Pronouncing Nahuatl

David Bowles
6 min readAug 27, 2019

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.)

Short vowels.

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.”

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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.