Nahuatl is the language spoken by the native people, including the Aztecs, in what is now Mexico. It is still the most important Indian language in the country. Its 1.5 million speakers live mainly in the states of Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Guerrero. All but the most elderly speakers of Nahuatl are bilingual in Spanish. In general, modern Nahuatl shows strong influences from Spanish.
Nahuatl belongs to the Uto-Aztecan subgroup of North American Indian languages which also include the languages spoken by the Comanche, Pima, Shoshone, and other tribes of western North America. It is an agglutinant, flexive language.
Nahuatl words adopted into English include "tomato," "chocolate," "avocado," "coyote," and "ocelot."
At the time of the Spanish conquest Aztec writing was entirely pictographic. The Spanish introduced the Roman script and recorded a large body of Aztec prose and poetry. Thus, Nahuatl written in Roman script is pronounced as if it were Spanish with a few exceptions.
- Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U)
- U does not occur as an independent vowel.
- X is pronounced like English SH.
- LL is pronounced like a long L.
- TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
- CU and UC are both pronounced KW.
- HU and UH are both pronounced W.
- H without an adjacent U represents a glottal stop (as in "kitten" or "go over")
- Z is pronounced like English S.
Since the time of the Spanish conquest the spelling of Nahuatl has varied considerably.
- U and O both represent the sound of O.
- U alone may replace UH or HU to represent the sound of W.
- H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written.
- Vowel length may or may not be marked.
- Y and I may both represent the vowel I.
- I may replace the consonent Y.
- The letter Ç may replace Z to represent the sound of S.
In this century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look more like American English. Thus:
- W may replace HU or UH for the sound of W.
- K may replace QU/C for the sound of K.
- S may replace Z/C for the sound of S.
In some cases unusual, non-ASCII symbols are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds.