tirsdag den 26. juli 2016

How to spell Nahuatl? Nawatl? Nauatl?

My last blog post was about how the Nahua people wrote before the arrival of Europeans with their alphabetic writing system. But almost all Nahuatl texts from the colonial period onwards are of course written in alphabetic writing. In this blog post, I describe the many different conventions for writing Nahuatl using the Latin script.

For the past 80 years, Nahuatl scholars have argued about how to standardize Nahuatl orthography and what conventions to use. Different groups of scholars and activists have recommended  and supported different systems. Sometimes scholars and Nahauatl activists seem to be spending more time arguing about how to write Nahuatl than they do on actually writing it. There are even cases where a single community has two different lanugage revitalization projects that refuse to cooperate because they use different spelling systems!

In this post, I try to describe the different types of writing conventions that are in use for Nahuatl, and to show their relation to different schools of thought within Nahuatl scholarship.

Roughly we can classify Nahuatl orthographies into two main types, each of which has a bunch of variatoins. One group we can call "Classical orthographies", because they base their orthographic choices on the conventions used by the Spanish speaking friars who wrote the first alphabetic texts in the early 16th century. The other group we can call "Modern orthographies" because they were introduced by academic linguists working to find the most linguistically efficient ways to represent the Nahuatl language in writing in the early 20th century. Both types of orthographies can be used to represent colonial Nahuatl as well as contemporary varieties.

For the current purpose we can define the two types of orthographies in this way:

  • Classical Orthographies: are those that value continuity with the colonial tradition of nahuatl writing - and which adopt colonial conventions because of the value they have as connectors with that tradition.
  • Modern Orthographies: are those that value linguistic efficiency and which aim to represent the Nahuatl language in ways that are either easier to learn or which facilitate a higher analytical precision by representing linguistic elements (phonemes, morphemes) in ways that are minimally variable and maximally efficient.
In practice most orthographies include elements of both "classical" and "modern" principles. 

Classical Orthographies: 

Sometimes people talk about "classical orthography" as if it is a single well-established standard. Really it is not, and it never was. In the 16th century when Nahuatl was first written alphabetically, the idea of a standardized orthography didn't even exist - and there was no established orthography for any of the spoken main languages such as English or Spanish (as anyone trying to read Shakespeare or Cortés' letters will realize). Authors writing in any of these languages simply used the writing conventions they learned from their teachers and put them to the best possible use to get their points across in the easiest way. They tended to write these languages as they were spoken, representing the sounds more or less as they pronounced them. And when they began writing Nahuatl they did the same, tried to use the conventions they knew from writing Spanish to represent the sounds of Nahuatl. This is why the only thing that is really shared by all "classical orthographies" is the fact that they represent the sounds that exist both in Nahuatl and in Spanish using the letters that were most commonly used in Spanish to represent these sounds. For example, Spanish had adopted the Latin convention of writing the sound [k] with the letter <c> before the vowels [a] and [o] but with the letters <qu> before the vowels [i] and [e]. Luckily, actually most of the sounds in Nahuatl are also found in Spanish, which meant that this method was fairly succesful. And in fact in the 16th century, Spanish phonology was even more similar to that of Nahuatl - because at that time Spanish didnt have the harsh j-sound (like in scottish Loch), but instead had a soft sh-sound as in fish which also exists in Nahuatl. They wrote this sound with the letter <x>, because that is how they generally wrote the sh-sound in Spanish. Only over the next century did Spanish gradually change the sh-sound to the harsh j-sound (and eventually began writing it with a j). (This, incidentally, is why the x is pronounced harshly in words like Mexico/Mejico, Oaxaca and Xalapa/Jalapa - but not in the corresponding Nahuatl versions which are pronounced meshi'ko, washakak and shalapan).

However there are some sounds that are found in Nahuatl that do not exist in Spanish: Primarily, the Nahuatl signature sound the tl (written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as  [t͡ɬ]), but this turned out to be easy to write with the letter combination <tl>. The sound [kw]  (as in queen )likewise turned out to be easy to write, since this sound also existed in Spanish as (although in Spanish it is a combination of k and u, and not a single consonant sound) so they wrote it <qu> or <cu>. The Nahuatl consonant [ t͡s] also didnt exist in Spanoish, but the Friars knew the sound from Hebrew and wrote it in the same way they would when transliterating the scripture using the letter combination <tz>. Nahuatl also had the consonant sound [w] (as in "wat?") which was not found in Spanish - friars couldn't quite decide on how to write this one, but usually they simply represented it with the vowel letter <u> - sometimes combined with a consonant letter such as <hu> or <gu> (More about this below, under Canger's orthography).

But the most difficult sounds to write were the glottal stop (or h) neither of which existed in Spanish; and the distinction between long and short vowel duration. At first most friars didn't even realize that these sounds actually existed in Nahuatl, so they simply didnt write them! This is the main difference between the orthographies of the Franciscan friars and the Jesuits.

