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. 

mandag den 29. marts 2021

Something fishy about michis and topotes

A catfish, a moustache, 
Courbet's L'Origine du Monde,
and a feline.
What do they have in common

This blogpost explores the origin of the Nahua word(s) for "fish". It is well known that the general nahua word for "fish" is michin. The root mich- is for example found in the name of the state Michoacán, meaning "place of fish-owners", likely referring to the P'urhépecha fishing traditions in lakes Pátzcuaro and Cuitzeo. 

*Tepo: A Southern Uto-Aztecan word for fish

But michin is not the only word for "fish" in Nahuan. Certain Nahuan varieties have a different root in that meaning - namely those spoken in southern Veracruz state: In Mecayapan the general word for fish is toopoh, in Zaragoza it is tupuh.  This form has generally been explained as a loanword from the language called Sierra Popoluca, Zoque de Soteapan or Soteapanec, a language of the Mixe-Zoque family spoken i a town few kilometers from Mecayapan. In Soteapan Zoque the word for fish is tɨɨpɨ. People from Mecayapan are known to have close relations with the Zoque-speakers of Soteapan, and Mecayapan Nahuatl does have some significant signs of contact influence from Zoque (for example it has an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the first person plural, found in Soteapan Zoque, but not in any other Nahuan variety). The Nahua word also looks like a borrowing, in Nahuan languages the majority of nouns take the absolutive suffix -tl or -tli, but toopoh is part of a small class of nouns that do not take the absolutie suffix (this class is larger in Eastern Nahua than in Western Nahua). Some scholars have also argued that all Nahua words with *p are likely borrowings since UA *p tends to become lost in Nahuan (though this is not correct when you look at the details). So it would make complete sense if Nahua speakers of Mecayapan had borrowed the word for fish from their Zoque speaking neighbors. 

But I don't think they have. I think the borrowing went the other direction from Nahua to Soteapan Zoque. The reason is this: There are no clear cognates of the Soteapanec word in other Mixe-Zoque languages, but there are cognates in other Uto-Aztecan languages.  

Within the Mixe-Zoque family, the oldest word for fish is the one that has been reconstructed as *ʔaksa. But this seems to have primarily kept in the Mixean languages, whereas the Zoquean languages seem to have several different words for fish. 

Mixe-Zoque: *ʔaksa - fish
Mixe: ʔahkʃ - fish
Soteapanec Zoque (Popoluca): tɨɨpɨ - fish
Zoque de Chiapas: punu - fish
Zoque de Texistepec - wo'n
Zoque de Chimalapa - koke
Oluta Mixe - ko'ke

As seen above, Soteapanec is alone with the root tɨɨpɨ, though perhaps the pu syllable in the Chiapas Zoque word punu could related to the -pɨ part, and the Texistepec word wo'n could be related to punu. 

But in Uto-Aztecan languages we see the following forms, that appear cognate:

Tubar: tepó - catfish
Southeastern Tepehuan: batoop - fish
Mecayapan Nahua: toopoh - fish
Zaragoza Nawa: tupuh - fish
Colonial Nahuatl: topohtli - Poecilia spp small fat freshwater fish

Tubar was spoken untill around 1900 in the Northwestern state of Chichuahua, very far from speakers of Mixe-Zoque languages. Southeastern Tepehuán is spoken in southern Durango, also very far away, in Tepehuán we can explain the form as derived from the prefix ba- "water" and a root toopo "fish" - since tepehuán languages often drop the final vowel in Uto-Aztecan forms with the shape CVCV. We also see a form in classical Nahuatl recorded by Sahagún in the Florentine codex (book 11 fol 66): the fish topohtli is described as a small fat freshwater fish. The name topohtli has entered Mexican Spanish as topote, a fish that is appreciated for its culinary value, but now unfortunately endangered. Topohtli may refer to species of Poecilia and perhaps also Dorosoma petenense. Based on the presence of the root in Tepehuán and Tubar we would be justified in reconstructing it for Southern Uto-Aztecan. I would suggest reconstucting as *tepó, identical to the Tubar form, since Eastern Nahua frequently assimilates a vowel e in penultimate syllables to harmonize with the vowel in the subsequent syllable giving topo as the expected reflex of *tepo. Topotli in colonial central Nahuatl looks like it has been a loan from eastern Nahuatl, into classical Nahuatl. 

