Nahuatl transcription

From Academic Kids


As with any other spoken language, there are several different manners in which Nahuatl can be transcribed:phonemic, phonetic, morphemic, syllabic, etc.

(The following examples uses Nahuatl-SAMPA notation. SeeSAMPA chart for Nahuatl for the X-SAMPA and IPA equivalents.)


Phonemic transcription

A faithful phonemic transcription needs to represent the following phonemes:


voiceless stops:   /p/, /t/, /k/, /q/, (/h/)
voiceless affricates:   /z/, /r/, /c/
voiceless fricatives:   /s/, /x/
voiced nasals:   /m/, /n/
laterals: /l/
semivowels:   /v/, /y/


short:   /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/
long:   /a:/, /e:/, /i:/, /o:/
(glottalized:   /ah/, /eh/, /ih/, /oh/ )

(Note): the glottal stop and the glottalized vowels are parenthesised because either one or the other is needed (depending on the grammatical interpretation chosen), but not both.

A phonemic transcription of Nahuatl must distinguish between the long and short vowels shown above. Unfortunately, this is not usually done in practice (e.g. Nahuatl dictionary). This omission may hinder learners of Nahuatl and cause confusion due to minimal pairs.

Phonetic transcription

A faithful phonetic transcription needs to take into account the fact that the following phonemes have multiple phonetic realizations:

(the 0 subdindex represents the devoiced version of the corresponding phoneme)


[m] _p
[n] otherwise


[no] _#
[m] otherwise


[l] V_V
[lo] otherwise


[yo] _#, _t
[y] otherwise


[l] l_
[r] otherwise


[x] ?_?
[s] otherwise


[u:] stressed
[o:] otherwise

Morphemic transcription

A faithful morphemic transcription would have to provide a graphemic representation for each element of the set of morphemes in the language:

-cal-  →  Kal
-tl-  →  Tl
-ä-  →  A
-chi-  →  Ci
-hua-  →  Ua

ächihuacalli  →  ACiUaKalTl

Syllabic transcription

A faithful syllabic transcription would have to provide a graphemic representation for each element of the set of all valid syllables in the language, which is the same set as that of the morphemes, since all Nahuatl morphemes are monosyllabic:

.kal.  →  Kal
.tl.  →  Tl
.ä.  →  A
.chi.  →  Ci
.hua.  →  Ua

ächihuacalli  →  ACiUaKalTl

Historical transcription

When the Spanish friars began transcribing Nahuatl into the Roman alphabet they, naturally, made use of the Spanish language practices as a basis for the Nahuatl script. In doing this, they faced the following problems:

(Spanish did have the alveo-palatal fricative č (english /ch/ sound))

  • Spanish lacked the alveo-palatal fricative š (english /sh/ sound)
  • Spanish lacked the voiceless lateral fricative ł (polish /l/ sound)
  • Spanish lacked the voiceless lateral fricative ɬ (polish /l/ sound)
  • Spanish lacked the alveolar affricate ʧ (italian /zz/ sound)
  • Spanish lacked the lateral alveolar affricate tl (totonac /tl/ sound)
  • Spanish lacked the glottal stop ʔ (german // sound)
  • Spanish lacked the glottal/?pharyingeal fricative ħ (german // sound)
  • Spanish lacked the glottal/?pharyingeal fricative ņ (german // sound)
  • Spanish lacked the glottal/?pharyingeal fricative ŵ (german // sound)
  • Spanish lacked the glottal/?pharyingeal fricative ŷ (german // sound)

This presented no problem for the following consonants, which sounded the same in both Spanish and Nahuatl:

/p/ /t/ /k/

Table I A B CDEF
1 qu- → -V c- → -Vcu- → -V ..ç- → -Vs- → -Vz- → -V
2 qua → qa ca → ka cua → qa ..ça → θasa →saza → θa
3 que → ke ce → θe cue → qe ..çe → θese →seze →
4 qui → ki ci → θi cui → qi ..çi → θisi →sizi →
5 quo → qo co → ko cuo → qo ..ço → θoso →sozo → θo
6 quu → cu → ku cuu → ..çu → θusu →suzu → θu
7 -q → -c → -cuh|-uc → -ç →-s → -s-z → -θ

Table II A B C
1 q- ← cu-  qu- k- ← c-  qu- s- ← ç-  c-  z-
2 qa ← (cua)  qua ka ← ca  __ sa ← ça  __   za
3 qe ← cue __ ke ← __  que se ← çe  ce  (ze)
4 qi ← cui __ ki ← __  qui si ← çi  ci  (zi)
5 qo ← ko ← co  __ so ← ço  __  zo
6 -q ← -cuh|-uc  (-q) -c ← -c  __ -s ← ()  __  -z

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.
    • TL is, in linguistic terms, a lateral affricate. This is a type of sound found in very few European languages (Welsh being the exception) but commonly found in North and Central American indigenous languages.
  • 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" in some dialects or "go over")
  • Z is pronounced like English S (as in Mexican, but not European, Spanish).

Before the conquest, there existed differences between the Nahuatl of the people, and the Nahuatl of the upper classes. The upper classes had created an esoteric language; for example, the word Aztlan means "the place of the storks". But Stork means "white", and white means "the origin", so in the language of the upper classes, Aztlan means "the place of origin". This has complicated the translation of the surviving Aztec writings.

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 consonant Y.
  • The letter Ç may replace Z to represent the sound of S.

Recently, US linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look more like 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/Ç for the sound of S.

In some unusual cases, non-ASCII symbols are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds.


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