Franciscan style orthographies:

In the 16th century the most widely used Nahuatl orthographies were those developed by the Franciscans. The Franciscans had a highly practical approach to evangelizing, without too many theoretical considerations - they just did whatever seemed to work (which sometimes got them on the wrong side of other ecclesiastic orders such as the more orthodox Dominicans). The same approach worked in the area of orthography, where the Franciscans never pined much about being consistent or about how best to write. This pragmatic approach was probably partly what allowed the Franciscans friars and their indigenous aides to author the most extensive documentation of  any Indigenous language in the colonial Americas. The 16th century saw major Nahuatl works like Andres de Olmos' Nahuatl grammar, Bernardino de Sahagún's 12 volume encyclopedia about Indigenous Nahua culture (now called the Florentine Codex) and Alonso de Molina's vocabularies. None of these works represented the saltillo or the vowel length distinction, and they were extremely inconsistent in representing sounds like [w] and [j]  - and even so they worked fine and thousands of Nahuas learned to write using these loose conventions. Apparently they didn't loose much sleep worrying about the fact that the representation of some minimal pairs was ambiguous (e.g. [tla:tia] "to hide" and [tlatia] "to burn" both of which was written <tlatia>, or [paʔti] "to become well" or [pa:ti] "to melt" both of which were written <pati>, and even the difference between plural and singular of verbs in the present tense as [kochi] "he sleeps" and [kochiʔ] "they sleep" were both written <cochi>). When Franciscans sometimes heard the saltillo (they only ever seem to have heard it bwhen it occurred before another consonant) and decided to write it, they used the letter <h> giving <pahti> "to cure", <pati> "to melt". 

Other than these conventions Franciscans (and the vast majority of colonial 
Nahuatl authors) were very unruly in their orthographies - for example they used the letters u and o interchangeably for the vowels [o] and [o:], they used the letters <i> and <j> and <y> interchangeably both for the vowel [i] and the consonant [j], they used <hu>, <u> and <o> intechangeably for the consonant [w] and used the letters <z>, <c>  and <ç> for the sound [s]. '

Really, by modern standards the Franciscan orthography was a mess - and yet we are fully able to read it today just as they were back in the 16th century. This tells me that consistency and standardization of orthographies is vastly overrated. 

Jesuit style orthographies: 

Page from Carochi's 1645 grammar which uses macron to show long vowels
and circumflex accent to show wordfinal saltillo.
Among the catholic orders the Jesuits have a reputation for being studious and academically inclined. The jesuit orthographic tradition for Nahuatl embodies this reputation for thoughtfulness, and Jesuits were among the first scholars to have theoretical insights about how the Nahuatl language differed from Spanish and other well known languages and how this ought to influence the way the language was written. Nonetheless, most of the honor for these insights should probably be given to the first Nahuatl grammarian who was also a Nahua person and a Nahuatl native speaker: the jesuit priest Antonio del Rincon. He wrote a short grammar in which he noted the existence of the saltillo and vowel length distinction and to suggest marking it in writing to represent the language more faithfully. His suggestions were taken up a fifty years later by fellow Jesuit Horacio Carochi who introduced a fully developed system for marking vowel length and saltillo systematically. Following Rincon, Carochi used diacritical marks to show these distinctions and he marked the saltillo with an accent (grave, or circumflex) and vowel length with a macron.

Hence the words "to cure" and "to melt" he wrote <pàti> and <pāti> respectively and the difference between "he sleeps" and "they sleep" he wrote <cochi> and <cochî>. Sometimes he marked short vowels with a breve sign <ă>, but he did not do this consistently (since it is redundant to mark both long and short, he only marked short vowels when a long vowel would change the meaning).

The Andrews-Campbell-Karttunen orthography:
Karttunen's dictionary which has
popularized the ACK orthography.
In the mid-twentieth century American historians discovered the rich trove of Nahuatl language writings and began working with them. Among the earliest historians looking at these works were Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble who translated Sahagun's Florentine Codex into English. Another scholar to take up the study of Nahuatl was the grammarian  J. Richard Andrews, who published his grammar of the "classical" language in 1975. He chose an orthography that was linguistically accurate marking all the phonemes including the vowel length distinction and the saltillo - and which combined aspects of the Franciscan and Jesuit tradition. Specifically he adopted Carochi's use of macron for marking long vowels, and the tradition penchant for marking the saltillo with <h>. He conventionalized the use of <hu> to write the sound <w> before a vowel and <uh> syllable-finally

Andrews' orthography was in turn adopted and conventionalized further by R. Joe Campbell and Frances Karttunen in their Foundation Course and in Campbell's morphological dictionary, and the important dictionary of Frances Karttunen (the first full Nahuatl-English dictionary, and the first to consistently mark the vowel length distinction). This orthography was further adopted by the school of historians trained by James Lockhart who collaborated with Karttunen in the 1970s. Today, almost all new editions of colonial Nahuatl texts adopt the Andrews-Campbell-Karttunen orthography as the standard (although many of them choose not to mark vowel length). 

One problematic feature of the ACK orthography (thanks to John Sullivan for introducing this term which i stole from one of his facebook statuses) is that it uses the letter <h> in three distinct functions - as the saltillo and as a part of the <hu>-digraph used to write [w] and as part of the <ch> digraph. This gives spellings with two consecutive h's such as  michhuacan [mit͡ʃwaʔka:n] (name of the state Michoacan - "Place of Fishowners"), or ohhui [oʔwi]"difficult". And it also creates near-ambiguity in cases where a [k] sound written with <c> precedes a [w] written with <hu>  over a syllable boundary (e.g. cachuia "to provide someone with sandals" where the reader has to realize that the <ch> is pronounced as [kw] and not [ch].) From the point of view of a proponent of a modern "efficiency based" orthography, clusters like <hhu>, <chhu> and <chu> where the letter <h> has a different value, comes across as unelegant and unnecessary - even though it is not technically ambiguous.

