tirsdag den 6. juni 2023

The etymology of 'heart' in Nahuatl and Southern Uto-Aztecan

Much of the study of "Aztec philosophy" builds on the notion that Nahuatl words have meanings that go beyond mere reference, and which if we analyze them, can tell us about deep underlying philosophical systems of Nahuatl speakers. This blog post is not about the validity of this way of thinking in general - but about one specific word and how its etymology may or may not be able to tell us something about how ancient Nahua and other Uto-Aztecans conceived of one specific, and highly important, aspect of the world. 

Heart removal depicted in the Codex Tudela.

In his 1956 Filosofía Náhuatl, Miguel León-Portilla supports several key arguments by reference to such deeper meanings, which he finds not only in the way the words are used in the Nahuatl texts that he analyzes, but also in his ideas about word origins. One of those words is the word yōllōtl 'heart' and its related verb yōli 'to live' (and the noun derived from this verb yōliliztli 'life').

 León-Portilla wrote:

" YOLLOTL: corazón. Como derivado de ollin: "movimiento", significa literalmente en su forma abstracta yollo-otl "su movilidad, o la razón de su movimiento" (se entiende del viviente). Consideraban, por tanto, los nahuas al corazón como el aspecto dinámico, vital del ser humano. De aquí que la persona sea "rostro, corazón". Posiblemente por esto mismo en la concepción místico-militarista de los aztecas se ofrecía al Sol el corazón, el órgano dinámico por excelencia, que produce y conserva el movimiento y la vida." (León-Portilla 1956:396)

Here, Miguél León-Portilla claims that word for 'heart' is derived from another Nahuatl word, ōlin 'movement' so that the heart is "the mover" (he adds an l erroneously, the root is ōl- and when it takes the -in absolutive suffix it does not add another l, and the form with the -tli absolutive suffix ōlli means not movement but 'rubber'). And he builds a good deal of his understanding of the root yōl- on the idea that its origin expresses dynamic movement, the palpitation of the heart and the locomotion of the creatures that it animates. It seems reasonable and not at all odd that the notion of life and living should be associated with the ability to move about - but there are several problems with the claim that the root yōl- 'life' is "derived" from the root ōl- 'movement'.

Etymology and its Evil Twin

A major problem is that there is no known process in the grammar of Nahuatl that would allow such a derivation. There is no general proces that allows one to take a root beginning in a vowel and us it to produce another related root by simply adding a y- to the beginning. In linguistics, the concept of derivation is usually used for describing such grammatical process by which a word can be coined by applying different grammatical processes. But a broader understanding of words "deriving" from other words, refers to etymology, that is the process through which words change their form and meaning over time, so that words can be related to each other because they share an origin in the same historical root. Positing that the root ōl- could have been the etymological origin for the root yōl- is a different claim, and does not require us to explain the change by reference to a grammatical rule. But etymology has its own rules, and its own standards of argumentation - León-Portilla does not make any argument, he merely claims the relation. 

The most fundamental principle of etymological argumentation, is that the mere fact of two words having similar forms is not a valid argument for their being etymologically related. Languages all work with a relatively small number of phonological building blocks, and by sheer mathematical necessity words will end up looking alike without being related. 

The second fundamental principle is that even though we can imagine a meaningful semantic association between the meanings of two words that look alike, this is also not in it self a sufficient argument for positing an etymological relation. The human mind is a machine made for creating relations, it is what it is best at, it is what makes both language and thinking possible. But it also means that we cannot trust our ability to find associations that are objectively meaningful, precisely because we are so enormously good at making them up ourselves. 

The eternal enemy of the etymologist is the folk etymology, the evil twin of the true etymology; and the eternal fear of the etymologist is to fall into the embarrassing trap of producing or reproducing folk etymologies ourselves. A folk etymology, is of course a popular explanation of a word's origin that makes sense because it says that two words that sound alike are related through some relatively reasonable semantic association. We could make one right now, just as an example: We could say that  the english word 'female' arose because women are like males except they are feeble, and that therefore ancient English-speakers began distinguishing between 'males' and 'feeble males', which over time was contracted to become females. This is of course patently wrong, but it is easier to understand and more socially meaningful in our gender-difference obsessed world than the real explanation, which is that female is a loanword into English from the Old French femelle, which is derived from Latin fēmina 'woman' (whereas male is loaned from Old French masle, derived from Latin masculus 'manly'). The strength of folk etymologies is that they tend to play into preexisting ideas about the world (such as gender stereotypes in this example), so people are inclined to want to believe them, and if they are offered through some sort of authority, they will be even more so inclined. This makes folk etymologies obnoxious to the etymologist, and very hard to eradicate, assuring that etymologists will never run out of work. 

Valid Etymological argumentation

To make a valid etymological argument, showing that words are similar in form and have meanings that can be associated is not enough. Instead the etymologist has different ways of making an argument that actually produces likely etymologies. I say 'likely' here rather than 'true', because it is important to realize that etymology is not a "hard science" but rather more of an art form, which like history writing produces stories about the past that are always just one interpretation of the set of historical facts at hand, and which is limited by the always imperfect and partial nature of these facts. A good etymology begins as a hypothesis, which must be formulated in such a way that it can either be supported or falsified by the facts at hand. For languages with a long writing tradition, we may have many facts at hand; we may be able to see the change of meaning or form from one word to another documented in real time in the historical record (e.g. we can see the development from wȳfman 'wife-man' to 'woman' in the Old English record), or we may even see when a word is coined and have an explanation of why it was coined by the person coining it (For example the word 'utopia' coined by Thomas More in 1515). This would make for a very strong, almost unassailable (almost, because sometimes several people claim to have coined a word, that is documented before either of them having used it), support for an etymological hypothesis . This, however, is almost never the case - and when dealing with languages that have a shallow history of written documentation, it tends to get considerably more difficult to support hypotheses. And consequently more attractive to posit etymologies based on synchronic analysis (i.e. interpreting words as compounds of roots we already know).  

