Mexican X Part II: ¡Hijo de su Mexica Equis!

In Part I of this series on the letter “x” in Mexican Spanish, I explained the spelling of México: a consonant shift made mediveal /ʒ/ ([ž] or “zh”) devoice to /ʃ/ ([š] or “sh”). That sound already existed in Medieval Spanish. It was spelled ‘X.’ The x or “sh” started moving backward, becoming /x/ (the aspirated “h” sound of modern Spanish “j” and “g” before i/e) around the Conquest. Hence “México,” pronounced by most Spaniards of the time as “Méshico.” Then the new pronunciation cemented itself, and it became “Méjico.”

But not all eXes are equal.

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Book 1, Chapter 1 of the bilingual FLORENTINE CODEX

A reminder: all the Vulgar Latin “X” had become [š] in Medieval Spanish. The “x” of México got caught up in Medieval Latin’s shift because of how wide-spread the name became. Other indigenous words suffered several different fates. To understand why, let’s go back to Latin.

Vulgar Latin wasn’t Spanish’s only source of Latin words. Catholic Church liturgy, science, and literature filtered new ones in as “inkhorn terms” and “classical compounds” (palabras cultas y semicultas) from the Renaissance on. Those with an “x” kept the Latin pronunciation /ks/.

Here are just a handful of these abundant terms, along with their Classical Latin origins.

FLEXIO > flexión (flexing)
MIXTUS > mixto (mixed)
TEXTUS > texto (text)
TOXICUM > tóxico (toxic)
EXCESSUS > exceso (excess)
EXPERIENTĬA > experiencia (experience)
EXPERTUS > experto (expert)
EXPLICĀRE > explicar (explain)
EXQUISĪTUS >exquisito (exquisite)

Get a feel for what this entailed? Good.

In modern Spanish, by the way, there’s a tendency to simplify these inkhorn exes when they appear right before another consonant: “explica” becomes /esplikar/ instead of /eksplicar/ in the mouths of most native speakers. Spanish “doesn’t like” /ks/ at the ends of syllables. It rebels. Sometimes it decides to loosen up and “voice” the /k/, so that a word like “exprimir” comes out /eɣsprimir/.

This reflects what had already happened when Vulgar Latin had /ks/ before a consonant: reduction. So “expaventare” evolved into “espantar” and “excapulare” into “escabullir.” Medieval Spanish did NOT want to let these become “eshpantar” and “eshacabullir,” so it reduced that /ks/ to /s/ instead.

Random manuscript in Medieval Spanish. I dunno. Thought we could use another image.

These “fancy x” words also come from Latin/Greek via other languages, like French, which gave Spanish oxígeno, xenofobia, xilografía, and axila. The exes of those middle two? Pronounced /s/. That’s definitely the trend. Reduce Greek/Latin word-initial /ks/ to /s/.

Boom! On to Nahuatl!

Just like with Vulgar and inkhorn Latin, there’s a tendency in colonial Spanish to simplify the LETTER “x” in WIDELY USED Nahuatl words when it appears before another consonant. So “Tlaxcallān” [tlaš kal la:n] (“tortilla-land”) becomes Tlaxcala [tlas ka la]. There are a bunch of words that follow this pattern, like mescal (from “mēxcalli”), piscar (to pick corn, from “pixca”), and tequesquite (a mineral salt, “tequixquitl”). I will repeat that these are more widespread in their usage and were adopted into Spanish early.

Sometimes the “x” does become an /ks/ in these contexts, like nixtamal /nikstamal/ (hominy, from “nextamalli”), or Ixtapa. The /t/ is key.

Between vowels, it pretty much always evolved into /x/, the same sound as Spanish “j”: “axolōtl” became ajolote (by the way, English-speakers, “aks a lottle” sounds horrible), “huehxōlōtl” garbled its way into guajolote (turkey), “huaxin” became guaje (leadtree), “texōlōtl” gave us tejolote (stone pestle), etc.

At the start of words, shiz gets tricky. Before /a/ and /i/, the “[š] ->[x]” rule is the dominant pattern for widespread Nahuatl words adopted early.

Jícara (xīcalli), jicama (xīcama), city Xalisco and state Jalisco (“Xālixco,” showing both evolutions), Xalapa (Xālāpan), etc.

Before /o/, though, “x” gets even wonkier. Most times it’s /x/. “Xocotl” becomes jocote, for example. But “xoconōchtli” gives both joconostle [xoconostle] and xoconostle [šokonostle]. There’s the boulevard called Xol [šol] and the famous xoloitzcuintle [šoloitskwintle] from “Xoloitzcuintli.”

It appears that the second consonant in these word affects the pronunciation of the initial “x.” Nowhere is this clearer than in Xóchitl [sochitl] and Xochimilco [sochimilko]. The way the “ch” is pronounced (a /t/ and /ʃ/ simultaenously) pulls the initial /ʃ/ forward in the mouth, close to the alveolar ridge.

TWO MAJOR CAVEATS to all of the above: 1) What I’ve explained applies to Nahuatl, not the various Mayan languages or other indigenous tongues that use the /ʃ/. 2) It also mainly applies to early-adopted, widely used words. In small communities where Nahuan languages are spoken, place names may follow Nahuatl rules. Newer names may vary wildly.

Okay, so that’s a wrap for MEXICAN X, PART II. I hope you got something out of it.

This weekend I’ll post PART III: DUDE, WHERE’S THE XOCOLATE?

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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