The use of <h> for saltillo also has the problem that it makes it impossible to distinguish in writing between varieties that pronounce the saltillo as a glottal stop, and those that pronounce it as an [h] - and it also somewhat implies that the h-pronunciation is the norm, when in fact we know that the normative pronunciation in the Nahua capital of Tenochtitlan was the glottal stop. 

The main advantages of the ACK orthography is that 1. it is very similar to the ortography used for most colonial texts and makes the transition from the study of the grammars (using Andrews and Karttunen's works) to the reading of colonial texts very easy, 2. it marks each Nahuatl phoneme with a single letter (or letter combination) and uses only symbols found on a standard American keyboard. 

Launey's orthography

About the same time that Andrews was working in the US, a French linguist was also working on a major analysis of the Nahuatl language based on the Florentine Codex and on Carochi's grammar. Michel Launey published a full didactic grammar of Nahuatl in French in 1979. He chose to use Carochi's conventions for marking saltillo with diacritic marks, standardizing them, and getting rid of the breve accent on short vowels. Since Launey's work was first published only in French and Spanish, (and a somewhat inadequate English translation in 2011) it mostly gained currency in Europe and Mexico, and among linguists more than among historians. His main work, the 1986 thèse d'etat, still exists only in French. It is to my mind the single best grammar of colonial Nahuatl written - surpassing the work of Andrews, and that of Carochi (francophone readers can check it out here). 

The Carochi-Launey orthography has the advantage that because the saltillo is marked as a diacritic it avoids the collisions of digraphs that are found in the ACK orthography, and it avoids implicitly suggesting the pronunciation <h> as the way to pronounce the saltillo.

Canger's orthography

Una Canger is a Danish linguist (and my first Nahuatl teacher) and writes in many different orthographies - this is because she works with many contemporary varieties and adopt the conventions that work best with the variety and its speakers and her own linguistic sensibilities. For the writing of Nahuatl she has made one important proposal. 

In a 2011 article, Canger described the how it happened that Nahuatl grammarians ended up writing the sound [w] with the letter combination <hu>. She shows that the tradition originates with the Franciscan Andres de Olmos - but she also shows that he did not always write the phoneme [w] as <hu> or <uh> - in fact he mostly did this when the [w] followed a consonant or preceded a word boundary or a consonant in the subsequent syllable. When the u was For example he wrote the word [siwatl] "woman" as <çiuatl>, but the word [yeʔwatl] "he/she/it" he writes <yehuatl> and the word "my wife" [nosiwaw] he writes <noçiuauh>. This leads Canger to suggest that what Olmos was doing was that he was using the <h> to show to the reader that the <w> is pronounced differently when it occurs wordfinally or before or after a consonant than when it occurs between two vowels. In fact drawing on her knowledge of contemporary Nahuatl, Canger suggests that it is exactly the aspiration that often accompanies the devoiced variant of <w> that Olmos was representing with the h (this argument is also strengthened by the fact that Olmos also writes h after the letter l in the same positions - since l also devoices under those conditions). Canger then shows that subsequent grammarians adopted Olmos convention of using hu without understanding the way that he used it, and instead of writing only devoiced w with h they used it across the board. This confusion is the ultimate reason for the problematic digraphs found in the ACK orthography and other orthographies that use the <hu> convention. Instead, Canger suggests returning to Olmos original principle - representing the [w] sound with the vowel letter <u>. Hence Canger does not write "nahuatl" but nauatl (as did Olmos and many colonial authors) or else nawatl writing the [w] as <w>. 

While it seems that Canger would prefer a more modern orthography using k and w and s instead of c/qu and u and z/c, she suggests that also scholars who prefer a classical style of orthography ought to return to writing [w] as <u>. Canger's proposal shares all the advantages of the ACK and Launey orthographies - and avoids the problematic digraphs combination found in both of them. The main drawback is that the other orthographies are already in wide usage and that by now it will be quite hard to get people to start writing Nauatl instead of Nahuatl.

Comparison of "Classical orthographies":

”we do it”

Modern orthographies: 

"Modern" orthographies also differ among themselves - but they share the principle that they aim for maximal efficiency rather than maximal continuity with colonial writing traditions. But efficiency can be measured in different ways that are not always compatible. One criterion of efficience might be simple graphic efficiency to have the smallest and most parsimonious array of graphic units  - for example following the principle of "one phoneme - one letter". This kind of "phonemic efficiency" would prefer to remove all the digraphic letters (tl, tz, ch, kw) so that no letter is used to represent two different phonemes and no phoneme is represented by two distinct typographic units. Another kind of efficiency would be to make sure that the orthography is maximally easy to learn - a kind of "pedagogical efficiency". Another kind of efficiency is to make sure that the orthography is maximally accessible to linguists - for example by using symbols for sound values that are internationally established in the linguistic community (e.g. in the same values as in the International Phonetic alphabet, or the Americanist Phonetic Alphabet). 