Several Uto-Aztecan languages (perhaps including Nahua) will lengthen a vowel that is is in the penultimate syllable when the final syllable is stressed. The meaning may have been simply "fish", then applied specifically to catfish (often seen as a proto-typical or abundant fish) in Tubar, and to small abundant edible fishes in Eastern Nahua. So we should probably also reconstruct *tepoh as "fish" in proto-Nahua, and *topoh as fish in proto-Eastern Nahua. 

Florentine Codex Book 11 fol. 66

*musi - a Southern Uto-Aztecan word for ....what exactly?

So what about michin? What is the origin of this word for fish? 

It has a solid Uto-Aztecan etymology, since in several Uto-Aztecan languages of North-western Mexico a related word means "catfish". In Huichol/Wixárika the word is mɨxí "catfish", musít "catfish" in Eudeve , muusí "catfish" in Tarahumara. So here we have a solid relation between the Nahua word and words meaning catfish. So maybe the original meaning of the Nahuatl word michi was catfish too and tepo was fish, and then the tepo was gradually lost and michi became the general root for fish. 

But there is also another set of words that look like cognates to me they mean "moustache": Cora: mɨɨsí "moustache", Huichol mɨxíya "have a moustache",  Tubar himusír "beard". Corachol ɨ regularly reflects PSUA *u. The reason a catfish is called a "catfish" in English is of course exactly because it has "whiskers" or a moustache. The technical term for the Catfish's moustache is "barbel", of course related to the romance word for beard. Stubbs (2011) finds related forms meaning "beard" and "moustache" in Northern Uto-Aztecan languages as well, and he analyzes the word as having come from a combination of two roots: *mu- "mouth" and *suwi/*tsomi "hair". It seems clear that if we accept that analysis, already in proto-Southern Uto-Aztecan these elements had fused into a single root meaning "facial hair". 

But there is also a third set of terms, I consider likely to be related: Warihío: muhtsí "vagina"
Tohono O'odham muhs "vagina", Tarahumara muchí "vagina". Now, I have to admit that this could very well be considered another root entirely, a case of near homonymy, but there is a specific reason I don't. In Nahuatl, as she is spoken in the everyday usage, it is not uncommon to hear the words mistli "cat" or michin "fish" as euphemisms or slang terms for vaginas and vulvas. I don't think this usage is an historical pattern necessarily, but it does suggest a latent semantic or conceptual link between furry, whiskered animals, fish, and female genitals (think also of "pussy").

In these words, we see different forms of the sibilant *s some of them are affricated to *ts (and palatalized as Nahua ch). I believe that the UA sibilant had fortis and lenis variants, and that the fortis variant was realized as an affricate *ts. The fortis variant was found in syllables that carried the accent, but sometimes it remained in place after the accent had shifted. In this way *musí became corachol-nahua mɨtsí, when the pre-Nahua accent system reorganized itself the accent shifted to the first syllable, and the final syllable which was now weak dropped the final vowel and became mich. I believe that the blogger Ayac is correct in their suggestion that the -in absolutive suffix is a reflex of an old collective plural suffix (so fish were a substance encountered naturally in the plural). 

And finally, there is a fourth (smaller) set of potentially related terms, mean "feline": Nahuatl mistli, "cougar" and misto:n  "small feline", and Hopi: moosa "cat", which some consider a potential borrowing (Hill 1997). Hopi /o/ frequently corresponds to PSUA *u and Nahua /i/. We can see that the Nahuatl root mis- likely have had a as the final vowel, because if it were an *i, it should have palatalized when the final vowel was dropped. So this could be considered evidence that the "cat" root should be reconstructed as *músa, and not muusí. But this does not definitively preclude a relations, since the stress shift and the difference in vowel could be a derivational process. But we should probably consider the relation of this set to the other terms, quite tentative. 