The best method for making etymologies in languages without long histories of writing, is by using the comparative method to reconstruct the developments of words from an earlier stage into their current forms. This method only works however, when we have cognate forms in several related languages. We can say for example, even without the written record, that the English word 'deer' is not derived from the word "dear", because we know that in related languages there is a cognate word that means 'animal', for example Swedish djur and Danish dyr. And we know that in English the earlier form was dēor, and we know that following regular sound changes these could all come from an original form *deur. This supports a hypothesis that in English the original word was restricted to mean 'game animal' and then subsequently the most common or prototypical game animal - the deer. If we ignore the textual evidence it would be possible that the opposing hypothesis could be true, that because they are so cute and valuable, they were 'dear' to the old Anglo-Saxons - but to contradict the evidence from cognate forms in other languages, we would need an even stronger piece of evidence to assert this. 

Good etymology in this way, poses multiple hypotheses for a word's origin, and collects evidence for and against all of them, until it finds the strongest one. 

A good etymology, in this way can be supported by being linked to cognate forms in other related languages through systematic sound changes, and principles of change that we have established independently. Interestingly, precisely because languages change, many times the best etymology is a counterintuitive one, that requires specialized knowledge about language change to see. This is especially the case when dealing with languages that have many homonyms and near homonyms because they have undergone a change that reduced the number of sounds in the language. Nahuatl is such a language - where many contrasts that previously existed in the ancestor language were neutralized. 

The ōl-yōl folk etymology

Se yōllōtl ōlintika
"a heart is moving"

Having now pontificated a bit about etymology, the point I am trying to make is that the ōl-yōl proposal is most likely a folk etymology, and one of a particularly pernicious sort that has been repeated so many times that it becomes self-perpetuating. 

In his magnum opus on Nahua views of the body, Lopez Austin follows León-Portilla's idea that the yōl- words are derived from ōl- words, and expands it into an elaborate "etymological" family tree that adds most of the words in Nahuatl that include the syllables ol or yol - including words such as ōlōtl 'corncob', ololli 'ball, sphere', ololoa 'roll something, wrap something, gather something'. But where León-Portilla sees movement as the conceptual "root" from which the other concepts are derived, López Austin sees the concept of something round, ball-shaped as the original meaning. So that to López Austin the heart is not the "mover" but the "ball" of the body. This allows him to add round maize kernels and the round corn cob center to the set of words he considers to be related. López Austin also does not provide actual etymological arguments, other than the way the words fit together with his view of how the Nahua concepts about the body are related. 

Here is a diagram contrasting how the two proposals of León-Portilla and López Austin each link together the chain of semantic associations of this folk etymological edifice: 

In an influential 1982 article on Tlazolteotl, Thelma Sullivan perhaps followed Lopez Austin (though she cites neither him nor León-Portilla),  (1982:29) and made the same claim and derived yōllōtl and tlaōlli 'maize kernels' from the root ōl-. She also made no argument for how this "derivation" came about or what evidence we have for it having occurred. 

Later again Maffie (2014:188-196) cites Sullivan and Lopez Austin as authorities for the etymological relation between ōl- and yōl- and likewise makes it a key element in his understanding of how ancient Nahua people conceives of the world and of life as characterized by movement and change following a curved movement, which he sees as central and unique to Aztec metaphysical conceptualizations. Interestingly Maffie sort of fuses the López Austin and León-Portilla proposals so that instead of either roundedness or movement at the root, he says that a particular kind of circular or curved or spiral movement that he calls "olin-movement". Maffie also tells us that this corresponds with a proposal by Eduard Seler in 1904 who argued that the root ol- meant rolling movement, also combining the notion of round and movement at the same time. 

It is easy to see why these hypothesis of word relatedness are attractive for seeking deeper meanings of Nahua thought, progressing from a basic shape or processes to physical objects to metaphorical abstractions that include culturally salient concepts and motivate philosophically interesting syllogisms. But nowhere is there an attempt to see whether these words have cognates in other Uto-Aztecan languages that could either support or falsify these etymological hypotheses. 

So now the task of evaluating the hypothesis that these words are related falls to me. 

Words for Heart and Breath in Uto-Aztecan languages

In this section, I go through the cognate sets for the different Southern Uto-Aztecan subgroups one group at a time, reconstructing in this way the intermediate forms. Then in the end, I see how they fit together. 

One important thing to note before hand is that apparently the words for 'heart' and 'breath' are closely related in Uto-Aztecan, so that in many branches we see the same root meaning both or heart in one language and breath in the other. This suggests to me that it really refers more to what Lopez Austin calls an animating principle or force, and that this could be alternately seen as being more closely related to the breath or to the heart.  


In a previous post in 2017, I wrote about the relation between words for 'to live' 'heart',  'life' and 'life force' in Corachol and Nahuatl. This was one of my very first engagements with the comparing Corachol and Nahua. I reconstructed the original form for the words for 'hart' and 'life' as *yauri, but I have revised this reconstruction a bit. First of all the u was a mistake, it would have to be an o, since Corachol u comes from *o. Secondly, I have realized that even though it looks like the Cora and Nahua forms would not have had the initial i- syllable found in Huichol iyaari, but really it could well have been there, but fused to the following glide (in Nahua, the sequence iya often becomes ia, which can then become ya). So it would be possible to reconstruct the shared corachol-Nahuan root as *iyaori, giving Wixárika iyaari, Náayeri rúuri and Nahua yōl-. Recently it dawned on me that in addition to Nahua yōl- in fact the root for 'breath' ihiyō could be derived regularly from the same root, simly by assuming that when used in the sense 'breath' it had the accent on the first syllable *íyao(ri) (then reduplicated to *ihíyao(ri)), and when used in the sense of 'heart' it had the accent on the second syllable *iyáori which in fact works really well with the suggestion that the initial i fused to y when not stressed and was kept when stressed. 

proto-Corachol-Nahuan: *iyáori 'heart'
Wixárika: iyaari 'heart, spirit, soul' (here it levels the *ao diphthong to aa)
Wixárika -yuuri 'be alive'  (here it levels the *ao diphthong to oo) f
Náayeri: ruuri  (in Corachol *y becomes cora /r/ before back vowels)
Nahuatl: yo:li  'life'  (from *yoori)
Nahuatl: yollo- 'heart' (from *yoori-yo)

proto-Corachol-Nahuan: *íyao (or perhaps *íyaɨ) 'breath'
Nahuatl: ihiyo- 'breath' 
Wixárika: iiyáte 'lungs, breath'
Náayeri: í'iyeh 'breathe havily'


In the Cahitan languages, Yoeme/Yaqui and Yoreme/Mayo, the word for 'heart' and 'life force' or 'spirit' can be reconstructed as *hiyapsi - a somewhat weird form with the ps cluster, that is highly uncommon in Uto-Aztecan and in Cahita. Clusters like that usually only occur when a vowel is lost by syncope, so probably we should really reconstruct as *hiyapVsi. The same root, but with a final a means 'to be alive'.

Finally, there is an interesting possibility that the s-sound really reflects a previous *r, because we have examples of r devoicing to s - precisely when occuring before another consonant. For example in Corachol 'plum' Náayeri kwaspwá, Wixárika kwarɨpa, where the original *r becomes s in Náayeri after the loss of the unstressed vowel ɨ. If we admit this possibility, we could also reconstruct *hiyapVri for proto-Cahitan (and as we will see when comparing further, we might even have reason to think the p itself comes from an original w). As for the quality of the lost vowel we can assume it was an o, since Corachol-Nahuan shows an o in that position, and either a *p or a *w would have disappeared in this position in proto-corachol-Nahua.

pre-Cahitan:  *hiyaposi/*hiyapori, *hiyawori/*hiyawosi
Yoeme: hiapsi
Yoreme: hiyepsi


We have two forms for Ópatan languages, hida in Teguima and hibés in Eudeve. In Ópatan d comes from previous y and Eudeve b comes from previous kw - so apart from the initial hi- these forms do not look cognate. It is interesting that the Teguima form accords with the first two syllables of the Coracholan and Cahitan forms begining in *hiya. So perhaps a truncated version of the same form as in Cahita? The Eudeve form could suggest coming from a root *hikwɨ - which accords both with the Hopi and Tepiman forms I give further below, but could also potentially be a loan form something like Yoreme hiyepsi.

Pre-Ópatan: *hiya - (a truncated form of hiyawo(ri)?)
Ópata/Teguima: hida 'heart' (Ópatan /d/ comes from previous *y, so perhaps related to Raramuri: hiya 'be in a hurry, pay attention to something')
Eudeve: hibés (Perhaps a Cahitan loan or cognate to the Tepiman/Hopi forms with hikws?)


The Tepiman forms are very interesting because they look like a compound of two roots (and because they display the cool sound changes in this branch of SUA). In Tepiman b comes from previous *kw, d comes from previous *y, and g comes from previous *w (and initial h is lost, and word final vowels are lost). So the form *ii'bɨdaga reconstructed by Burt Bascom, suggest a pre-Tepiman form *hi'kwɨyawV. This is intriguingly close to the hiya forms, but with the weird kwɨ-syllable in the middle. As it happens several other UA languages have the form *hikwV or *hikVw in the word for 'breath', and this does seem to be the basic meaning of that root also in Tepiman as evidenced by the forms ʔiibhu and ibɨ-kɨi

One might propose that the original form for all of the words for 'heart'  was *hikwɨ-yawa-(ri) where the first element is the root for 'breath', but that the non-tepiman languages dropped the kwɨ- syllable. This kind of syllable-dropping usually happens in two steps 1. Syncope of the weak vowel > *hikw-yawa-ri and 2. Deletion of the first consonant in the resulting cluster > *hi-yawa-ri. If this is the case then all of the SUA branches share a single ancestral form, and a basic split between Tepiman and non-Tepiman sub-groups, and the Corachol-Nahuan languages nested as a subgroup under the non-Tepiman SUA languages. 

Proto-Tepiman: *ii'bɨdaga 'heart' 
Tohono O'odham: iibɨdag  'heart'
North Tepehuán: ʔiibdag 'heart'
Tepiman loses initial h, and drops final vowels, Tepiman /b/ comes from  PSUA *kw, /d/ comes from PSUA *y, /g/ comes from PSUA *w - so the sequence /dag/ comes from *yawV, and the sequence ib from *hikw

Tepiman: *iibɨ 'breathe' < pre-Tepiman *hikwɨ 'breathe'
Tohono O'odham ʔiibhu 'breathe'
Nporth Tepehuán: ibɨḱɨi  'breathe'

Other UA:

Below are some of the cognates found outside of SUA in the languages of California and in Hopi. The root does not seem to appear in Numic languages. Interestingly  Warihío seems to share the root *hika with the Californian languages in the meaning 'heart/spirit'. Hopi has a root that is quite close to what looked like the pre-Tepiman root for 'breath' *hikwV with a suffix -si. 

