I am very happy to present a guestblog by Ben Leeming, a Nahuatl scholar who works mostly on Christian religious texts in colonial Nahuatl. He recently published an article on "Nahuatl Micro Poetry", in which he argues that the grammatical structure of Nahuatl and the ability to make very long words, enabled Nahua poets to create one-word poems: a single long word with the sense of aesthetics and wonder and the complex structure of an entire poem. These "hypertrophic" words, would probably not have been used in normal spoken conversation, but since they follow the grammatical rules of the language, poets could exploit the grammar to "unfurl" words for their listeners. Here Ben summarizes of his article as a blog post:
onsdag den 25. maj 2016
‘Micro poetry’: One-word poems
When Europeans first came into contact with Aztec (Nahua) civilization in the early 16th century, they found a rich and ancient tradition of verbal art that in certain ways approximated western notions of poetry. For example, the genre referred to as cuicatl (lit. “song”) was rich in metaphorical language, often involved the repetition of words and phrases, and was organized into lines and verses. Franciscans like fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who was among the first European observers to appreciate the poetry of the Nahuas, wrote down examples that today are preserved in texts like the Primeros memoriales. However, literate Nahuas also continued to compose traditional cuicatl, much of it contained in the anonymous texts known as the Cantares Mexicanos and the Romances de los señores de la nueva españa. All three of these texts exist in modern translations and make very worthwhile reading; see the list of sources at the end of this post for more information. To get a feel for Nahuatl poetry, here are a few verses from the Romances text:
Your flowers blossom as bracelets, swelling as jades, the petals abounding, they lie in our hands. These fragrant plume flowers are our adornment, you princes. Aya! We only borrow them on earth.
Let the popcorn flowers, the raven flowers be scattered, and fragrant plume flowers lie in our hands. They are our adornment, you princes. Aya! We only borrow them on earth.
I, Tizahuatzin, am grieving here. Where are we to go? To His home! There can be no coming back, there can be no return. We go away forever. Beyond is where we go.
Let these flowers, these songs be carried from his home. And would that I might go away adorned. Gold raven flowers, plume popcorn flowers lie in our hands. There can be no return. We go away forever. Beyond is where we go.
I’ve long been fascinated by the religious writing of early colonial Nahuas. Trained in alphabetic literacy by the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, Nahuas enthusiastically embraced reading and writing in Spanish, Latin, and their language of birth, Nahuatl. Certain members of this cohort assisted the friars in composing religious texts in their native tongue, some which were translated from Spanish or Latin, others that were composed from scratch in the scriptoria of the various monastic houses. One of the cherished cultural forms that Nahua writers sought to incorporate into their Christian writing was characteristic traits of pre-Hispanic Nahuatl poetry. The friars supported this, at least in theory, since it lent an air of authenticity and prestige to the Christian message. One of the foremost hallmarks of Nahuatl poetry was the frequent use of couplets – pairs of words that together embellished the idea being communicated. Sometimes this pair of words could take on a third, metaphorical meaning, a kind of “semantic couplet” that is often referred to as a difrasismo. For example, the pairing of the words in xochitl and in cuicatl (“flower” and “song”) signified poetry. Other well-known difrasismos include: in atl in tepetl (“water, hill” rendering “town”), in teoatl in tlachinolli (“ocean, burned field” rendering “war”), and in cueitl in huipilli (“skirt, blouse” rendering “woman”). As is seen in the verses from the Romances text above, Nahuatl poetry often employs “vocables” (words without meaning, like Aya!) and refrains (“We only borrow them on earth”). Finally, Nahuatl poetry tends to draw on imagery from the “flower world” complex – iridescent tropical birds, reflective metals, brightly colored flowers, and all their associated sensory components – sounds, sights, and smells. To Nahuas, these were manifestations of teotl, the all-pervading power that animated all living (and some un-living) things.
The friars sought to carefully supervise all writing by native people, fearing the transmission of ideas deemed “diabolical” from indigenous cultures into the “one true faith” they had brought. But the act of translation is far more complicated than merely finding equivalences between two languages. Translating Christian concepts into indigenous tongues necessarily shaped and molded those concepts by virtue of the “stickiness” of language. For example, when friars sought an equivalent Nahuatl word for “God” they chose teotl. On one level this fit because it was one of the words Nahuas had used to refer to their deities. However, how does one “unstick” indigenous understandings of the divine from the word teotl and stick on to it a new, Christian one? One strategy they employed was to modify the word teotl with the Spanish word “Dios.” Teotl Dios was a way of saying, “the Christian teotl.” However, it proved very difficult – at least for quite a long time – to unstick the old meanings and attach new ones. Nahua Christianities (many regional varieties resulted from the translation project) tended to borrow heavily from new and old in an effort to make the new faith work within native cultural frameworks that had developed over millennia.