And as a tiny post-scriptum, we might also add the Nahuatl word kimichin "mouse". I have always wondered why the word for mouse seemingly incorporates the word for "fish", but remembering that mice, like catfish and cats, have whiskers - it made more sense. Though, I still wonder what the ki- part is - maybe a cognate of the Uto-Aztecan word for "house" (which is otherwise not found in Nahuatl). 
A whiskered house rodent - kimichin.

PSUA *musí - moustache / 
Tarahumara (Norogachi/Brambila): muusí - catfish 
Ópata/Eudeve: musít - catfish
Huichol: mɨxí - catfish
Nahuatl: michin - fish
Cora: mɨɨsí - moustache
Huichol: mɨxíya - "have a moustache"
Tubar: himusír - beard
Warihío: muhtsí - vagina
Tohono O'odham: muhs - vagina
Tarahumara (Norogachi/Brambila): muchí - vagina

PUA: músa "cougar"
Nahuatl: mistli - feline
Hopi: moosa - feline

Nahuatl: kimichin - mouse

fredag den 12. februar 2021

Ears of Nopal: Reading the name of a Teotihuacán Fertility Goddess

In addition to my project on Nahuatl landscape, I am also working on another project, with the aim of trying to advance an important question in Mesoamerican studies: What was the main language spoken in Teotihuacan? And, specifically, could it have been an early form of Nahuatl? Nahuatl is of course one of the languages often mentioned as a potential language of the people of Teotihuacan, but other possibilities sometimes mentioned are Totonac, Mixe-Zoque or an early form of Otomí-Mazahua.

To engage this question I work to combine my knowledge of the deep history of Nahuatl with analysis of the iconography and writing found at Teotihuacan. Here, I work closely with my colleague Christophe Helmke who is an archaeologist and epigrapher with expertise in Mesoamerican writing systems - especially of the Maya and Teotihuacan. A guiding assumption of mine is that talking about Nahuatl at Teotihuacan is really an anachronism. I believe that the distinctive features of Nahuatl, such as the tl sound, the vowel system with only four vowel qualities instead of five, and the complex verbal morphology developed relatively late. This means that instead of trying to look for Nahuatl in Teotihuacan, we should look for something older which is perhaps similar to Nahuatl, but which is in some ways more similar to other Uto-Aztecan languages such as Cora and Huichol. This requires us to reconstruct the different stages of Nahuatl: from proto-Corachol-Nahuan (the language ancestral to both Nahuan and Corachol languages), to early proto-Nahua (the stage before undergoing the changes that are common to Nahuan languages today) to late proto-Nahuatl (the stage when it had developed all the traits common to all Nahuan languages today).

In this blogpost, I apply this method to one image from Teotihuacan, in an attempt to show why I think this approach is likely to be valuable and to advance our understanding of the culture and language of Teotihuacan.

As I was looking in Arthur G. Miller's 1973 "The Mural Painting of Teotihuacan" I came across the following illustration (Miller's Figure 234). This is a rendering (the original is badly damaged) of a detail from the mural at the Portico at Tetitla, depicting a frontal face. Miller (1973:121) describes that "flowering opuntia cactus pads hang from the ears." 


Figure 234 from Miller 1973:121

Looking at it, it could not avoid striking me immediately that in Cora and Huichol the words for "ear" and "nopal cactus" (the opuntia cactus which is edible and very delicious) are almost identical. In Cora, naká means "nopal" while nasaíh means "ear", and in Huichol naká means "ear" while nakári means "nopal. In Nahuatl of course, the word for "ear" is nakastli, which is clearly related to the Cora and Huichol word, whereas the word for "nopal cactus" is nohpalitl (the origin of the Mexican Spanish word "nopal").  

This to me is an enticing similarity. If the word for ears and nopal cactuses are similar, could that one the reason for depicting ears or earrings as nopal pads? To answer whether this is even possible we have to try to reconstruct the history of the words in Corachol and Nahuatl, to make sure that the similarity can even be old enough to be relevant to understand a mural painted in Teotihuacan around 1500 years ago.

Ears and nopales in Cora, Huichol and early Nahuatl

In a previous blogpost, I described some apparent semantic changes in words related to meaty or umami-flavored foods in the development of Nahuatl and Corachol. Specifically, I argued that the Nahuatl word for "meat", nakatl, might well be related to the corachol word for the nopal cactus - both of which may fulfill the same function of protein and umami-flavour in the foodways of a nomadic desert people. If the original meaning of the word *naka in the ancestor language of Corachol and Nahuatl was indeed  "nopal cactus", then presumably the Nahuan ancestors later began to employ the word to mean “meat”, and caused the word that originally meant “meat” to shift to the meaning "beans" (another protein-rich umami tasting food). 

Cora naká and Huichol nakári differ only in the Huichol suffix -ri, which may well be cognate to the Nahuatl absolutive suffix. Cora also originally had an absolutive suffix, so the word may originally have been nakát in Cora, but the word doesn't appear in the earliest vocabulary of Cora, Joseph de Ortega's vocabulary from 1732, where some nouns still have their absolutive suffixes. I would suggest reconstructing the proto-Corachol form as *nakáti "nopal". The ancestral proto-Corachol-Nahuan word would also have been *nakáti before, the early proto-Nahuas split off and changed its meaning to "meat". 

The Nahuatl words for "nopal cactus" nohpalitl and its fruit no:chtli, can be derived from a reconstructed root *náwa-. Perhaps náwa is related to the Corachol word nawá which refers to an alcoholic beverage based on fermented corn - but the similarity could also be a coincidence.  In nohpali- the root *náwà is followed by another root -pali, which can be reconstructed as *pári, likely the same found in words for flat oblong things. In no:chtle, it is followed by the suffix -tsi, probably a diminutive.  So, this gives the following set of cognates for the meaning nopal/meat. So in early proto-Nahuatl we would have náwapári "nopal", which became nohpalitl in late proto-Nahuatl, and náwatsi "tuna/cactus fig", ultimately becoming no:chtli in late proto-nahuatl. 



  • Cora Mariteco                       naká            "nopal"
  • Huichol                                   nakári        "nopal"
  • Proto-Corachol                   *nakáti
  • Early proto-Nahuatl          *náka-tɨ       "meat"


  • Early Proto-Nahuatl          *náwàpàrì   "nopal"
  • Early Proto-Nahuatl          *náwatsi      "tuna/cactus fig"

The words for "ear" show a curious effect in which the Cora and Huichol words are quite different, but nonetheless easily derived from a form that is similar to that of Nahuatl. This kind of effect is one of the things that have convinced me that Corachol and Nahuatl are quite closely related within the Uto-Aztecan family. What happens here is that, Cora has nasaíh (Ortega's vocabulary gives naxaihti, with the absolutive suffix), but Huichol has naká or naaká. So, Cora has /s/ and Huichol has /k/ - but there is no known sound change in corachol that will give an /s/ from a /k/ or vice versa. So what has happened? Are these not cognates? When we look at Nahuatl nakas-tli "ear" we see both the /s/ and the /k/, and we begin to see what has happened. 

In Nahuatl and in Corachol there is a process by which unstressed short vowels are deleted. And stress tends to fall on every other syllable. So if you have a word with three syllables with stress on the first and last syllable 'CVCV'CV, the vowel in the middle syllable is likely to disappear. This creates a consonant cluster, and indeed in Nahuatl most consonant clusters come from vowels that have disappeared in this way, and for Nahuatl roots that end in a consonant it is usually the last vowel that has disappeared. From this, we can surmise that nakastli is likely to have had a vowel between the s and the absolutive suffix, nakasVti. This vowel could not have been /i/, because in Nahuatl when /i/ is lost the preceding consonant is palatalized, so that should give us *nakaxtli. Indeed the most likely consonant in this position would be /a/, so let's reconstruct *naakásà- as the root for early-proto-Nahuatl (first syllable long, because otherwise it would probably have been lost too).

In Cora and Huichol when a vowel is lost and a consonant cluster arises, sometimes they simply delete the first of the two consonants - so now the entire unstressed syllable has disappeared. This is why Cora has dropped the /tɨ/ syllable in the word for "nixtamal" proto-Corachol-Nahua *nasitɨma, which became proto-Cora *násimwá, and why proto-Corachol-Nahua *siku-(teni)putsi became Cora siputsi, Huichol xɨtemútsi and Nahuatl xik-tli (Nahuatl just used siku, and didn't add the teniputsi element, though it appears in the word te:mpotza referring to pursing one's lips). If proto-Cora and Proto-Huichol differed in how the accent was placed on a word (and we know they sometimes did), they would end up each losing a different syllable.

This suggests the following development led to Cora nasaíh and Huichol naká and Nahuatl nakastli

·       nakasa > proto-Cora *nákàsá(-hiti) > náksáhí násaíh

·       nakasa > proto-Huichol *naakásà > *nakás naká

·       nakasa > Early proto-Nahuatl *naakásà-tɨ > *nakás-tɨ > nakastli

It is clear that Nahuatl and Huichol must have shared the same accent pattern on this word, leading to the loss of the final vowel of naakásà, whereas in Cora the *kà was unstressed and became lost. (The reason I reconstruct the first syllable as long in Huichol and Nahuatl is that long syllables cannot be lost even when unstressed, in Huichol a variant pronunciation has a short vowel as in Nahuatl, but this is likely to be a subsequent shortening after the accent pattern had reconstituted itself after the process of syncopation).


  • Cora Mariteco                       nasaíh                      "oreja"
  • Proto-Cora                           *nákàsáhi
  • Huichol                                   naká, naaká           "oreja"
  • Proto-Corachol                   *nakasa                     "ear"
  • PreProto-Nahuatl              *nakása                     "ear"
  • Proto-Corachol-Nahua     *nakasa                     "ear"

What this exercise in reconstruction shows us, is that the near-homophony, and the ensuing punnability, between the words for “ear” and “nopal” go back to the common ancestral language of Corachol and Nahuatl. The cactus/ear pun works even at this deep stage of the languages' development. 

Could the nopal-ears of the depicted face be a logogram, with the value NAKA?

The name of the"Great Goddess" of Teotihuacan?

The image of the face with nopal-ears is part of the mural that has been interpreted as a procession of priestly figures (see Helmke and Nielsen 2014: 91-94; see also Miller 1973: Figs. 229-239). The mural has also been called the Mural of the Great Goddess” because some scholars, notably Esther Pasztory (1973) have identified it as depicting a deity that she considered the “great Goddess” of Teotihuacan. Pasztory proposed that the Great Goddess was the main deity in Teotihuacan, a goddess of fertility and rain, and she identifies this goddess in many murals. More recently, the idea of a “Great Goddess” complex as described by Pasztory has fallen out of favour among epigraphers working with Teotihuacan iconography, since it seems to include things that are really best understood as being different elements. Zoltán Paulinyi (2006), for instance, argues that Pazstory and others who posit a Great Goddess in Teotihuacan are conflating several different figures into one, and he prefers distinguishing between several of these figures, and he calls the cactus-ear face for "the Opuntia Deity". Paulinyi may be right of course that the different depictions described by Pasztory as "the great Goddess" may in fact be different, but here we are interested specifically in what he calls the "Opuntia Deity".


Another figure in the Tetitla murals that
Pasztory believed to represent "the Great Goddess".
(Adrián Hernández, wikicommons).

