Mexican X-plainer: Tamal vs. Tamale

David Bowles
4 min readJun 12, 2019

There’s a debate raging on the Internet and inside Mexican American culture: What is the singular of “tamales”?

While I personally say “tamal,” there is absolutely no reason to shame people for saying “a tamale” instead of “a tamal,” especially when they’re speaking English.

Yes, in Mexican Spanish the singular is “tamal.” But it didn’t have to be.

Image of tamales from depositphotos

Let’s think about Nahuatl. The Nahuatl word “tamalli” is both singular and plural (like all non-animate nouns). “Tamal” is the possessed form, and it always takes a possessive prefix: “notamal” means “my tamal/e[s],” for example.

The possessed form drops the absolutive suffix (-li in this case).

Another Nahuatl word that was adopted into Spanish the same way was “comal” (griddle), from the original “comālli.” The possessed form is “-comāl,” giving us, for example, “tocomāl” or “our comal.”

But not all -li words came into Spanish this way. Our beloved “chile” (chili pepper) comes from the Nahuatl “chīlli,” the possessed form of which is just “-chīl,” as in “nochīl” (my chili pepper).

No one is upset because we say “chile” instead of “chil” in Spanish, right?

See how silly this is? Another example is “mole.”

Mole comes from the Nahuatl “mōlli.” It has an irregular possessed form: “-mōllo” (“nomōllo” is “my mole”).

Anybody upset we call it mole and not “mollo”?

Thought not.

Lots of words retained their absolutive endings (-li, -tl, -tli) when adopted into Spanish, btw. Like “āhuacatl” became “aguacate,” even though the possessed form is “-āhuacauh.”

“Cacahuatl” became “cacahuate,” even though the possessed form happens to be “-cacahuauh.”

Another perfect example is “atol/e” (corn gruel). The original Nahuatl word is “ātōlli,” and the possessed form is “-ātōl” (“nātōl” is “my atol/e”). Mexican Spanish uses “atole,” Guatemalan Spanish “atol.” Neither is right or wrong.

Sometimes both forms (with and without “e”) exist, but with different meanings! For example, we have “pozol” (a drink made of fermented corn dough) and “pozole,” the traditional Mexican soup. They both…

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David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.