Nahua writers could get very creative with their use of language, whether it be in their incorporation of difrasismos and other metaphorical expressions or their use of the “flower world” imagery described above. Although it wasn’t always true, generally speaking the less ecclesiastical supervision a writer was under the more creative his writing would become. In my work with colonial Nahuatl texts I am drawn to such texts, for they often contain bursts of creativity that might otherwise have been squelched by critical friars. Some native writers of religious texts displayed remarkable linguistic ingenuity in their effort to elevate the tone of their compositions and express their devotion to the saints, Mary, and Christ. Here’s a example of very florid devotional writing by a Nahua who penned these lines in a prayer of praise to the Virgin Mary:
You, oh vessel of jade-green water, from you will flow forth, will drip forth the heavenly jade-green water of life, so that with utterly good water all the world will be watered, so that in a sacred way will germinate, will sprout that which was frozen with the ice of sin. Oh, may you rejoice, oh Saint Mary, oh pure and forever maidenly flower…you are the finely emblazoned jade-green water vessel. [Burkhart 2001:55]
Notice in this example the author’s use of couplets (“will flow forth, will drip forth” and “will germinate, will sprout”) as well as the reference to “jade-green” water, jade being a precious greenstone associated with the shimmering phenomena of the flower world. One additional way this writer displays his skill and devotion is by composing words of exceptional length. In the short passage above there are two of these: “oh pure and forever maidenly flower” and “you are the finely emblazoned jade-green water vessel.” Yes, these are single words. Here they are in their Nahuatl form:
(“oh pure and forever maidenly flower”)
(“you are the finely emblazoned jade-green water vessel”)
Nahuatl is what is called an “agglutinative” language, which means that it forms words by adding prefixes and suffixes onto word stems. Each prefix and suffix adds more material to the stem, to the point where these words can function as entire sentences, as seen in the second example above. Nahua authors like those who composed these words pushed the limits of Nahuatl’s agglutinating nature, building words that could stretch to extreme lengths. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I became fascinated, both by the complexity of these words and by their obvious poetic value. When I studied them closely I made a startling discovery. Within the boundaries of certain of these words I observed the very characteristics of Nahuatl poetry that were common in entire lines and verses. After accumulating a database of examples and breaking each one down into its constituent parts, it became clear to me that what I was seeing were tiny, single-word poems – ‘micro poetry’ of astonishing beauty.
In order to explain how these words can be analyzed as poems, I will next share a few examples from my database. For each example I have first presented the word in Nahuatl followed by the translation of the publishing author. Then, I have presented the word again in two columns. The left-hand column presents the word broken into its individual parts and arranged vertically. Directly across from it is a more literal translation of each part. Finally, I offer a short commentary about each example.
Ex. 1: tonecuiltonolnetlamachtiliztlahtocatzin
“our ruler of prosperity and happiness” (Burkhart translation)
This first Nahuatl micro-poem comes from an anonymous manuscript containing a variety of miscellaneous Christian texts of a devotional nature. Likely penned by a Nahua early in the seventeenth century, it forms part of a prayer to the Virgin Mary and refers to her son, Jesus Christ. My presentation above shows that the author has embedded a pair of noun stems within the boundaries of this lengthy word, forming an embedded couplet. Although these two words are nouns, when compounded in this manner they modify the primary noun (tlahtohcatzin) and take on an adjectival function, describing what kind of ruler Christ is. As I’ve already stated, the couplet is one of the most characteristic features of Nahuatl poetry. However, not all couplets were created equal. To enhance the beauty of such a pairing, the author of this word crafted a couplet with a strong parallel structure. By choosing noun stems that both begin with the prefix ne he formed a couplet that would have sounded especially pleasing to the Nahua ear. What I find so remarkable about this example is that we see the same propensity to form pairs here within single words as we see at the level of entire verses.
Ex. 2 tiquetzalçacuaxiuhquecholhuihuicomacan
“let's make troupial-and-turquiose swan plumes twirl” (Bierhorst translation)
ti Let us [like]
hui climb up…
huicomacan …and up
This beautiful word (keep in mind: this is one word!) comes from one of the most important sources of colonial Nahuatl poetry, the so-called Cantares mexicanos. My presentation suggests that Bierhorst (a brilliant translator) may have missed the internal structuring of this word. Notice how his translation treats “troupial” and “turquoise swan” as types of feathers. However, “quetzal” can refer both to feathers and the bird that bears this name. Since troupials, “turquoise swans” (a species of motmot) and quetzals are all species of brightly-colored tropical birds common to flower world complex of poetic imagery, it seems to me far more likely that the author included the three as an embedded triplet modifying the verb huihuicomacan. The directional thrust of this verb (a command form of huicoma, “to climb”) is spiraling, upward motion. Based on the larger context of the verse in which this word-poem appears, I believe the composer was likening the spiraling flight of brightly colored birds with the rising of one’s spirit in song to God. This is a spectacular example of the melding of Christian practices with indigenous art forms, a phenomenon well documented in longer texts and here shown to operate at the level of single words.
Ex. 3 onquetzalchalchiuhtlapitzalicaoacatiaque
“They went chirping like flutes of quetzal-green jade” (Burkhart translation)
they went chirping
This beautiful word-poem appears in fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s cycle of songs composed for the feast of the Nativity and describes the sounds made by the angels attending Christ’s birth. I have formatted my presentation of this word horizontally so as to better highlight its complex internal structure. The opening bracket is formed by Nahuatl’s outbound directional prefix on-, essentially a prefix that indicates the action is moving away from the speaker or subject. The closing bracket, the word being modified, is the verb icahuacatiaque “they went chirping.” Within these brackets the author has embedded three stems: quetzal- (“quetzal feather”), chalchiuh- (“green stone or jade”), and tlapitzal- (“flute”). At first I was inclined to see these stems as forming an embedded triplet. However, there’s something more complicated going on here. Rather than all serving the same function, the embedded stems modify the verb icahuacatiaque at two different levels. The first level is represented by tlapitzal- (“flute”) which modifies the verb, basically saying that the angels “went chirping like flutes.” However, modifying this modifier is an embedded couplet, quetzal- and chalchiuh-, which describes the appearance of the flute. However, this is no ordinary couplet. In fact, it is a difrasismo the metaphorical meaning of which is maize leaves or rain drops. In its pre-Hispanic usage this difrasismo alluded to the rain deity Tlaloc, a surprising reference in light of the Christian context of its use here! So far this is the only difrasismo I have identified within the confines of a single word poem. Given the centrality of this particular kind of couplet in Nahuatl poetry it stands as a striking example of the permeation of certain poetic features down to the smallest level.
The examples below come from the database of single-word Nahuatl poems that I have collected over the years. Some of them contain clear evidence of the kind of internal poetic structuring demonstrated in the two examples above; others yield less easily to such analysis. However, all of them are shining examples of the sort of linguistic creativity exercised by early colonial Nahua writers. As single word poems, I find them exquisitely beautiful.
trans: “A golden quetzal-colored dew formed drops” (Anderson translation)
“let us like quetzals, troupials and motmots climb up and up” (my translation)
trans: “O fresh and pure one who is in a sacred way a flower” (Burkhart translation)
“I gently unfurl [my song] as a precious green-stone string of beads” (my translation)
“you are bursting into bloom all over with stars like flowers” (Burkhart & Sell trans.)
f. itlaçomahuizÇenquiscatlaçomahuizqualtilispepetlaquilisXayacatzin (Burkhart trans.)
“[his] precious, wondrous, utterly precious, wondrous, good, and shining face”
(note: This could be the longest word ever composed in colonial Nahuatl. It’s certainly the longest in my database.)
What sense are we to make of this phenomenon? As for why certain Nahua authors composed such lengthy words, it’s important to note that not all of them did. For example, the massively long word above is, at its root, simply ixayaca “his face.” In the hands of some authors this might have remained in this short form, or perhaps ixayacatzin “his face” in reverential form. But given the ease with which Nahuatl could incorporate stems to form more complex constructions, this word could just as easily have grown to itlazohxayacatzin (“his precious face”), or even itlazohmahuizxayacatzin (“his precious, marvelous face”). Authors who chose to grow their words to extreme lengths probably did so as a way to demonstrate both their linguistic skill (their “chops,” as it were), but owing to the fact that these examples come almost exclusively from Christian devotional texts, also as a way of demonstrating their piety and devotion. I see these examples of Nahuatl word poetry as evidence of the persistence of pre-Hispanic oral tradition in the early colonial period. That age-old tradition prized the kind of spontaneous, improvisational, linguistic ebullience that I see preserved in the examples shared here. Singers of cuicatl were praised for “unfurling their songs,” performing in xochitl in cuicatl for their audience who likened their speech to “green-stone strings of beads” or the spiraling, upward motion of quetzals, troupials, and motmots. That native authors continued to “unfurl their songs” into the early contact period is no surprise, and to gaze on the fruits of their linguistic labors is one of the things I cherish most about working with colonial Nahuatl texts.
Note: Readers who are interested in exploring Nahuatl “micro-poetry’ in greater detail should consult the article I published in Colonial Latin American Review, 24:2, pp. 168-189 (2015) titled “‘Micropoetics’: The poetry of hypertrophic words in early colonial Nahuatl.”
Nahuatl poetry in modern editions
Bierhorst, John, trans. 1985. Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs. Stanford: Stanford
___. 2009. Ballads of the Lords of New Spain. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Garibay, Ángel María. 1964. Poesía Náhuatl. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma
Sullivan, T.D. and Nicholson, H.B., eds. 1997. Primeros Memoriales by fray Bernardino de
Sahagún: Paleography of Nahuatl Text and English Translation. University of Oklahoma Press.
Christian texts that incorporate aspects of Nahuatl poetry
Burkhart, Louise M. 1992. “Flowery Heaven: The Aesthetic of Paradise in Nahuatl Devotional
Literature.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 21:88-109.
_____. 2001. Before Guadalupe. Albany: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies.
Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1993 . Psalmodia Christiana, translated by Arthur J.O.
Anderson. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Sell, Barry D. and Louise M. Burkhart, eds. 2004. Nahuatl Theater, Vol. 1. University of