Californian  *hika
Serrano: hik  'breathe' be alive'
Warihío: hiʔká, iʔká 'heart, spirit'
Tübatülabal: ihk(-ɨt) 'breathe'

Californian: *hikawis
Kitanemuk: hikaw 'breathe'
Luiseño: hakwís  'breathe, be alive'
Cahuilla: hikus 'breathe be alive'

Proto-Hopi: *hikwsi  (from *hikawis?)
Hopi: hikwsi 'breath'

Stubbs (2011) reconstructs this set as #301 *hikwis, and also reconstructs #1166 *ikwiyawa for proto-Tepiman, and #13 *yoLi for Cahitan, Corachol and Nahuan. Hill (2020) has a set of words meaning 'breathe' or 'heart' under Hi-03 - but doesn't include the Nahua and Corachol words. I believe I am the first to propose a connection between these sets, and to demonstrate how they fit together. Also both Stubbs and Hill propose Cahitan *hiyapsi as a relative only of the words meaning breath iyaari/ihiyotl, and they do not explain the -psi ending. 

Intermediary Reconstructions

This gives us the following intermediate forms: 

Corachol+Nahuan shares the form: *yoori
Wixárika+Nahua shares the form *iyaori
Corachol+ Cahitan (and perhaps Ópatan and Raramuri): shares the protoform *hiyawori 'heart'
Pre-Tepiman *hikwɨ-yaw suggests that the form *hiyawori in non-Tepiman SUA has evolved from that same form through syncope, 
giving us a shared form for all of SUA:
PSUA: Shares the proto-form *hikwɨ-yawo 'heart'
The first element of that form appears to be a general PUA form *hikVwVs 'breath'.

Below, I show the development I propose in diagram form:

This comparative evidence alone strongly suggests that the Nahua word for 'heart' is not derived in any way from a root ol- either in the meaning 'movement' or 'ball'. The word is inherited from earlier stages of Uto-Aztecan and developed following a path of systematic sound changes. 

The fact that we can also reconstruct the Nahua words for maize/corn cob tlaōlli/ōlōtl to the SUA verb *hora 'de-grain corn' and the word for movement ōlini and probably also rubber ōlli to a Corachol nahuan root *oro 'to move', strongly suggests that these are independent roots, going back at least to the split of Southern Uto-Aztecan, which would be several millennia before there was anything such as Nahuatl. 


The main point of this long etymological exercise is to caution the student of Nahuatl against supporting their arguments about cultural conceptualization with folk etymologies. Being very proficient at Nahuatl and understanding its grammar is not a guarantee against falling into this trap, León-Portilla, López Austin and Sullivan, were all very accomplished nahuatlahtoque. Being good at Nahuatl grammar and knowing all the ways in which words can be constructed, may mislead us to think that all Nahuatl words are constructed through the grammatical principles of for word construction that we know. But this assumes that Nahuas somehow started with the grammar and then began cosntrucitng words with the rules. When of course the reality must have been the reverse - the ancient Uto-Aztecans had a set of lexical roots and a set of grammatical rules that they passed down through the generations, changing the phonological and grammatical rules. Preexisting words where then changed to fit to the new phonological grammatical rules (for example adding suffixes). Nahuas have always had a word meaning 'heart' (or 'breath' or 'life-force'), they never had a need to construct such a word from the word for 'ball' or 'movement'. 

Etymology is a specialized field of knowledge, and building one's big theories of Nahua culture on etymologies without using this knowledge, amounts to constructing fancy castles on sand.


León-Portilla, M., 1956. La filosofía náhuatl. Instituto Indigenista Interamericano.

López, Austin, Alfredo, 1980. Cuerpo humano e ideología. Las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas. Vol 2. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

Hill, Kenneth. 2020. Wick Miller's Uto-Aztecan Cognate Sets. UC Berkeley: Publications of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9px6p8h8

Maffie, James. 2014. Aztec philosophy: Understanding a world in motion. University Press of Colorado.

Stubbs, Brian D. Uto-Aztecan: A comparative vocabulary. Flower Mound, TX: Shumway Family History Services, 2011.

Sullivan, Thelma. 1982. "Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina: The Great Spinner and." In The Art and Iconography of Late Post-Classic Central Mexico: A Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, October 22nd and 23rd, 1977, p. 7. Dumbarton Oaks.

lørdag den 29. april 2023

Words Usually Spoken Upon Taking a Nahua Child from their Parents

Magnus Pharao Hansen & Paja Faudree

Yesterday at the Northeastern Nahuatl Scholars conference at Brown University in Providence, me and Paja Faudree, associate professor of anthropology at Brown University, and my former doctoral adviser, gave a talk in which we presented an analysis of a section of the Vocabulario Manual by Pedro de Arenas first published in 1610. We compared the various versions and editions of this book, many of which are located at he John Carter Brown library. This blog post is a small summary of this paper, which we may eventually develop into larger paper.

When we study the relations between Nahuas and Spaniards in the colonial period we tend to rely on combinations of information contained in administrative and ecclesiastical records, and they do not necessarily represent the breadth of contexts in which interactions between Nahuas and non-nahuas took place. Particularly if we are interested in knowing more about the minutiae of everyday life, since precisely because of their mundane banality they are something colonial administrators or church officials were unlikely to take any special interest in and therefore unlikely to leave any written record of. However, there is one colonial source which provides a stunning glimpse into these everyday interactions between Spaniards and Nahuas which has received surprisingly little attention in scholarship and this is Pedro de Arenas’ “Vocabulario Manual” first published in 1611. The Vocabulario Manual is a Nahuatl phrasebook written for Spaniards in order to help them communicate with Nahuatl speakers, as they interacted in various common tasks and contexts.