If the painters of the mural intended the opuntia pun to be a phonetic clue to allow us to "read" the image as a word, then perhaps they are a clue to the identity or name of the figure whose face is depicted? I think there is reason to think that this is possible. 

The Huichol people of Jalisco and Nayarit are well known for being among the most religiously conservative Uto-Aztecan peoples. They still practice a polytheistic religion, with many narratives and deities that echo those we know from the sources about the Aztecs. One of the central deities of the Huichol is a founder goddess, a goddess of the earth, rain and fertility, known sometimes as "Grandmother Growth" (Zingg 2004:112). She was the one who taught the first human Watákame how to survivethe flood and how to cultivate corn, and she also saved the animals in a boatmade from ficus bark (amate paper). Her name in Huichol is Nakawé.  

The name of Takutsi (grandmother) Nakawé is sometimes translated as "hollow ear", and it is explained that she is so named because she listens and was the only deity to realize that the diluvial flood was coming. But one might also suggest an etymology of "big ear" since the syllable , is potentially related to the Nahuatl word we:yi "big". She is in many ways comparable to the Nahuatl deity Tlalteuctli, the Earth Goddess, and like the Aztec aquatic monster Cipactli from whose body the world was created, Nakawé gave parts of her body to humans for their sustenance. Perhaps it was her ears then, which became the nopal cactus whose sweet fruits and nutritious pads sustain the people and wildlife of the vast Mexican deserts? 

Already in 1974, Peter Furst who had done extensive work with the Huichol, suggested that the Great Goddess proposed by Pasztory might be related to the Huichol deity Nakawé. He saw the similarity between the aquatic and chthonic and pro-social aspects of the Huichol goddess and Pasztory's proposal that Teotihuacan society was united by a shared belief in a benevolent goddess of fertility, rain, earth and growth. So, Furst was the first to independently suggest the relation between the Huichol deity Nakawé and the goddess of Teotihuacan (though not specifically the opuntia deity), the reading of the puntia earring as a logogram for NAKA provides independent evidence for this identification (though Furst may of course have been wrong in thinking the same identification applied to all the depictions of the deity proposed by Pasztory).

If my reasoning and conclusions here are sound and can be accepted, then the nopal cactus ears in the Tetitla murals juxtaposes ears with nopal pads as earflares thereby employing the logogram NAKA as a phonetic reinforcement that aids in identifying the name of the figure so depicted. This in turn strongly suggests that:

1.     In the period when the Tetitla murals were painted (perhaps about AD 300-500?), there were speakers of a Uto-Aztecan language closely related to Corachol and Nahuan at Teotihuacan 

2.    They used phonetic principles to write names of individuals and/or entities in their iconography, integrating logograms for their phonetic values into depictions of persons and places.

3.    The phonetic signs cannot be read by simply using the phonetic values of Nahuatl or Cora or Huichol, because the language recorded is older than any of them. Therefore, comparative studies of the Coracholan and Nahuan languages using historical reconstruction may yield keys to reading the phonetic values of such signs. 

References Cited:

  • Furst, Peter T. (1974) "Morning glory and mother goddess at Tepantitla, Teotihuacan: iconography and analogy in pre-Columbian art." Mesoamerican Archaeology: New Approaches, edited by Norman Hammond, pp. 187-215.. Austin: University of Texas Press..
  • Helmke, C. and J. Nielsen. “If mountains could speak: Ancient toponyms recorded at Teotihuacan, Mexico”  Contributions in New World Archaeology, Vol. 7: 73-112:
  • Miller, A. G. (1973). The Mural Painting of Teotihuacan. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
  • Paulinyi, Z. (2006). The" Great Goddess" of Teotihuacan: fiction or reality?. Ancient Mesoamerica, 1-15.
  • Pasztory, E. (1971) The mural paintings of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan. Ph.D. Dissertation. New York: Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University.
  • Pasztory, E. (1974). The iconography of the Teotihuacan Tlaloc. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology15.  Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
  • Zingg, Robert Mowry. 2004. Huichol Mythology. University of Arizona Press.