The Americanist orthography

The Americanist orthography stems from the earliest studies of contemporary spoken Nahuatl by American and Mexican US-trained linguists in the first half of the 20th century. They tended to use a phonetic notatoin system now known as APA (Americanist Phonetic Alphabet), which aimed towards being strictly phonemic and based on the principle of one letter per phoneme. Hence they used single letter symbols for all of the sounds that the "classical" orthographies represented with digraphs -

APA style transcription key:
  • tl = ƛ
  • tz = ¢ (or sometimes c)
  • cu/qua = kw (or sometimes q)
  • ch = č
  • x = š
  • c/qu = k
  • hu/uh = w
  • h = h
  • ʔ = '
Americanist orthography is really very efficient in this way - except that it requires a bunch fo special symbols not found on ordinary keyboards. Hence many linguists taking a practical approach retained tl, ts, ch and x avoiding unnecessary additional signs apart from those already on a standard keyboard.

Such a modified Americanist orthography was in fact adopted as the official standard by the participants in the first Aztec Congress which was held in Milpa Alta in 1940 and attended by many native speakers. They stated that they prefered this orthography exactly because it didnt use the Spanish-style digraphs que/qui ce/za etc. In this way the choice of a "modern" and "scientific" orthography was a political move towards decolonization. Today a variant of this orthography (without the special symbols, but with k and w) is used by most Nahuatl speakers in the Zongolica region where the linguist Andrés Hasler has promoted it for several decades. 

SEP and SIL's orthographies

Example of the SEP/SIL orthography from a textbook.
It uses the letter j to represent the h sound.
In the 1940s an American missionary organization called Instituto Linguistico de Verano (Summer Institute of Linguistics or SIL) began collaborating with the Mexican Ministry of Education (SEP) to develop educational materials in indigenous languages. Because the government wanted indigenous peoples to learn Spanish and primarily wanted to use indigenous language education as a way to teach Spanish, they considered that the orthographies should only use letters already found in Spanish. They developed many different orthographies for different Nahuan varieties - some of which used the "classical" Spanish digraphs, and others which used k and w (although most use hu or simply u for [w]).  The only common denominator seems to be that they use the letter j for the saltillo when it is pronounced as an [h]. This presumably is because the letter <h> is "mute" in Spanish which migh confuse the children during the gradual transition from Nahuatl to Spanish. Today SIL still consider the ease of acquisition for students who are already literate in Spanish as the main criteria for efficiency. Most SEP/SIl orthographies do not mark vowel length, because most Nahuatl speakers are not actually aware of this feature of their language, and vowel length is not very important in distinguishing words from eachother. Some of them however do and when they do they tend to use either double vowels (aa/ee/ii/oo)  or underlining (a, e, i, o) to mark long vowels.

SEP and SIL style orthographies are extremely influential in Mexico and those Nahuatl speakers who have been lucky enough to have classes in their languages in school are likely to have learned them. Also most Nahuatl language authors tend to use these orthographies (because most of them are trained as bilingual teachers through SEP). Many SEP and SIL orthographies also do not write the double [ll] sound which is very common in Nahuatl but instead writes it as a single l. This is of course because Mexican Spanish pronounces the double l as the [j] sound (which is written with y in Nahuatl).

The drawback of using <j> to write the sound [h] is that it often causes non-Nahuatl speakers to erroneously pronounce it as the harsh Spanish j-sound and not as a soft h-sound. Writing the double l as a single-l is problematic from a grammatical viewpoint because the double-l is what happens when the absolutive suffix -tli occurs after a root ending in -l. So by writing only a single l, the grammatical structure of the language is obscured making it harder to teach the grammar. 

"Intuitive orthographies"

Example of intuitive orthpography form a kindergarten in Hueyapan. It says
"xi nech ate ki an xinech pojpua nochipan kion kual le ni koponis"
which usually would be written as
"xinechateki an xinechpojpoa nochipan kion kualle nikoponis"
which means
"Water me and weed me, that way I will always bloom"
Most Nahuatl speakers have not received any education in Nahuatl and many have never even been aware that their language can be written down. Usually Mexican schools teach only Spanish. This means that they have to invent new conventions almost from scratch (or based on Spanish) when they start writing their language since they havent been taught any of the existing orthographic conventions. These new Nahuatl-writers tend to adopt ways of writing that are intuitive to them based on their knowledge of Spanish and sometimes English orthography. Such intuitive orthographies can be seen on the internet where Nahuatl speakers sometimes converse in writing withouth ever having been taught how to write their language. These orthographies are often  sinmilar to the SEP orthographies (using j for h) - but two new features that are not used in any of the established orthographies are often found in intuitive Nahuatl writing. One is that they often use <sh> instead of the traditional <x> to write the sh-sound. This is probably because most Mexicans are associate this sound with English, and know that it is written sh in the English orthography. The second is that they often write grammatical prefixes as separate words, instead of fusing them together as Nahuatl grammarians do. This is probably because they often think in Spanish when they write in Nahuatl translating from Spanish into Nahuatl and therefore isolating elements of meaning the way it is done in Spanish.

Comparison of Modern Orthographies:

”we do it”
tic chiua
shi tsecuini

Note that the SEP1 and SEP2 and the "intuitive" orthography are just possible examples, but many different combinations of the different choices exist.

So Which One Should You Use?

There is no objective answer. Each orthography comes from different ideas about what is important, and is used by certain communities working within specific genealogies and traditions.

That fact of the matter is that regardless of which orthography you use someone will inevitably tell you that you are using the wrong one. I think the best approach is to learn to read all of them and to use one consistently. But really as I noted consistency is overrated. Shakespeare and Chaucer and Cervantes were able to found their national literatures without using standardized orthographies. Molina and Sahagun were able to found Nahuatl literature without one. The important part is that we keep writing and reading in Nahuatl.