Pedro de Arenas' "Vocabulario Manual"

The mere fact of the existence of the Vocablario Manual tells us something about the relations between Nahuas and Spaniards who spoke no Nahuatl, namely firstly that interactions between them were common and frequent enough that a phrasebook was considered useful, and secondly that it was not the case that it was not simply assumed that it was the responsibility of Nahuas to accommodate to Spanish speakers. The fact that this work was reprinted no less than 9 times over three centuries, tells us that the usefulness of a phrasebook for Spaniards speakers to communicate with Nahuas was not limited to the early years of the colony, or the periods during which Nahuatl was an official language in New Spain -  indeed the last three editions were even printed after Mexican independence. This study is by no means the first, as previous work by Ascención Hernández de León-Portilla and Andrés Lira have analyzed it previously, but due to its unique status as the only example of the genre of a mundane “phrasebook”, it deserves much more study, and to figure prominently in analyses of social life and spanish-indigenous interactions during the colony. 

Nothing is known about Pedro de Arenas’ biography, In the work he describes himself as a “romancista” that is a person with no formal education in Latin, and Ascención Hernández de León-Portilla suggests that he was likely a Spaniard who came to New Spain and dedicated himself mostly to trade and commerce (1982: XIX-XXVI). For the manual he supplied the phrases in Spanish and an unnamed nahuatlato translated them into Nahuatl.

There are extant editions published in 1611, 1668, 1683, 1690, 1710, 1728, 1793, 1831, and the last one in 1887. In 1862, during the French intervention, a French edition was published. There are reports of editions from 1613, 1615 and 1666, but no copies of these were located by Ascención Hernández de León-Portilla, when she searched for them. There are copies of the other editions at many research libraries and archives in México, the US and Europe.

The Vocabulario Manual is organized into sections describing different types of interactions between the books user and Nahuatl speakers. Among these interactions are such everyday communicative events as exchanging greetings, bartering, selling or buying goods, asking for directions, giving orders and directions to servants, praising workers, scolding or complaining about workers and servants, going to church, asking where things or people are, or telling others where to put them. The picture it gives us is of close everyday relations between the book’s intended audience of users and the Nahuatl speakers they will be speaking to.  In these imagined interactions, Nahuatl speakers are most commonly cast as workers: servants or laborers who will be given tasks, or persons with whom to trade or barter – as in the sections on how to “poner defecto en alguna cosa”  and “como alabar alguna cosa.” Nahuatl speakers are also imagined as people from whom to ask for directions on the road or upon arriving in a new town. Other communicative events are of a more intimate interpersonal nature, as when Nahuatl speakers are imagined as those in need of being cured of a malady or consoled, or are people that the manual’s user must ask for help, apologize to, praise or commend for their virtues, or encourage to keep doing good work. But there are also situations where the manual’s user is put in the role of accusing someone (while speaking to a group of Nahuatl speakers), or of scolding someone, or complaining of bad work or ill treatment. Sometimes, too, the roles are reversed, and the book’s user must defend themselves against accusations of some improper act, or must apologize for transgressions they have committed.  

 Words Usually Spoken Upon Taking a Nahua Child from their Parents

One of the sections that is painfully revealing of the dynamics of colonial world, is the one in which the speaker is instructed in how to ask a Nahuatl-speaking family for their child to rear. The implied reason for asking for a Nahua child is to teach it a trade, which was apparently done on a contract of one to two years at a time. Likely the position of such a child would be as mozo, a boy servant of the type mentioned as the addressee in many of the other sections of the Vocabulario


While the parents’ answers are not included and we hear only the spanish-speaker's voice (speaking Nahuatl), the answers are strongly implied by the book’s author since the statements that it teaches anticipate in some detail the response from the child’s parents. The author clearly expects the parents to be quite reluctant to hand over the child, and they need a good deal of convincing, and negotiation of the period of the contract. The period should be long enough that the child will learn well, the child will send back money, I will love the child as if it were my own. The closing statement of the person presumably carrying away the child is to tell the parents not to be sad, the statement implicitly painting the picture of a mother or father who does not really want to part with the child, but who has been convinced that they must. 


Palabras que se suelen ordinariamente decir pidiendo algún muchacho a sus padres para enseñarle oficio

Cuix tinechmacaznequi in mopiltzin?

Do you want to give me your child?

Nehuatl nicmachtiz netlayecoltiliztli in yehuatl (é) inin

I will teach him a means of making a living, this one or that

Quexquich cahuitl nonahuac ticcahuaz?

For how much time will you leave him with me?

Amo miec. Amo huel quimomachtiz zan iciuhca.

That is not much. He can not learn just quickly. 

Nehuatl nichuicaz an ma notlan ye oc quezqui ilhuitl

I will take him with me, and he will be with me yet some days. 

Auh in zatepan tla ticnequiz ticchihuazque amatl (ó) escritura in quexquich cahuitl tehuatl ticnequiz

And then later, if you wish, we will make papers for whatever time you want. 

Auh nehuatl nicmacaz ic izqui in cecen metztica in cecen xiuhtica

And I will give him this much every month, every year

Auh nictlazohtlaz cenca cualli iuhqui ma ahzo huel nopiltzin

And I will love him as well as if he might be my own child. 

