tirsdag den 14. april 2015

Tongues of Aztlan: The Nahua migrations and dialectology

In my last post I showed the basic split between eastern and western Nahuatl dialects, and how different dialects could be classified as belonging to either of the two branches. In this post I summarize a talk I gave at the Mesoamerican conference at CalState L.A. this past saturday, in which I gave my interpretation of the history of migrations that brought the Nahuas to their current locations from their ancestral homeland.

My narrative is based on three avenues of evidence:

  1. Linguistic evidence. By analyzing how the structure of shared linguistic innovations between dialects reflect historical relationships and splits, give us a way to understand how ancestral dialect groups moved, split and moved again. 
  2. Ethnohistorical evidence. By analyzing accounts told by the Nahuas about their own past we can find clues to how they themselves understood the relaiton between groups of speakers and their historical and geographic relations.
  3. Archeological evidence. By analyzing material culture in different locations we can trace population movements and cultural innovations or changes. 

There are several different views of where the Nahuan languages originated:

Terrence Kaufman 2001 thinks the proto-Nahuan language must have been spoken somewhere North of the Huasteca region in Tamaulipas or San Luis Potosi before entereing the basin of Mexico where according to his interpretation they the Western group split off.  His main argument for this location is what he sees as loanwords in proto-Nahuan from Wastek/Huastec Mayan (Teenek) and the Otomanguean language Pame. 

Christensen and Beekman 2003, rather see the homeland in the Bajio region of Zacatecas, Jalisco, Aguacalientes and Queretaro. This view they base on the fact tha they have archeologically documented a large population movement out of this region into central Mexico starting in about 500AD. 

Other, less well supported suggestions for the location of the ancestral Proto-Nahuan speech community include the coast of Nayarit and even Durango/Sonora/Chihuahua. I follow Christensen and Beekman, both because I disagree with Kaufman regarding the Teenek influence in proto-Nahuan which I find negligible, and also because my own investigations have found more commonalities between Nahuan and Cora (Naayerite) and Huichol (Wixarika), suggesting to me a more westerly origin in contact with these languages. My interpretation of contact in Nahuan prehistory is thus more consonant with Christensen and Beekman than with Kaufman's account. 

This then, using the three kinds of evidence and the Bajio as a place of origin, provides us with the following narrative: 

Late Classic (500-600AD):

By the late classic Speakers of Eastern Nahuatl are entering Mesoamerica from the Bajio, drawn by the metropolis of Teotihuacan. They settle in a broad area across the central highlands from the Huastec region to Guererro. Possibly the Huastec and Guerrero branches already split from the other Eastern languages - or mor likely they formed a dialect continuum, which was only subsequently broken apart.

Epiclassic (600-800AD):

Then at the fall of Teotihuacan around 600AD the demographic weight of Central Mexico shifts towards the new centers of Cholula/Cacaxtla, and Xochicalco. Here Eastern Nahuas come into contact with Maya speakers - Maya influence in the Cholula region in this period is well documented. Perhaps, including the ancestors of the Teenek Maya people, if we assume that they had not yet arrived in their current location (this is in contrast to Kaufman's view of Huastecs arriving in their current position much earlier than that, but consonant with Robertson and Houston's argument for a much later Huastec migration). Cholula is one of the centers from which the religion based around the worship of Quetzalcoatl spreads, southeast in to the Maya region and west into the highlands.

Early Post-Classic (800-1000)

In this period Western Nahuas, who had stayed behind in contact with Naayerite, Wixarika and Otomi people move into Central Mexico settling at the site of Tula, Hidalgo. Previous scholars such as Una Canger 1988 and Terrence Kaufman have seen Tula as a center of dispersal of Eastern Nahuatl. I disagree, since I consider this date to be much too late, and because there are no Eastern varities spoken in the area of Tula, only Western ones and Otomi. Kaufman consider the Otomies to be a later intrusion in the area - I know of no convincing evidence for this. Rather I think that clearly the Western Nahuas were closely aligned with Otomies (e.g. the Acolhua of Texcoco were multiethnic Otomi-Nahuas even in the14th century), and probably Tula, was composed of both Otomi and Nahua populations. The many important calques between Otomi and Nahua described by David Wright Carr, date to this period, and I believe a number of loans in both directions as well.

