against the” the hostile indigenous groups in other parts of México. As a matter of fact, Dr. Powell explained that “as fighters, as burden bearers, as interpreters, as scouts, as emissaries, the pacified natives of New Spain played significant and often indispensable roles in subjugating and civilizing the Chichimeca country” of Zacatecas, Aguascalientes Jalisco and Guanajuato.
By the middle of the Sixteenth Century, the Aztecs, Cholultecans, Tlaxcalans and other linguistic groups had all joined forces with the Spanish military and developed “considerable experience in warfare alongside the Spaniards.” Without the use of Náhuatl interpreters and intermediaries, communication and mediation with hostile Indians would have been impossible.
The employment of Mexicans and Tlaxcalans for the purpose of “defensive colonization” also encouraged a gradual assimilation of many indigenous groups. As a result of this military and social dependence, the Náhuatl language received a renewed status as México’s lingua franca, and was crucial in assisting the Spaniards in their conquest and settlement of many parts of México.
Because of this relationship between the Spaniards and their Náhuatl-speaking companions, many parts of México even those far from México City carry Náhuatl place names (toponyms). And most of the indigenous peoples that the Spaniards encountered across every part of México were given (and still have) Náhuatl names.
Through the centuries, the Spanish monarchs continued to give orders, discouraging the use of indigenous tongues. In 1634, King Philip IV told the Catholic clergy that they should teach the natives Spanish in order to help them better understand the Spanish way of life. King Charles III issued royal decrees in 1771, 1776 and 1778, instructing his subjects that the Indians should be taught Spanish. But, Náhuatl and other indigenous languages continued to be spoken in many areas.
The Náhuatl-speaking people of México are part of the very large Uto-Aztecan linguistic group that inhabited many parts of central and northern México as well as much of the American Southwest. According to the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano (SIL), the Uto-Aztecan Family consists of 62 individual languages. The Northern Uto-Aztecans, inhabiting several American states, speak thirteen of the sixty-two languages. But the Southern Uto-Aztecans – almost all of who make their homes south of the present-day U.S.-Mexican border – speak 49 languages.
The most common Uto-Aztecan language of México is Náhuatl, which is spoken by large numbers of people in at least fifteen states. The interrelationships of the Uto-Aztecan language has been discussed in greater detail by this author as the following URL:
By the time of the 1895 census, 659,865 Mexican citizens classified themselves as speakers of the Náhuatl language. This group represented 32.1% of the total indigenous-speaking population of 2,055,544. However, a total of 10,574,793 persons were classified as Spanish-speaking individuals five years of age and older, and it is possible that a number of these persons may have been bilingual Náhuatl speakers who did not claim an affiliation with an indigenous language.
In the next three decades, the numbers of indigenous speakers dropped steadily with the violence and bloodshed of the decade-long Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). However, by 1930, the Náhuatl language was still the most widely spoken language among monolingual indigenous speakers. The 1930 census classified 355,295 persons five years of age and over as monolingual speakers of Náhuatl, representing 30.0% of the 1,185,162 persons who exclusively spoke indigenous languages in the entire Mexican Republic.
The states with the largest number of Náhuatl speakers in 1930 were:
1. Puebla (132,013)
2. Veracruz (70,993)
3. Hidalgo (66,823)
4. Guerrero (45,619), and
5. San Luis Potosí (24,074)
In the 1940 census, Puebla continued to have the largest number of Náhuatl monolingual speakers in the Mexican Republic, with 117,917 persons five years of age and older, representing 32.7% of the total Náhuatl monolingual population of 360,071. The other states with significant numbers of Náhuatl monolingual speakers were: Hidalgo (77,664), Veracruz (76,765), Guerrero (41,164), and San Luis Potosí (32,251).
By the time of the 1970 census, Náhuatl and other indigenous languages had increased dramatically. In that year, 799,394 persons were classified as speakers of Náhuatl five years of age and older. These people represented 25.7% of the entire indigenous speaking population of 3,111,415. The distribution of the Náhuatl speakers by state in 1970 is indicated in the following table:
SPEAKERS OF THE NÁHUATL LANGUAGE IN THE 1970 CENSUS (All figures are for persons five years of age and older)
State Speakers of the Náhuatl Language 5 Years of Age and More Percentage of the Entire Náhuatl Speaking Population of the Mexican Republic
Puebla 266,181 33.3%
Veracruz 199,435 24.9%
Guerrero 160,183 20.0%
Hidalgo 115,359 14.4%
San Luis Potosí 72,495 9.1%
Tlaxcala 18,404 2.3%
Morelos 14,787 1.8%
México 10,366 1.3%
Oaxaca 5,624 0.7%
Mexican Republic 799,394 100%
Copyright © 2004, John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved
It is important to note, however, that many of these Náhuatl languages have evolved apart from one another in widely dispersed areas of central, southern, and eastern México. As a result, some of these dialects have become mutually unintelligible to one another. All of these dialects have also been influenced in varying degrees by the Spanish language.