Huel oc xiquilnamiqui[1611]/ximoyolnonotza[1668] in tla moyollocacopa

Remember it/[Speak to your heart about] it still, 

if your heart is set

Ca intla yehuatl cualli tlacatl yez ihuan in quimoyollotiz in cualli yectli

And if he will be a good man and put his heart into the good and the right

Iciuhca momachtiz, zan ahmo huecauh, zan ce xihuitl, zan ce xihuitl ihuan tlahco, zan ome xihuitl 

Quickly he will learn, not long, just one year, just a year and a half, just two years. 

Macatlé mitztequipacho

May nothing sadden you

While the Vocabulario Manual tells us much about how Spanish-speakers had to learn to use Nahuatl to interact with indigenous populations in Mexico throughout the 17th to 19th centuries, this little snippet of a phrasebook points to a much larger and highly sinister aspect of the colonial process. An integral part of the way in which colonization progresses entailed removing Nahua and other indigenous children from their families to raise them outside of their own community and culture. The children who were taken in this way were probably often used as mozos, that is servant boys, and while it may be true that the person using the handbook intended to raise the child with love as if it were his own, in a kind of fostering arrangement (also not unknown in indigenous communities), it feels more like a strategic statement for convincing the parents. What they wanted was more likely the child's labour. The practice  also reminds us of the Residential Schools common in Canada and the US, where children were sent specifically in order to "acculturate" them to colonizer society and sever their connections to their own communities. In Mexico the practice of educational albergues, school homes, for young indigenous children whose families live too far from schools for the children to be able to travel back and forth everyday. In many cases for children in albergues, in the colonial period, and today, receiving education, means leaving ones community, to live among strangers who do not speak one's own language. 

torsdag den 3. marts 2022

Warlord/Owl - a Uto-Aztecan pun?

"The owls are not what they seem"

On this blog I often write about topics that are somewhat speculative, such as patterns I've noticed and which seem to be suggestive of something interesting but which may fall short of establishing it as a fact. 

A year ago, in this blogpost, I wrote about evidence suggestive of an Uto-Aztecan, but non-Nahuan (or pre-Nahuan rather), language being spoken at Teotihuacan. The juxtaposition of ears and nopal pads in a Teotihuacan mural, which could be read as a hint of a name - perhaps related to the Huichol goddess Nakawe. This blog post takes a similar path: I've noticed some patterns in two Uto-Aztecan languages, that are particularly suggestive when juxtaposed with an element of Teotihuacan iconography. 

The pattern I will describe is just this, suggestive, but it is hard to say exactly what it might mean, or how it would have come about. I noticed it as part of my work comparing the various Southern Uto-Aztecan languages (SUA) to build a database of shared lexicon between them. I include the Hopi language of Arizona in this comparison, not because Hopi is a Southern Uto-Aztecan languages (it belongs to the northern group) because of the cultural similarities between Hopi and the Southern languages (Hopi is the only one of the Northern languages in which maize agriculture is a culturally central activity) and because it seems likely that Hopis may historically have been in contact with Southern Uto-Aztecans from Mexico who traded luxury goods (such as parrots and cacao) to the US Southwest. 

The way I work is reading through dictionaries and noting all the words that look like they might be cognate to words in some other SUA language. This requires paying attention to patterns of sound and meaning, between languages and across dictionaries. Sometimes patterns are simple, like this one, with simple and perfect correspondences between sound and meaning in two or more languages:

                        "give"        "nose    "human
Nahuatl        ma:ka      yaka      tla:ka-tl
Hopi            maqa         yaqa       taqa

Sometimes (often) they are more complex, involving changes in meaning and sound changes that do not conform to the expected patterns or simple correspondences, obscured by subsequent divergent changes or combinations with other morphemes.  

The correspondence I will show here is odd, in that the pattern does not involve words that are cognate between languages, but distinct words that *sound* similar in each language - seemingly creating a "pun" in both languages- but without using the same or related words. Here is the basic pattern this blog post is about:

Hopi                      Nahuatl                                                                                          mongwu /mungʷɨ/ - "owl“ tecolotl /tekolotl/ “owl”                                                                  mongwi /mungwi/ - "leader“         tecuhtli /tekʷtli/  “lord/leader”

As is clearly seen in this way of organizing it visually, the two words in Hopi are near homonyms, distinguished only by the final vowel ɨ/i - but in fact in the short form, which is used when there is a suffix or when the root is compounded, is just mong both for 'owl' and 'leader'.  The two Nahuatl words are clearly entirely unrelated to the Hop words, but again we see that the words for 'owl' and for 'leader/lord' have a somewhat similar form /tek/ followed by a rounded segment /o/ or /ʷ/ (not a separate segment in Nahuatl, but often historically derived from a rounded vowel following a *kand then the suffixes -lo:-tl and -tli respectively. In Hopi the similarities between the two words are so close that one might easily make a pun about owls and leaders, in Nahuatl they are more different, though potentially they could have been derived from forms that were more punnable.

Below I analyze each of the word sets and their related words in other SUA languages. I use the term "pre-Nahua" to describe the Southern Uto-Aztecan dialectgroup that turned into proto-Nahuatl - I believe that this pre-Nahua language was a sister dialect to proto-Corachol and had derived from a common proto-Corachol-Nahua stage, but in the following I do not distinguish between pre-Nahua and proto-Corachol-Nahua since this would require a more detailed chronology, so pre-Nahua is just whatever is between proto-Southern Uto-Aztecan and proto-Nahuatl. 

Owl/Chief in Hopi and owl/death in other languages

Great Horned owl
(Bubo virginianus)
The two Hopi words are: 

  • mongwu /mungʷɨ/ - "great horned owl" (Hopi dictionary, 1998:248 )
  • mongwi /mungʷi/ - "leader, head, chief" (Hopi Dictionary 1998:247)

Ken Hill assigns the two  to two distinct Uto-Aztecan etymologies *mu "head" (Hill 2020:276)  and *muu 'owl' (Hill 2020:275) (For example Mayo mu'uu "owl", Eudeve muhút 'owl'). It seems likely that the word *muu for owl is a sound mimicking name for the owl, and that the word for head is unrelated. This would suggest that the similarity between the two Hopi words is simply coincidental.

In many indigenous American cultures the owl is a creature of bad omen, related to the realm of the dead. Nevertheless, it is probably also coincidental that the word for 'to die' in Uto-Aztecan languages also sounds somewhat similar. In Hopi it is mooki /muuki/ "to die", in Nahuatl miki, in Huichol /mɨkí/ and in Mayo /muuke/. Nevertheless it must have added to the owl's eeriness that its voice sounding muuu in the night could almost be heard as if trying to sing "die, die". The owl as a being of the night, of course is seen as one who can travel between the human world and the underworld - a harbinger of death and bad news. 

In Nahuatl one word for 'owl' (though quite rare) is cuamomohtli, and the momohtli part seems potentially related to the same root *muu (cua- is probably just tree, though it could also be 'head') - but it could also be related to the word for fear or scary which in many Nahua varieties is mowi (changed from a previous mawi), which shortens to moh- . The /u/ in Mayo and Hopi (written o in Hopi orthography) and the ɨ in Huichol is expected to yield either i or e in Nahuan, but sometimes it corresponds to o when adjacent to a labial consonant (such as m, or p or w). 

In Huichol the term for owl is /míikɨri/ which looks like a potential cognate, except that the first vowel /i/ does not fit - it should be ɨ (or u). 

When looking at this root, Hopi is alone among these languages in having similar, though apparently unrelated, words for 'leader' and 'owl'. 

'Owl' and 'lord' in Nahuatl

Flammulated owl
(Psiloscops flammeolus)
In Nahuatl the words in question are: 

  • tecuhtli /te:kʷtli/ 'lord'
  • tecolotl /tekolotl/ 'owl'

The words are less supercifially similar than the two Hopi words - but there are reasons to consider them more similar. 

One such reason, is that in many contemporary Nahua varieties the root for chief or lord is pronounced [te:koh] when appearng in the possessed form (forexample Pochutec notekú "mi padre", Hueyapan Nahuatl i:te:goh "it's owner" tote:goh "Our Lord")  This is often considered to be a contraction of /tekʷ-yoh/ where the -yoh suffix is the marker of inalienable possession. This may well be the case, but it is also possible that the -oh ending conserves the vowel that developed into the labialized k. Eudeve <tecogua> /tekowa/ "owner" suggests that te:kʷtli could have developed by syncope of the a so tekowatɨ became tekowtɨ which then became te:kʷtli in the non-possessed form but -te:koh in the possessed form. This also fits the Cora form teekw-a'aran 'dueño/owner' where the -a'aran is the inalienably possessed suffix corresponding to Nahua -yo:tl.  Following Whorf, Jane Hill (1985) suggests an origin as *tahi-ku "fire kindler" but this does not seem like a good proposal, since *tahi "fire" became tle-tl "fire" in Nahuatl, and here we have /te:-/. Here we have to prefer the conservative proposal holding the roots with taHkw- apart from the roots with teko-. 

The word for 'owl' has a root that is found in many indigenous languages - it is a so-called wanderwort.  In Uto-Aztecan languages the root is found in Hopi as tokori /tukuri/ 'flammulated owl', in Cora as  tukurú'u 'tecolote'. Apparently Yaqui-Mayo and Eudeve changed the meaning to vulture, with Mayo tecué /tekwé/ and  Eudeve teco /teko/ both meaning 'zopilote'. The root has been reconstructed as *tɨku, which fits the Nahuatl, and Eudeve forms. The forms with u in the first syllable can arise from *tɨku through regressive vowel assimilation. It is also found in non-Uto-Aztecan languages in California as tukúli in Miwok, tukuna in Chumash, hutukulu in Wappo and hutulu in Yokuts (Gursky 1967). In Mesoamerica it is also found in Otomí tɨkuru'u (Acazulco otomí) and in K'iche Maya as tukur

We should reconstruct the following two roots for pre-Southern Uto-Aztecan then:

  • *teko-(wa-tɨ) "lord" which becomes pre-Nahua *teko(w)tɨ
  • *tuko-ri "owl" which becomes pre-Nahua *teko- 

So also here, we see that the two roots are not etymologically related, but only look like each other because of chance.  But important here is that the -wa and the -ri are suffixes that disappear in the possessed form so that the word for "my lord" and "my owl" in pre-Nahua would be complete homophones: no-teko.

There is one important question though: If the proto-form is *tuku(ri) then why does Nahuatl have tekolo:tl with the vowels e and o, and the apparent suffix -lo:tl? The -lo:tl suffix has a very interesting explanation, that combines very well with a proposed link between owls and leaders.

The -raawɨ root: Predators, Hunters, Enemies and Leaders

Karen Dakin (2001) has suggested that many nouns describing animals in Nahuatl end in -lo:tl, yo:tl or o:tl, and that this ending comes from a suffix *-rawɨ that originally meant "possessor of a trait" (so that *X-rawɨ would have meant "X-possessor"). It is well attested that the sequence /awi/ (and /iwa/) can become *aw/iw and then /o:/ when the first vowel is accented and the second therefore one unaccented and eventually dropped.

