In my “Mexican X” articles, I’ve talked a lot about the pronunciation of “x” in Medieval Spanish and in Classical Nahuatl. But I get questions all the time about how other combinations of letters sound, so I think I’ll explain.
Vowels are the easiest place to start.
Nahuatl has eight, 4 short and 4 long. (I mean *literally* long for those brought up with the bizarre English phonetic transcription system taught in US public schools.)
a = /a/ (fAther)
e = /e/ (mEt)
i = /i/ (frEE, Sp. tIpo)
o = /o/ (gOAt, Sp. gOta)
Long vowels are the same sounds, just twice as long in duration. English vowels before a voiced consonant are lengthened, so it helps to think of the following words (Nahuatl vowels are a tad longer):
ā = /a:/ (Odd, US pronunciation)
ē = /e:/ (bEd)
ī = /i:/ (fEEd)
ō = /o:/ (bOde w/o rounding of lips)
Length makes a difference in word meaning, so most scholars seek to indicate it. Here are “minimal pairs” showing its importance:
maca — to give
māca — if only not
temoh — they descend
tēmoh — s/he searched
chichi — dog
chīchi — to suckle
toca — to chase
tōca — to plant
This meaningful contrast in vowel lengthen STILL exists for the majority of modern Nahuatl speakers. For example, the most widely spoken Nahuan language, Huasteca Nahuatl (a million speakers) has retained long and short vowels (though its orthography doesn’t indicate length).
The letters “l,” “n” and “m” are pronounced essentially like their Spanish and English equivalents. There are some slight variations (velarization of “n” before /k/, devoicing of “n” at the end of words, laminal release of “l”), but they’re easy sounds.
When you see TWO els together (-ll-), pronounce both. Classical Nahuatl orthography borrows heavily from Spanish, but not in this respect.
- “Calli” (house) should be pronounced “cal-li.”
The same holds true for “m” and “n,” by the way.
- “Quēmmach” (how the heck) is “quēm-mach.”
- “Īnnān” (their mother) is “īn-nān.”
Z represents the sound /s/, like it does in Latin American Spanish.
“Zacacalli” (grass hut) is pronounced /sa ka KAL li/.
“Zazaliaz” (his/her mouth will become parched) is pronounced /sa sa LI as/.
Never pronounce it like the English “z.”
P is pronounced as in Spanish (or like in English “spot”), without a burst of air (so NOT like English “pot”).
T is pronounced as in Spanish (or English “story”). No burst of air (NOT like English “toy”).
Y is pronounced as in English, more or less.
TZ is pronounced like the “ts” in “cats,” but as a single sound (like when butter hits a hot frying pan, heh).
CH is pronounced more or less like the sound in “church” or Spanish “chancla.”
Then there’s the famous “x.”
X stands for the same sound as English “sh” or French “ch.”
Why? Because in the early 1500s, that’s the way the SPANISH letter “x” was pronounced. Yup. You read that correctly. “México” was “ME shi co.”
Pretty close to the Nahuatl original: Mēxihco (“me: SHI’ ko”).
A quick comment: I’m always surprised that the MAJORITY of folks who reflect on the Native use of “x” for [sh] assume that 16th-century Spanish sounded exactly like today, and that the conquistadores substituted the modern “x” (an aspirated sound like ch in “loch”).
And, by the way, English in the 1500s didn’t sound like modern RP (Received Pronunciation) in London, either. Languages CHANGE. All the time. A LOT. That’s why, if you’re fascinated by language and you’re not an expert, you really ought to follow linguists. Just sayin’.
Ok, I should’ve mentioned this earlier.
C is pronounced /s/ before “e” and “i.” Z is used before “a” and “o” or at the end of a syllable for /s/. Again, this is because Nahuatl was first written down using Spanish orthography. Some modern Nahuan languages simply use “s.”
C is otherwise pronounced /k/, without a puff of air, like Spanish “coche” or English “sCatter.”
The /k/ sound is written “QU” before “e” and “i” (yes, just like in Spanish).
So “quēmmach quichīhua” (how the heck does she do it) is pronounced [ke:m-mach ki-CHI:-wa].
Which brings us to the /w/ sound. When it occurs at the beginning of a syllable, it is spelled “HU” (again, see Spanish).
“Huacalli” (basket) = /wa KAL li/
Differently than Spanish or English, however, Nahuatl has a voiceless [w] that can come at the END of a syllable. At a loss for HOW to spell this sound, bilingual speakers of Spanish and Nahuatl just … inverted the letters.