Now I have told how one writes in the Nahuatl language
aʃka:n onikiɁtoɁ ke:nin se:  t͡ɬakwilo:s i:ka nawat͡ɬaɁtolli
aška:n oniki’to’ ke:nin se: ƛa’kwilo:s i:ka nawaƛa’tolli
axcan oniquito quenin ce tlacuiloz ica nahuatlahtolli
axcān oniquìtô quēnin cē tlàcuilōz īca nahuatlàtolli
axcān oniquihtoh quēnin cē tlahcuilōz īca nahuatlahtolli

axcan oniquijtoj quenin se tlajcuilos ica nahuatlajtoli

axkan onikijtoj kenin se tlajkuilos ika nahuatlahtoli
axkan onikihtoh kenin se tlahkuilos ika nawatlahtolli
ashkan onik itoh kenin se tlacuilos ica nahua tlajtoli

(Note: This post was edited on July 31st 2016 to make some minor corrections to the section on the ACK orthography based on comments from Frances Karttunen on the Nahuatl-l listserver)

21 kommentarer:

  1. In my view the most counterintuitive feature of existing orthographies is when the phoneme /kʷ/ is followed by a vowel, as in tēuctli /te:kʷtɬi/. I don't know native speakers react to such spelling, but from my perspective it was very confusing the first time I saw it.

  2. Sorry I meant "followed by a consonant"

    1. Yes, and the spelling cu is also really counterintuitive in that posiion and people everywhere tend to pronounce the u as a vowel when it occurs between consonants (as in motecuzoma). Andrews spelling of cuh is even worse because it applies the h in yet a fourth function.

      The uc spelling I have been told has a phonetic basis and that some varieties actually do pronounce the rounding before the stop in the position before consonant. But I have not been able to detect any audible rounding of the /kʷ/ phoneme when occurring before consonants in the varieties I work with - it sounds exactly like a /k/ and native speakers tend to write it like that intuitively as well.

    2. There's no way to make a difference between /kʷ/ and /kw/.
      /kʷ/ is a rounded /k/ sound, pronounced at the same time you pronounce a /w/ sound. But /kw/ is literally the "cuh", and both sound practically the same. :(

  3. In view of the overwhelming choice of Latin orthographies for Nāwatl it is reasonable, though surly, to opt for a Cyrillic alphabet for Nāwatl. The Cyrillic alphabets typically contain more sounds and lack colonialist ballast.

    The alphabet to use for Nāwatl when it is desired that the endemic sound values in the original Cyrillic-written language match most with their upcoming usage is the modern Belarusian alphabet.

    We have А а for /a/ and /aː/,
    Е е for /e/ and /eː/,
    І і for /i/ and /eː/,
    О о for /o/ and /oː/,
    У у if it is necessary to represent the [u] and [uː] allophones of /o/ and /oː/.

    The signs for the vowel phonemes do not even look different from the Latin ones. Ь ь is free to forthrightly mark vowel length, also for consonant gemination – both of course following the letters for the sounds it modifies, as the opposite is unacceptable under the continuous Cyrillic usage of the character.

    We have as consonant characters
    Л л for /l/,
    Н н for /n/,
    М м for /m/,
    Й й for /j/,
    Ш ш for /ʃ/,
    С с for /s/,
    Ў ў for /w/ (one will have two characters with breve for the two semivowels),
    П п for /p/,
    Т т for /t/,
    К к for /k/,
    Ы ы for /kʷ/,
    ’ for /ʔ/,
    Х х if a /h/ allophone of /ʔ/ is intended to be expressed,
    Ч ч for /t͡ʃ/,
    Ц ц for /t͡s/,
    Д д for /t͡l/.

    An East Slavic reader has it easy to read it; there are just two oddities he has to get used to, the reading of ы (commonly read as /ɨ/) and д (commonly read as /d/), but else the proposed alphabet is quite perfect. It has, short of one character for vowel length and gemination the essence of which avails as much advantage as disadvantage by showing the importance of the features it expresses, an utterly parsimonious array of graphic units which is utterly unambiguous albeit not using diacritics and the pedagogical efficiency is substantial, as it does not use letters which are difficult from any Latin alphabet starting point and, being nonetheless distinctly a non-Latin alphabet, slyly avoids confusions inherent in the Latin orthographies because they all have slants towards a non-obvious set of Latin-written languages. This uncertainty is eliminated in Belarusian Nāwatl, and one can use a standard keyboard layout to write Nāwatl without any makeshifts, without using a modifier key short of Shift or using a Compose Key or any workaround program like a character map, and even reuse Belarusian printing types and typewriters.
    And as a cherry on top, the Belarusian Nāwatl has a hilariously simple tl;dr: Set the Belarusian keyboard layout to write Nāwatl, and use ы for /kʷ/, д for /t͡l/, the rest needs no explanation.

    Isn’t this the best deal?

    1. A lot of people are playing around on the internet with different non-Latin based orthographies. They all suffer from a similar set of disadvantages that are in my view insurmountable. 1. they all force the reader to learn an entirely new alphabet to write the language - in that way any non-latin writing system is equally disadvantageous since they are presumably equally hard or easy to learn for someone used to writing in latin characters. 2. they break entirely with all previous writing traditions for the language whether colonial, linguistic or even pre-columbian - in practice this means that the user needs to learn several writing systems, just as they already do, in which case adding a new one based on a new alphabet is not helpful or really useful - just extra work.