One of the most widely spoken Náhuatl dialects today is the Huasteco Oeste dialect spoken in San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo by about 400,000 persons (Source: 1991 SIL). The Áhuatl Guerrero dialect, which is widely used in parts of the State of Guerrero, may have as many as 200,000 speakers (1998 SIL). However, the most widely spoken dialect is probably the Huasteca Este dialect, which is spoken primarily in the states of Hidalgo, Puebla and Veracruz by 410,000 persons living in 1,500 villages (1991 SIL).
The Puebla Sureste dialect is spoken by about 130,000 individuals in southeast Puebla (1991 SIL), while the Puebla Sierra dialect is spoken by another 125,000 people in northeastern Puebla. The less common Puebla Norte dialect is spoken by about 60,000 people in the northern part of the state. It is believed that about 120,000 of the Náhuatl speakers of Veracruz speak the Orizaba dialect (1991 SIL). The Central Náhuatl dialect is spoken by about 40,000 people in the states of Tlaxcala and Puebla, while the state of Morelos has its own unique dialect of the language.
It would surprise many people to find out that, of the 361,972 indigenous speakers in México State at the time of the 2000 census, only 55,802 – or 15.4% – spoke the Náhuatl tongue. The Otomí and Mazahua dialects are spoken more widely throughout the state. One of the less used dialects in the State of México is the Coatepec dialect, spoken by a couple thousand people at the most. Many other Náhuatl dialects are spoken in the states of Morelos, Veracruz, Durango, and other states. The Náhuatl Tlahtolkalli (Náhuatl Academy of Language) website has a more thorough description and geographic listing of the various Náhuatl dialects. This URL is an excellent source of information for persons hoping to understand more about Náhuatl and for those who are seeking a bibliography of recommended reading on the topic. The website can be accessed at:
The 2000 census registered Náhuatl speakers in every state of the Mexican Republic. The states containing the largest numbers and percentages of Náhuatl speakers in that census are illustrated in the following table:
STATES WITH THE LARGEST POPULATIONS OF PERSONS SPEAKING THE NÁHUATL LANGUAGE – 2000 CENSUS (All figures are for persons five years of age and older)
State Population Percentage
Puebla 416,968 28.8%
Veracruz 338,324 23.3%
Hidalgo 221,684 15.3%
San Luis Potosí 138,523 9.6%
Guerrero 136,681 9.4%
México 55,802 3.9%
Distrito Federal 37,450 2.6%
Tlaxcala 26,662 1.8%
Morelos 18,656 1.3%
Oaxaca 10,979 0.8%
Jalisco 6,714 0.5%
Sinaloa 6,446 0.4%
Mexican Republic 1,448,936 100%
Copyright © 2004, John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved
Although Spanish has greatly influenced the Náhuatl language over the last five centuries, the influence of Náhuatl on the Spanish and English languages has also been profound, albeit not as recognizable. It is a tribute to the Aztec culture and people that a very large percentage of Náhuatl toponyms (place names) can be seen when looking at a map of México. Countless towns and cities from Sonora to Tabasco carry Náhuatl designations. As a matter of fact, the word México finds its origin in the language of the Mexica.
Náhuatl has provided an extraordinary number of words to the Spanish language, including aguacate, capulín, chile, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, mescal, peyote, and tomate. The English language has also adopted as its own many words that have their origins in Náhuatl, including avocado, chocolate, coyote, ocelot, tomato and tequila.
The siege and capture of Tenochtitlán brought to an end a political empire that had dominated a central and southern México for more than a century. But the defeat of the Mexica did not lead to a cultural death of the Aztec culture. Many traditions and customs from the pre-Hispanic period have been carried into the present day. And, more importantly, the language of the Aztec Empire continues to endure as a source of pride to México’s indigenous peoples.”
Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.
“Common questions about Nahuatl.” Online: http://www.sil.org/mexico/nahuatl/10i-NahuatlQuestions.htm.
2004 Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C.
Departamento de la Estadística Nacional, Annuario de 1930. Tacubaya, D.F., México, 1932.
Hill, Jane H. and Kenneth C. Hill. Speaking Mexicano. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1986.
Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 2000, Tabulados Básicos y por Entidad Federativa. Bases de Datos y Tabulados de la Muestra Censal.
Náhuatl Tlahtolkalli (Náhuatl Academy of Language). Online: http://nahuatl.info/nahuatl.htm.
Powell, Philip Wayne. Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War. Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1973.
Schmal, John P. Indigenous Mexico: A State-by-State Analysis (manuscript in progress, 2004).
About the author: John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored “Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico” (Heritage Books, 2002) and “The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey” (Heritage Books, 2004), which is available at: