In recent articles, I have used “king” interchangeably with the Nahuatl title “tlahtoāni.” There’s been some pushback from armchair experts in Nahuatl and Nahua culture who insist I am wrong.

Well, I’m not. Let me explain what you clearly don’t know.

Buckle up. We’re going down the rabbit hole, friends.

First things first. “Tlahtoāni” was the title given to the person who ruled over an “āltepētl” or city-state / kingdom.

It comes from the verb “ihtoa” (speak, say, decree) in its special form “tlahtoa.” The “tla-” there is the inanimate indefinite object prefix. It basically means “stuff.”

So tlahtoa” literally translates to “say or decree stuff.”

It had three major uses in Classical Nahuatl:

1. “To speak of things”
2. “[For an animal] to make noise”
3. “To rule/govern/supervise” (with a locative)

The last one is what we need to explore to understand the title.

  • If I say “īpan nitlahtoa,” it means “I’m in charge of it.”
  • If I say “oncān tlahtoa notahtzin,” it means “my father governs over there.”
  • If I say “Mēhxico titlahtoa,” it means “You rule Mexico.”

Because we literally decree stuff in those places … see the connection?

Now, from this verb “tlahtoa” an adjective/noun was formed using the -ni suffix that indicates an actor.


It has two principle meanings:

1. one who / thing which says stuff / makes noise
2. one who rules / governs

If I say “ca tlahtoāni in cochotl,” it’s “the white-fronted parrot is a chirpy thing!”

But if I say “ca in tlahtoāni Mēxihco inin oquichtli,” it’s “this man is the ruler of Mexico.”

You see? A tlahtoāni doesn’t “speak for the people” (as so many people want to reinterpret his role).

He rules them. Decrees things.

This is the danger of NOT KNOWING NAHUATL, seeing that the root of “tlahtoāni” has to do with speaking, and making all kinds of hippy, new-age assumptions about the title’s ACTUAL meaning and its associated roles.

Make no mistake. A tlahtoāni was king.

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Basic glyph for tlahtoāni

Let’s talk about the word “king.”

It derives from proto-Germanic *kuningaz (king, ruler), from the root *kunją (kin, family, people) plus the suffix *-ingaz (belonging to).

The idea is that a king is the foremost member of his community. His word is the people’s word. He represents and commands them.

What about Spanish “rey”? From Vulgar Latin *rege, from Latin rēx / rēgem, from Proto-Italic *rēks, from Proto-Indo-European *h₃rḗǵs … “he who straightens, rules” from *h₃reǵ (to straighten or right yourself; right; just).

A “king” and a “rey” and a “tlahtoāni”? Same job.

They ruled a people. Their word was law.

As a translator, I have to determine whether it makes sense to use a word in the source language rather than use the equivalent in English and Spanish.

Will it clarify or exoticize a cultural practice?

In this case, king is fine.

Think about “Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

In Spanish it’s “Presidente de la Cámara de Representantes.”

Are US folks getting mad? “Preserve the actual title! El Speaker de la Casa de Representantes!”

(God, I hope not…)

Your intentions may be good, but while I have nothing AGAINST using “tlahtoāni” (as we do emir, sultan, pharaoh, etc.), what I’m trying to get across in this article is that THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH USING “KING” FOR A MALE MONARCH.

Imagine a Venn diagram of European king and Nahua tlahtoāni.

1. Mostly, but not necessarily, hereditary title.
2. Sometimes selected by an elite group.
3. Absolute rulers over at least a city and surrounding countryside.
4. Often not of the same ethnicity or race as the people they rule.
5. Often brought from another kingdom to rule.

(As an aside, most folks have no idea that the aristocracy ruling over the Mexica in Tenochtitlan was hardly Mexica at all: lots of Ahcolhuah and Tepanecah intermarriage. In fact, the very first tlahtoāni of Tenochtitlan was Ācamāpichtli, the half-Mexica, half-Colhua prince of Cōlhuahcān. The same holds true for Nezahualcoyōtl, tlahtoāni of Tetzcohco. His mother was from Tenochtitlan, part Mexica, part Tepaneca, part Colhua, part Cuauhnahuaca. His father was part Chichichimec, part Ahcolhua. A real blend of Nahua nationalities.)

I also don’t see much problem with parsing “huēyi tlahtoāni” (“big decreer-of-stuff,” heh, or “great king”) as “emperor.” It was the title of the tlahtoāni of Tenochtitlan.

Strangely, it *does* bug me to call the Triple Alliance an “empire.” We all have our tics, I guess. But, as Michael E. Smith points out, the Triple Alliance certainly qualifies as an empire by most definitions, so I’m trying to get past that quirk. Intellectually, the parallels are quite clear to me.

Now, if we’re going to use “tlahtoani” (dropping the macron, since most of you can’t make it appear that easily), what plural should we use, hm?

I guess most folks will want “tlahtoanis” (or “tlatoanis,” dropping the glottal stop). But what’s the actual plural in Nahuatl?

There are three.

First version adds the good old-fashioned Uto-Aztecan -meh:


Another plural adds the -h (glottal stop):


The most common, however is “tlahtohqueh,” which is actually the plural of “tlahtoh” (ruler, director, giver-of-orders).

Time to wrap this up.


Nahua sovereigns were called “tlahtoānimeh,” which means “rulers” rather than “speakers.” Some folks assume they “spoke for their people” or some other less monarch-y nonsense. But they were the absolute law.

It’s fine to call them “kings.”

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A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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