Nahuatl’s Lack of Grammatical Gender

In writing about the term “Latinx” last month, I kept reflecting on how — despite the fact that Aztec society did have clear gender divisions and tended toward patriarchy (though less so than Spain at the time) — Classical Nahuatl had no grammatical gender.

This creates a sort of linguistic inclusiveness that I quite like.

There’s no Nahuatl word like “poetess” or “songstress.” It’s just “cuīcani” for any gender.

For starters, let’s look at nouns. A “mēxihcatl” is a Mexica person of whatever gender. “In Mēxihcah” are “the Mexica,” no gender specified. Compare this to Spanish and its “las mexicanas” (the Mexican women) versus “los mexicanos” (the Mexican men OR the Mexican people).

A person is “tlācatl.” A child is “pilli” and one’s younger sibling is “niccauh,” regardless of gender. To say “physician” or “doctor,” you use “tīcitl” (which can also mean midwife). “Totēucyo” is “our lord/lady/ruler.” It’s pretty fantastic, I think.

Obviously there are nouns that have gender built in. “Cihūatl” is “woman.” “Nonān” is “my mom.” And so on. But the issues Latinx folx face with Spanish gender endings are largely absent from Nahuatl.

Pronouns carry this even further, showing absolutely no grammatical gender at all. Our struggle to choose among he, she, singular they, various new singular non-binary equivalents or even the inhuman it … Nahuatl dispenses with the problem altogether.

There’s a single (emphatic) pronoun for all of these iterations of the third person singular: yehhuātl (which has a short abrupt form, yeh). Look at this example sentence:

You could emphasize that it’s a man, for example, but you’d use a totally different construction:

This holds true for the object prefix (a sort of pronoun attached directly to the verb). It’s essentially a /k/ sound, spelled “c” or “qu” (depending on the surrounding letters) and occasionally linked via the vowel “i.” This prefix also represents all possible iterations of the third person singular (as well as for the plural of inanimate objects, which are only rarely grammatically plural).

Here’s another example sentence:

To specify further, you’d have to add words.

Now, there are ways of creating gendered nouns, I should clarify. For example, you can underscore that a woman is in a particular role by prefixing “cihuā-” to the noun. The word ruler, “tēuctli,” is of indeterminate gender, but if you say “cihuātēuctli,” now you’re explicitly calling her a “female ruler.”

Or take the case of “chīchīhualli,” which just means “breast.” To emphasize that we’re talking about a man’s breast, we could prefix “oquich-” to that noun, giving us oquichchīchīhualli.

Another cool aspect of Classical Nahuatl was its dual-gender epithets. A god (male or female) might be called “in tonān in totah” — our mother, our father. There was a lot of this embracing of gender duality, and it ran deep.

Unsurprising. The primordial divine source, from which all other gods and creation emerged, was Ōmeteōtl (“two-god”), a dual god that embodied both male and female.

Ometeotl, its two halves mirroring each other.

Anahuac was no feminist/LGBTQ+ paradise, of course. Still, there was at least linguistic parity.

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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