Then after settling in Tula, the Western Nahuas who use /ahmo/ as their only negation word, move into the Central Mexico Valley and arrive in Cholula. Here they rout the Eastern Nahuas and Mayas who live there, and make them flee towards the gulf coast, towards the province of Olman-Xicallanco. This event is suggested by the account in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca which tells us about the invasion of Tolteca-Chichimeca who rout the Olmeca-Xoiclanca from Cholula. It is also supported by the work of Geoffrey McCafferty whose excavations at Cholula have demonstrated warfare and a change in the material culture of the site around the time of the entry of the Eastern Nahuas (his Olmeca-Xicallanca) in the 7th century and at the time of the entry of the Western Nahuas (his Tolteca-Chichimeca) in the 9th century. My argument here is that the Olmeca-Xicallanca only came into existence when they left Cholula, for Olman-Xicallanco - that is they were named after the destination where they went after leaving Cholula, and not for their origin before arriving there. The arrival of the Western Nahuas split the Eastern Nahuas into three groups - the Isthmian group who settled the gulf coast of southern Veracruz and well into Tabasco, and the North-Eastern Huastec-Nahuas who settled in the Sierra Huasteca.  The Sierra de Puebla varieties also split off at this time. The Isthmian and Sierra de Puebla groups subsequently changed /tl/ to /t/, developed new grammatical strategies for negation, and began dropping their /y/s wordinitially before /e/.  Perhaps the fact that one of the Eastern group of Nahuas the Isthmians, changed their /tl/ to  /t/ is due to Maya influence, since there is no /tl/ sound in Mayan, and Maya speakers must have found it hard to pronounce. The Isthmian Nahuas, also seem to have had the closest ties to the Chontal Mayas in the Tabasco region where both languages are still spoken in close contact.

Another group of Western Nahuas split from the central group going into Mexico state, backtracking towards the pacific coast and north into Michoacan, Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango. They became the Western Peiphery. They are characterized by a frequent if sporadic change of /tl/ to /l/, and the use of -lo for the plural subject, and a number of other innovations. 

Postclassic: 1000-1500AD

The Postclassic period sees the continued dominance of Western Nahuas centered in the Mexico Valley, the rise of Azcapotzalco, and later the triple alliance. During this period Western features extend into most of the historically Eastern varieties, creating a zone of diffusion in the central Nahua speaking area  (from the sierra Zongolica across Southern Puebla into Morelos and Central Guerrero) where Western and Eastern traits mingle freely. With the rise of Tenochtitlan, Western influence reaches its maximum extent and, except for Pipil which has by then reached in El Salvador and Guatemala, no Eastern varieties escape being influenced by Western Nahuatl.


This narrative leads us to the current distribution with clearly demarcated Western and Eastern peripheries, and a large central diffusion area marked by dialect mixture and koineization (as suggested by Canger 2011).  My narrative builds on and is largely consonant with most other studies, and mostly differ in the timing and in the identification of Tula as the center of the Western dispersal and Cholula as the center of Eastern dispersal. 


Canger, U. (1988). Nahuatl dialectology: A survey and some suggestions.International Journal of American Linguistics, 28-72.

Canger, U. (2011). El nauatl urbano de Tlatelolco/Tenochtitlan, resultado de convergencia entre dialectos: Con un esbozo brevísimo de la historia de los dialectos. Estudios de cultura Náhuatl42, 243-258.

Canger, U., & Dakin, K. (1985). An inconspicuous basic split in Nahuatl.International journal of American linguistics, 358-361.

Kaufman, T. (2001). The history of the Nawa language group from the earliest times to the sixteenth century: Some initial results. Paper posted online at http://www. albany. edu/anthro/maldp/Nawa. pdf. University of Pittsburgh.

Kaufman, T., & Justeson, J. (2009). Historical linguistics and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica20(02), 221-231.

Robertson, J., & Houston, S. (2015). The Huastec Problem. in Faust, K. A., & Richter, K. N. (Eds.). (2015). The Huasteca: Culture, History, and Interregional Exchange. University of Oklahoma Press.

McCafferty, G. G. (1996). Reinterpreting the great pyramid of Cholula, Mexico.Ancient Mesoamerica7(01), 1-17.

McCafferty, G. G. (1996). The ceramics and chronology of Cholula, Mexico.Ancient Mesoamerica7(02), 299-323.

Carr, D. C. W. (2008). La Sociedad Prehispánica en las Lenguas Náhuatl y Otomí◊. Acta Universitaria18(Esp), 15-23.