I agree with Dakin that several Nahuatl animal nouns ending in -lo:tl or -yo:tl seem to have had a suffix of the form she describes, but I disagree that about the meaning she proposes (and also I don't think it is found in all the words she claims). I cannot give the full argument here, but I am writing an article that lays out the argument to be published next year. 

But my conclusion is this: the  *-raawɨ suffix (with the lenis variant  *-yaawɨ) was used to describe particularly ferocious animals, predators. But also apparently to warriors, and war leaders. I reconstruct this meaning based on the following set of words: 

*yaawɨ 'warrior, predator' (independent noun)
  • Cora & Huichol: yaabi/yaawi 'coyote'
  • Yaqui: yoowe 'jefe, líder'
  • Nahuatl: yao:tl 'enemy, warrior' (from proto-Nahuatl *yaawi-wa-tɨ, where -wa is a historical possessive suffix
  • Hopi: nayaawi "fight' (na- is a historical reciprocal marker)
*-raawɨ as suffix modifying a noun:
  • kwaɨ-raawe 'eagle' (Huichol) from *kwahu-raawɨ "eagle-raawɨ"
  • kwaɨ-ra'abe 'eagle' (Cora)  
  • ɨ-ra'abe 'wolf' (Cora)  from *hu-raawɨ "badger?-raawɨ"
  • ɨ-raawe 'wolf' (Huichol.)
  • ko-yo:-tl 'coyote' (Nahuatl) from Proto-SUA *kao-yaawi "fox-raawɨ" 
  • kahu-lowi 'coyote' (Tubar) 
  • kau-yau-mari 'coyote-youth' (a deity) (Huichol) 
  • o:se-lo:tl 'jaguar, puma' (Nahuatl)  from pre-Nahua *house-raawɨ '"feline-raawɨ" (compare with  huusee 'bear' (Cora & Huichol) ousei 'jaguar' (Yaqui).)
  • tsopi-lo:tl 'vulture' (Nahuatl)  from pre-Nahua *tsiwipi-raawɨ "turkey-raawɨ"

In this case we could explain /tekolotl/ as coming also from *teko-raawɨ  "owl-raawɨ", designating apparently a particularly fierce or predatory type of owl - or maybe an owl that is a warrior. 

"Spearthrower Owl" = Warlord?

Spearthrower Owl (/tekoraawɨ/?)
on a mural fragment from the
Techinantitla compound at Teotihuacan
I mentioned at the beginning of this blogpost that the pattern I had found was suggestive of something related to Teotihuacan. How so?

The data suggests that there is no historical relation between the words for owl and leader in Uto-Aztecan languages: they are simply near-homonyms. 

In another blogpost from last year, I described how the fact that I noticed that ear and nopal cactus are near homonyms in some Southern Uto-Aztecan languages allowed be to propose that an iconographic depiction of a woman with nopal earrings operated on that pun to allows us to read the personal name as having the element NAKA. 

Homonyms and near-homonyms are the operational principle of writing systems that rely on the rebus-principle to make phonetic readings of logograms. And it seems the Teotihuacan writing system may have worked this way. 

Probably the most well-known glyphic sign associated with Teotihuacan is the one depicting an owl armed with a shield and a spearthrower - often interpreted as the name Spearthrower Owl (Helmke & Nielsen 2020, Nielsen & Helmke 2008). 

So if we have two near-homonyms, we can use the image of one word to write the other using the rebus-principle - in other words. For a speaker of pre-Nahua a depiction of an owl *teko could be used to write the word *tekow lord/master.  

By adding the depiction of weapons and armament, the identity of the owl as a yaawi "a warrior" is established, and suggests the reading teko-raawɨ which can then mean either an "owl warrior" or a "warrior lord".

If this is indeed the correct reading of the Teotihuacan depiction of the Spearthrower Owl, then it seems more likely that this is a title than a name - the title of a war leader specifically. 


So what about the two Hopi words? Though clearly intriguing, their similarity appear to have been irrelevant. But the similarity served as inspiritation that allowed us to recognize the similarity between pre-Nahua *teko-(wa-tɨ) "lord" and *teko-raawɨ "warrior owl", and the potential for a phonetic reading of the logogram. Perhaps if early Hopis were aware of the Spearthrower Owl far to the south of their lands, and of his title glyph associating leadership with owlness they made the same connection. 

Cited texts:

  • Dakin, K., 2001. Animals and vegetables, Uto-Aztecan noun derivation. In Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Vancouver, 9 13 August 1999 (Vol. 215, p. 105). John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Gursky, K.H., 1967. A Widespread Word for" Owl". International Journal of American Linguistics33(4), pp.328-329.
  • Helmke, C. and Nielsen, J., 2021. Teotihuacan Writing:: Where are We Now?. Visible Language55(2).
  • Hill, Jane H. 1985. "On the Etymology of Classical Nahuatl teek w-tli'Lord, Master'." International journal of American linguistics 51, no. 4: 451-453.
  • Hill, K.C., 2020. Wick Miller's Uto-Aztecan Cognate Sets.
  • Nielsen, J. and Helmke, C., 2008. Spearthrower owl hill: A toponym at Atetelco, Teotihuacan. Latin American Antiquity19(4), pp.459-474.
  • Stuart, David (1998). ""The Arrival of Strangers": Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History" (Extract of October 1996 paper). PARI Online Publications: Newsletter # 25. Precolumbian Art Research Institute.