Nahuatl orthography

Nahuatl orthography

Nahuatl orthography describes the methodologies and conventions used to express the Nahuatl languages and dialects in some given writing system, and the inventory of glyphs, graphemes and diacritics employed for that purpose.

Historically Nahuatl has been written with greatly differing orthographies because no institution has governed its spelling. This is still true for the classical dialect (Classical Nahuatl) which is a dead language documented in many historical sources and literature, but spelling of the modern dialects of Nahuatl is governed by the Mexican Secretaría de Educación Publica (federal education ministry), although they do have some difficulties in implementing their orthographic standards in the Nahuatl communities.

This article describes and compares some of the different transcription systems of the Nahuatl phonological system that have been used.


Phonemes of Classical Nahuatl


  Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops p t   k / kʷ ʔ
Fricatives   s ʃ    
Affricates    t͡ɬ / t͡s t͡ʃ    
Approximants w l j    
Nasals m n      


  Front Central Back
  long short long short long short
High i
Mid e o
Low a

Orthographical history

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec writing used mostly pictographs supplemented by a few ideograms. When needed, it also used syllabic equivalences; Father Diego Durán recorded how the tlàcuilòquê (codex painters) could render a prayer in Latin using this system, but it was difficult to use. This writing system was adequate for keeping such records as genealogies, astronomical information, and tribute lists, but could not represent a full vocabulary of spoken language in the way that the writing systems of the old world or of the Maya civilization could. The Aztec writing was not meant to be read, but to be told; the elaborate codices were essentially pictographic aids for teaching, and long texts were memorized.

The Spanish introduced the Latin alphabet, which was then utilized to record a large body of Aztec prose and poetry, a fact which somewhat mitigated the devastating loss of the thousands of Aztec manuscripts which were burned by the Spanish. (See Aztec codices.) Important lexical works (e.g. Alonso de Molina's classic Vocabulario of 1571) and grammatical descriptions (of which Horacio Carochi's 1645 Arte is generally acknowledged the best[1]) were produced using variations of this orthography.

The Classical Nahuatl orthography was not perfect, and in fact there were many variations in how it was applied, due in part to dialectal differences and in part to differing traditions and preferences that developed. (The writing of Spanish itself was far from totally standardized at the time.) Today, although almost all written Nahuatl uses some form of Latin-based orthography, there continue to be strong dialectal differences, and considerable debate and differing practices regarding how to write sounds even when they are the same. Major issues include:

  • Whether to follow Spanish in writing /k/ sometimes as <c> and sometimes as <qu> or just to use <k>
  • How to write /kʷ/
  • What to do about /w/, the realization of which varies considerably from place to place and even within a single dialect
  • How to write the saltillo, phonetically a glottal stop ([ʔ]) or an [h], which has been spelled with j, h, and a straight apostrophe ('), but which traditionally was often omitted in writing.
  • Whether and how to represent vowel length

There are a number of other issues as well, such as

  • Whether and how to represent allophones (sound variants), which approximate different Spanish phonemes, especially variants of o which come close to u
  • To what extent writing in one variant should be adapted towards what is used in other variants.

Historical transcription methodologies

When the Spanish friars began transcribing Nahuatl into the Latin alphabet they, naturally, made use of Spanish language practices as a basis for the Nahuatl script. While the voiceless postalveolar affricate /t͡ʃ/ (English ⟨ch⟩), the voiceless postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ (English ⟨sh⟩ sound), and the voiceless stops (/p t k/ sounded the same in both Spanish and Nahuatl, Spanish lacked the voiceless alveolar affricate /t͡s/, the lateral alveolar affricate /t͡ɬ/, and the glottal stop /ʔ/ (the break between the vowels in English Uh-oh).

Thus, Nahuatl written in the Latin alphabet is very similar to that of Spanish with a few exceptions:

  • Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding <c>)
  • <u> does not occur as an independent vowel.
  • <x> represents /ʃ/ (as it did in Spanish; the Spanish phoneme transcribed with <x> later shifted to a voiceless velar fricative, now written <j> in most cases, while the Náhuatl phoneme transcribed with <x> remained unchanged).
  • <ll> represents a geminated <l>.
  • <tl> is /t͡ɬ/, a voiceless alveolar lateral affricate. This is a type of sound not found in any European languages but commonly found in indigenous North and Central American languages.
  • <cu> and <uc> both represent /kʷ/.
  • <hu> and <uh> both represent /w/.
  • <h> without an adjacent <u> represents a glottal stop.
  • <z> represents /s/ (as in Latin American Spanish).