      I think the only reasonable suggestion for a non-latin script for Nahuatl would be to write it with pre-columbian Nahua logosyllabics. See my previous blogpost about that writing system.

    2. I had also thought about adapting Russian letters for Nahuatl, but my proposal is different:

      А = A (/a/)

      Ч = CH (/tʃ/)

      Э = E (/e/)

      Ъ = H (/ʔ/)

      Я = IA (/ja/)

      Е = IE (/je/)

      Й = ~Y (/j/)

      Ё = IO (/jo/)

      Ю = IU (/ju/)

      К = C/QU (/k/)

      Л = L (/l/)

      М = M (/m/)

      Н = N (/n/)

      О = O (/o/)

      П = P (/p/)

      С = C/Z (/s/)

      Т = T (/t/)

      Ц = TZ (/ts/)

      ТЛЬ = TL (/tɬ͡/)

      Ў = HU/UH (/w/)

      Щ = X (/ʃ/)

      The only problem is for "TL" though, as it would need three letters. Too much letters. It could be solved by creating a new letter for it, but it would mean losing compatibility with any keyboard with Russian letters (Unless creating a diacritic mark for the Russian T or the Russian L). :(

      Regarding the Western letters, my suggestion is checking out how "intuitive" writers use the letters, in order to reduce the word length. Nahuatl words may be exaggeratedly long sometimes. Also, if you want to keep the Western letters and the traditional grammar, we all should check out the use of H, the use of U, and avoiding any diacritic mark, in order to preserve the smooth aesthetics of language. Artificial intelligence or even a super computer may be useful for this, if not able to get cooperation among linguists.

      By the way, during colonial ages, the only ones who wrote Nahuatl down were friars and priests that came from Spain, and they did it only to "evangelize" Nahuatl-speakers. There was never educational system directed to Nahuatl-speakers in these ages (due to the caste system, yes), so it's not as if you could take the "Florentine Codex" (a huge book in Nahuatl, yes, but that needs paleographic methods in order to be read... I got it in PDF, about 1 GB of size), and going to visit Nahuatl-speaking peoples in order to see whether if that book is still comprehensible for them or not. It would be an interesting experiment, though.

    3. Note about Russian letters:
      We'd use the letter Ь to set the difference between the sounds of /j/ (semi-consonant Y) and /dʒ/ (consonant Y). So, confusing consonant Y with semi-consonant Y would end. Once established this difference, there would be no more confusions between use of H, and use of U. xD

      Regarding the ancient pre-Western writing system... Trying to revive it would be even worse than getting the Japanese writing system. Ancient Mexicans used to abuse the lateral thinking and the circular reasoning in order to rather draw ideas (yes, like in ideographic "Chinograms" the Chinese characters), and then drawing "syllabuses" (yes, like the Japanese Kanas, but much worse, as the Aztec ones can pass as ideograms too). Nowaydays, drawing literal figures is not practical at all. It would be as if we'd try to go back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, and then pretending a typewriter or computer to be able to print them out properly.

      Also, during the pre-Western days, despite the Aztec educational system was directed to every Aztec citizen, reading and writing the "codexes" was reserved for very specific tasks and people (as there was no paper as such, but just parchment based on deer's skin, and papyrus-like material). Indeed, to write something down, it had to be worthwhile enough. That's why nobody can find ancient Aztec stuff like "shopping lists" or something like that.

      I am Mexican, by the way. xD

    4. "By the way, during colonial ages, the only ones who wrote Nahuatl down were friars and priests that came from Spain, and they did it only to "evangelize" Nahuatl-speakers. There was never educational system directed to Nahuatl-speakers in these ages (due to the caste system, yes)"
      None of this is correct.

  4. The fact of an orthography being non-Latin does not entail an “entirely new alphabet” in the sense of an alphabet bearing no resemblance to the Latin scriptures or with no anchor for getting used to it. Your presumption is false. Of course it does make a difference if we use Cyrillic or Arabic scripture. The former is more amenable to readers of Latin alphabets; it does not appear that there be a Hegelian “turnover“ of difficulty resulting from the script belonging to a different family. A Latin script can as much deviate in appearance from your ideal of a Latin script as a Cyrillic script. The mnemonics are the key.

    Moreover, you have ignored that a script has to fit people who are learning it as their first script, i.e. learning to write. In this respect, the invective about that the new script “break entirely with all previous writing traditions for the language whether colonial, linguistic or even pre-columbian” is invalid, as these people don’t know any writing traditions.

    The break with the past usages has not been a strong argument in the other respect of people wanting to write Nāwatl being literate in other Latin-written languages either, because, as I have said, it entails ditching possible confusions retarding effective reading and the acquisition of the language.

    As one wants to learn a language understood as a spoken language and not just the writing conventions of some sectarians, grappling with these while using teaching material to learn the language is a tedious and dispensable extra burden. In the long run, the non-Latin alphabet having been used for editions of texts, most interested in Nāwatl literature do not need to learn several writing systems.

    Far from reasonable by the intention of making writing the language feasible is opting for the pre-Columbian logosyllabic. It is not flexible enough for modern times. It is not bearable in computer networks nor in handwriting, as it requires graphics, not to speak of yet lacking implementation and the questionable and apparently ambiguous nature of the script itself, see the “wider range of possibilities” in the blog post you mentioned, and the incompleteness and lacking decipherment.

