When the majesty and complexity of the Aztec Empire first burst upon my consciousness like the new sun after a hard night's rain, there was no Internet. Desktop computers were toys, for the most part, and the idea that entire libraries might some day be literally at our finger tips was more nearly science fiction than it was a probability.
Accordingly, my first tentative steps towards an understanding of a culture now buried in the jagged rubble of history were—like the Spaniards who came, shocked and amazed, upon the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán—in the first person, in situ, in modern-day Mexico City. I had a friend who spoke Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Mexica. The ruins of their civilization were all around us. We walked and talked and listened to the ancient songs as they had been handed down for generations, mother-to-daughter, father-to-son, and slowly the size and shape of the Spanish rape of Mesoamerica came gradually into place in my mind.
Which accounts partly for my now life-long obsession with the Aztecs as well as the book I've been writing for way-too-long. Parts of Below the Line, a nightmare fantasy about the revenge of the Aztecs on a Hollywood movie company shooting in Mexico City, are beginning to find their way into this forum and my message box of late has been full of numerous queries like "How do your pronounce those words?" and "Is there a glossary?"
I'd like to address these questions.
Understand, first of all, that the Aztecs had no written language. Nearly ALL of their pictographic records—glyphs similar to those of the Egyptians—were destroyed by the supposedly morally superior Spanish Catholics. It is only through the efforts of more temperate monks, particularly Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, who spent most of his life in Mexico observing the remnants of a still-proud civilization, that we know anything about them at all. His General History of the Aztecs, also known as the Florentine Codex and, in an earlier version the Codex Matritense, is a manuscript containing a hand-written account of his impressions, with illustrations, begun in the 1540s. Its value cannot be overstated, since it preserves, transliterated of course into Spanish, the original language of the Kings of the New World.
Two things: Spanish does not have characters for some of the Nahuatl sounds, thus there are phonetic approximations. Everything contained in anything the Spaniards wrote is inherently double-biased. The male monks were basically interviewing male clerics and civil and military leaders in a country in which most of the male population had been slaughtered. Women, and in particular the simple everyday joys of life in the Aztec world are given somewhat short shrift. Is it any wonder, then, that our first taste of the Aztec world is flavored in blood?
Be that as it may, a major reason I've not bothered to pronounce phonetically every Aztec word I node is because the language is so easy the names and places have become second nature to me.
The cardinal rule to making Nahuatl sound all exotic and cool is Pronounce it as if it were Spanish. Nahuatl is not Spanish, of course, but then Mexico City isn't known as the belly-button of the world any more either.
The vowel sounds are simple:
a = ah
e = ay
i = ee
o = oh (or "u" sometimes in print)
u does not exist as an independent vowel
The consonants are similar to English, except for those sounds that are peculiarly Spanish:
x = sh
w = hu
There are a very few sounds that don't exist in either Spanish or English:
Tz = the ts sound in the word "hats"
Tl = requires the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth while sounding the "t". A single consonant, not a full syllable
LL = pronounced like a long L
Z = sounds like an English S
There is always confusion from Spanish to English with the letters c, q, and z, depending on which vowels they follow, but these are easy to learn:
Before a or o:
c = k
cu = kw
z = s
Before e or I:
qu = k
c = s
Most important of all, the accent is almost always on the next to last syllable:
Quetzalcoatl—— kayt sahl KO'tl
Ometeotl—— O me TEO tl
Huitzilopochtli—— wet sEL O POHCH tl'E
Tonacatecuhtli —— tO na ka te KWA tlE
Mexica—— may SHEE kah
Xipe Totec—— she pe TO tek
Ehecatl—— e we KAH tl
Nahuatl was the official administrative language of the Aztecs and one can appreciate the importance that was given to a thorough understanding of its grammar and vocabulary by the Spanish Crown. (Can you count to a million pieces of gold in Nahuatl, Captain?) Accordingly, it may well be the most rigorously studied of all the indigenous American languages.
There is a distinction between the language of the ancient Aztecs (classical Nahuatl) and that language still spoken by well over a million and a half people in Mexico, but primarily this is in regard to the, alas, inevitable encroachment of the Spanish tongue as memories of ancient glories fade.
So yes, in conclusion, I depended upon the spoken word, upon the breath of the native, in my early forays into ancient Mexico. And then later, of course, upon the Codices, kept of course in the Vatican but available in facsimile everywhere. But you, gentle and curious noder, have the entirety of the Internet at your disposal. The Nahuatl language sites are numerous and varied, giving the lie to my gross oversimplification here.
There is even an on-line course in the language, given by Yale University. That, to me, sounds like a very good place to start:
On Mexico and the Aztecs:
An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Below the Line