In post-colonial times Nahuatl had no standardized orthography, and colonial documents employ widely different orthographies:

  • <u> and <o> both represent /o/.
  • <u> alone may replace <uh> or <hu> to represent /w/.
  • 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> or <y> may both represent the consonant /j/.
  • The letter <ç> may replace <c> to represent /s/.

Carochi's transcription

In the 17th century the Jesuit grammarian Horacio Carochi in 1645 wrote a grammar[2] on the Classical Nahuatl language. For this purpose he developed an orthography for Classical Nahuatl, which was exceptional in that it was the first description of Nahuatl that consistently marked both vowel length and glottal stop (saltillo). His orthography was subsequently used in works and documents by some Jesuits but did not gain wide usage due to decrees by Charles II banning the use of indigenous languages in his empire and the later expulsion of the Jesuits from New Spain in 1767. His orthography was further refined by Michel Launey in his grammar of Classical Nahuatl.[3][4] This transcription shows vowel length by adding a macron above the long vowel : <ā, ē, ī, ō>. And it shows saltillo by marking the preceding vowel with a grave accent <à, ì, è, ò> if it is medial or a circumflex if it is final <â, î, ê, ô,>. Some other transcriptions mark saltillo as an <h> because in Classical Nahuatl this phoneme was pronounced as a glottal stop and was not consistently transcribed but any other grammarian than Carochi. Many modern dialects of Nahuatl, however, have /h/ as a phoneme instead of saltillo. Historical sources, as well as transcriptions by many modern scholars, do not use any standardized transcriptions and usually do not mark vowel length or saltillo at all, and the reader will have to guess or know vowel length and the presence of saltillo. To give an adequate description of the Classical Nahuatl language marking both vowel length and saltillo is, however, essential.

Contemporary orthography

The Secretaría de Educación Pública (Ministry of Public Education) has adopted an alphabet for its bilingual education programs in rural communities in Mexico and this decision has had some influence. Even though it is not suited for all dialects of Nahuatl, because of the wide phonological differences between them. The recently established Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (National Indigenous Languages Institute, INALI) will also be involved in these issues. This orthography does generally not mark vowel length nor saltillo (but it uses ⟨j⟩ to represent the sound /h/ in the dialects that have this sound.) The letter ⟨k⟩ is used for /k/ and /w/ is written ⟨u⟩.


  1. ^ Launey, Michel (1994) (in French). Une grammaire omniprédicative – Essai sur la morphosyntaxe du nahuatl classique. Sciences du langage. Paris: CNRS Éditions. pp. 18, 19. ISBN 2-271-05072-3. 
  2. ^ "Arte de la Lengua Mexicana con la Declaración de Todos sus Adverbios", printed in Mexico in 1645
  3. ^ Michel Launey. (French) Introduction à la Langue et à la Littérature Aztèques. Paris, 1980.
  4. ^ Michel Launey. (Spanish) Introducción a la lengua y a la literatura Náhuatl. UNAM, México, 1992


  • Canger, Una. 2002. "An Interactive Dictionary and Text Corpus for Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Nahuatl." in Making Dictionaries - Preserving Indigenous Languages of the Americas. Ed. William Frawley, Kenneth Hill, and Pamela Munro. University of California Press.
  • Canger, Una. 1990. "Review, An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl (Karttunen)". International Journal of American Linguistics 52. 188-196.
  • Carochi, Horacio. 1645. (Spanish) Arte de la Lengua Mexicana con la Declaracion de los Adverbios Della (Reprinted Mexico, 1759, 1892). Facsimile edition of Ruyz, Mexico, 1645.
  • Croft, Kenneth. 1951. "Practical Orthography for Matlapa Nahuatl". International Journal of American Linguistics 17. 32-36.
  • Launey, M. 1979. (French) Introduction à la Langue et à la Littérature Aztèques t.1: Grammaire. Paris: L'Harmattan; An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl [English translation/adaptation by Christopher Mackay], 2011, Cambridge University Press.

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