    As a sidenote, please show me who has been “playing around on the internet with different non-Latin based orthographies” in case of Nāwatl. I suppose that the people who could care about the orthography of Nāwatl have been too craven. There are conlangers having constructed thousands of Slavic languages with different scripts, and you Nāwatl guys can not even cut the faulty orthographic tradition in a cushy manner (making a script definite and easy to memorize and to reproduce) which is a quite schematic exercise.

    1. Actually my original proposal consists on a Featural-Abugida writing system, using Arabic letters and its diacritic marks, in order to set up and establish a writing system compatible with the 68 Mexican languages, plus Spanish. I still am in the phase of proofs, as I can't find proper marks for tones (those frigging Oto-Mangue languages... it's as if they refused to be written down).

      I know it sounds like a frightening or even as a ridiculous idea, but, believe me: If Mexican languages weren't that complex, I'd not need to make this. The Russian letters aren't a bad idea, though. Feel free to ask me about it. If you are on Telegram or VK, you can follow me over there too:


      Well, I know I'm just a dark-skinned Mexican who hasn't even finished the major (economical issues, health issues plus the epidemics), but I'm doing my best in order to save one of the top-tier best ancient Mexican legacies ever. :D

      You are totally right, regarding "writing traditions". As Mexican and as a native, I can prove this is right, as the Mexican educational system denies any chance to get proper education in Nahuatl, and its model consists on rather "integrating non-Spanish-speakers into the Spanish-speaking world", and "integrating villagers into big cities as workforce", which is actually a linguistic genocide and a sort of forced displacement (specially because Spanish belongs to Spain, not to Mexico; did you know that Nahuatl used to be called "Mexican language" by Spaniard settlers, friars and scholars during the colonial ages?).

      You must also know that, precisely, the lack of a "literally tradition in Aztec language" can be explained because of the lack of a proper standardized writing system. And there are different ways to write it with the Western letters because scholars are of Western origin (Spaniards, Anglos, French, German, etc.), and, ergo, they have pro-Western bias in their minds, which make them reluctant to quit the Western letters, despite the Western letters aren't efficient enough for the Mexican languages.

  5. I didn't supply any invective, although certainly I consider your proposal bad enough to merit some. I think you are approaching this issue as if it were an intellectual exercise where it is just a question of finding the best option and then apply it - without thought for the practicalities of teaching 1,5 million speakers a new alphabet or teaching nahuatl scholars who are used to juggling several different latin-based script a new cyrillic based one for which they have no preparation. But in reality it is not simply an intellectual exercise, but a gigantic practical task that involves an conglomerate of conservative institutions (from school teachers to speakers to scholars) all of whom I think would undoubtedly be firmly against this idea, becausw they have all already chosen which latinate script to champion. Apart from that you have produced no argument for why cyrillic would be better than any other non-latin script for example Runes, Tengwar, the Ge'ez abugida or Devanagari.

    I have seen geeks on the internet producing kanji and hangul based Nahuatl orthographies, and I know people who are teaching de-novo orthographies and others who teach systems based on the precolumbian logosyllabics (adding signs for the wholes in the original system).

    I am not in the business of pushing any alphabet to the masses - I always tell Nahuatl speakers that the important thing is that they write and as long as they try to be consistent and people can read it it doesn't matter how they do it. If there is one day a community of Nahuatl speakers in the Russo-sphere whether as second language speakers or perhaps an immigrant community your proposal will make sense and will likely occur organically. Untill than it is still-born. 99% the language's speakers can't even type it on their keyboards.

    1. Not just 1 and a half millions, but to 130 millions of Mexicans. Nahuatl, the Mexican language, must go back to Mexican tongues and hands. Obviously, the simplest your writing system is, the easiest learning it becomes. And I should include the inhabitants in Guatemala (18 millions 550 thousands), Hondures (10 millions) and The Savior (6 millions 500 thousands), and even Mexican immigrants in USA (about 60 millions) and Canada.

      Believe me: Spanish is not easy to us. Even scholars tend to get grammar errors because of B and V having the same sound, C, S and Z having the same sound, C and K having the same sound, and confusing homophones like "hay", "¡Ay!", and "ahí" (this latter one even caused the creation of a meme).

      Actually it's not that hard. Nahuatl has a very few of phonemes, which, but "TL", are super simple and common to other languages. Reducing clusters of consonants like "CUH", "CHHUH", "HUAUH", "QUECH", "TICCHIHUA", "CHICHUEY", etc., to just consonant-vowel-consonant with Russian letters would be actually more beneficial: "КЎ", "ЧЎ", "КЭЧ", "ТИКЧИЎА", "ЧИКЎЭЙ". We Mexicans aren't idiots. Actually, it even could open up the door (to ourselves, the Mexicans) to learn harder languages, like Russian.

      Hard is English: Up to 12 vowels and a bunch of consonants. For us Mexicans, finding the difference between "voice" and "boys" is simply impossible. Or trying to find the difference between "well" and "we'll"... And I must remind you English uses the Western letters, which aren't designed for a Germanic language with all those vowels, all those consonants, and without even considering the fact the script doesn't match the pronunciation!! D:

      The idea of creating a writing system for Nahuatl, based on Korean Chosongeul is great as well. You'd reduce the C-V-C clusters of letters in just one figure (composed by two or three Jamo), and it would look great. Less letters, less space per word. I have considered it as well. There is even an association of Koreans developing Chosongeul-based scripts for languages that still remain oral. All of this in the name of simplicity and efficiency.