I know. Weird.
“Tōnatiuh” (the sun) is /to: NA tiw/
(Not /to na TJU/ like some people pronounce it in Spanish.)
Like the HU/UH pair, Nahuatl also has CU/UC.
They represent the “kw” sound of Spanish “CUando” or English “sQUid” (not the breathy sound in “queen”).
“Cualli” (good) is /KWAL li/.
UC represents that /kw/ at the END of a syllable, where it can’t occur in English or Spanish.
Here are a couple of examples:
“Tzauc” (it closed) = /tsakw/
“Chiucnāhui” (nine) = /chikw NA: wi/
The difficulty of pronouncing this explains what might be a great mystery to some of you: Is it “Montezuma” or “Moctezuma”?
Neither, friends. Neither.
The name of that “Aztec emperor” was actually …
/mo te:kw ZO: ma/
(It literally means “he is prince-angry” or “he is angry like a noble.”)
The Spaniards couldn’t pronounce that syllable-final /kw/. It got reduced to /k/ & pulled into the 1st syllable.
Now, CONFUSINGLY, the weird spelling of UC is often replaced with …
Those who study/speak Nahuatl understand that there’s no “u” vowel, but others will understandably end up pronouncing these three letters like “coo” in English.
No. It’s just /kw/. No vowel.
One of the most wide-spread examples of the “cuh” for “uc” spelling is the name of the god of the dead, which I see most often rendered Mictlantecuhtli instead of Mictlāntēuctli.
Because of the problems UC gives newbies (and the ubiquity of “cuh”), I compromised. In Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico, I used “cuh” instead of “uc.”
So Mictlantecuhtli, Motecuhzoma, etc.
(This confusion is one of many reasons some folks want to shift to a completely phonetic system for Nahuan languages.)
Okay, two sounds left. The hardest.
H after a vowel (not HU, just H) represents the glottal stop /ʔ/, which is the hitch in the throat many Americans make between the two syllables of “Clinton” or that replaces the -tt- of “butter” in an exaggerated Cockney accent.
This hitch is stronger at the end of a word (especially at the end of a sentence). Within a word or at the boundary between words, it’s a softer, aspirated pause, like the dash in “re-enter” or “co-opt.” (As a result, it has become /h/ in many modern Nahuan languages).
Ehēca (for a breeze to blow) = /eʔ E: ka/
Xōchihuah (transgender or nonbinary person) = [sho: CHI waʔ]
Mēxihcah (Mexica people) = [me: SHIʔ kaʔ]
Mococoh (s/he got sick) = /mo KO koʔ/
Many transcriptions don’t mark the glottal stop, but it’s important.
For instance, look at these two words:
Tiquechpiloa (you hang your head)
Tiquechpiloah (we hang our heads)
The only difference is the plural suffix -h (the glottal stop). Transcriptions systems that ignore it cause readers to experience ambiguity.
And now, for the hardest Nahuatl sound of all …
The sound (called voiceless alveolar lateral affricate) begins as a Nahuatl “t” but releases as a Nahuatl “l.”
It’s NOT the same sound as in the second syllable of “bottle.”
Let me try to explain.
The blade of your tongue (flat part behind tip) presses against the ridge above your teeth. You start to make a “t,” but then you release air over the SIDES of your tongue (not down the middle), causing the sound to rattle a bit (hence “affricate” … there’s friction).
Here are some sample words with this sound:
ātl — water
tlahtoāni — ruler
netloc — at each other’s side
tlīlli — black
cōātl — snake, twin
Almost time to wrap up. Let me just briefly explain how syllables in Nahuatl break down. A syllable can have one of four forms:
2. Consonant + vowel (tla, cue, mi, xo, etc.)
3. Vowel + consonant (ah, euc, ix, otz, etc.)
4. Consonant + vowel + consonant (nan, cuech, hueh, nic, pouh, etc.)
There are four constraints to these rules
1. A consonant between two vowels forms a syllable with the second vowel (so “ma-ca” not “mac-a”)
2. Any 2 vowels beside each other split into separate syllables (cō-ātl)
3. No more than 2 consecutive consonants mid-word (nān-tli) [remember that tl, hu, uh, cu, uc, tz all count as single consonants]
4. Only one consonant at beginning or end of word (so “mā-cuex-tin” has “x” and “t” beside each other mid-word, but just “m” at beginning and “n” at the end).
And that, my friends, about does it!