      You are right about consistence. But if SEP/SIL insist on their flawed and hideous "modern orthography", whereas scholars insist on "CHHUH" stuff... :(

      Also, don't worry. Adding a Russian keyboard to a computer, tablet or smartphone is easy, no matter if using Windows, Mac or Linux, and easier is learning the keyboard. There are even websites like Ratatype, which lets you to learn how to type in QWERTY, Dvorak and Russian keyboard layouts. Again, we Mexicans aren't stupid. ;)

    2. Also, don't forget what king Sejong the Great from Korea said about Chosongeul system in 1442:

      This system is so easy, that the smartest people is able to learn it in just one day, whereas the dumbest one will learn it in one week. :D

      Also, there should be a programmer interested in being commissioned to develop a new keyboard layout. That can't be as hard as it seems.

  6. (Alois Adler made this additional comment - I dont know why it didnt appear):

    "You are right that I have seen the issue as an intellectual exercise. This is what language learning is, and solely is in terms of an autodidact.
    If of course conservative institutions hinder the teaching, insofar as teaching is necessary, i.e. for people in whom learning to write Nāwatl and learning to write Nāwatl coincides (they cannot be autodidactic), we have a problem. But their unwillingness can be circumvented by giving them an argument to learn it by just introducing it. If it is encroaching, they have to learn it.
    And current literate speakers of Nāwatl are replaced by later-born generations. These can be taught writing their language in Cyrillic when the teachers have become knowledgeable in it. Because everyone dealing with Nāwatl is disgruntled by the various writing conventions and pedagogues usually like to expose children to a controlled environment before exposing them to the chaos of the real world, it is also not far-fetched.

    My arguments for Cyrillic as opposed to other scripts that are not Latin are:
    – Its likeness with Latin (maybe not explicitly said by me, but the whole first paragraph in my last comment regarded this)
    – It has no right-to-left scripture (bidirectionality is wearisome)
    – No complex-text rendering is necessary (letters conjoining like in Arabic, Devanāgarī; for this being provided in programs the programmer has to implement specific libraries, which is even more difficult when porting software between different operating systems)
    – It is not subject to copyright (like Tengwar)
    – In many cases and for Belarusian it does not include diacritics (Ge’ez and Devanāgarī do extensively)
    – It does distinguish minuscule and majuscule (which is useful for names or other keywords. The recommendations on capitalization are different in each language having a script distinguishing it, but this is the case with Latin script too and the issue cannot be avoided; Ge’ez, Devanāgarī, Tengwar do not distinguish)
    – It does not need any Input Method Environment, which is the case for scripts having to many signs to put them directly into a keyboard layout, in particular the CJK scripts
    – It is definitely implemented in existing systems (unlike Runes)

    What you suggest by “99% the language's speakers can't even type it on their keyboards” can be looked at more differentiating. Since computers have been introduced to the masses, one can change the keyboard layout.
    It is of course a challenge to learn the positions of the keys, but if the aspiring users cannot get any stickers to put on their keyboard, they can just view a representation on it – either an image they open or a system representation of the keyboard layout, for example in Linux often realized by the application gkbd-keyboard-display that can be executed with two clicks in the panel of the Cinnamon desktop environment or by terminal command.
    Triggering system output is how I have learned to type Arabic. Just look where the keys are, and you can write blind gradually with less and less bloopers.
    Besides, your relation of people even using self-made logosyllabic script does not let the proposal of using the modern Belarusian keyboard layout look unfavorable in terms of computer support. The people who use that are not bothered.
    For those who speak Nāwatl only, computing is no thing, as long as operating system environments are not translated to it.

    I am looking forward for you making a follow-up to the piece under which we are writing giving account of the more eccentric alphabets you have met. It can not harm the erudition of your readership, and would foster this undoubtedly useful blog being found particularly in search engines and scaling up the Nāwatl community in a notable extent. I have only found your blog across corners of links, over the Languagehat post mentioning you from December 8th, 2016. I grant you and the public the right to freely quote the comments I have written under this blog post."

    1. Totally right.

      You don't need to master the Russian language in order to learn the Russian letters. You just have to associate the letter with a sound, and reducing the clusters of consonants in just one letter would make this easier.

      I also agree the fact that the design of Russian letters allow a better computer rendering, specially because Russian letters are even more square than the Western ones, almost with no diagonal strokes.

      That's also why stopped developing my Arabic-based script: Rendering Arabic script is complicated. Also, the system I was developing ended up full of diacritic marks everywhere (above and below the letter). Russian letters just have the small downwards-curved stroke over the И and the У (and, due to those diacritic marks, those letters are called "Short I" and "Short U" in Russian), and a normal keyboard (instead of one with a brand-new IME) is needed.

      Note: Keyboard stickers can be easily gotten at AliExpress for just 1 USD (20 MXN).

    2. I know there are no available computer environments for Nahuatl-speaking people (beyond poorly made attempts for Firefox browser), and it's precisely because of the lack of a standardized and easy writing system.

      Just by getting an easier and standardized script, even a Nahuatl-based programming language would be possible.

  7. Excellent article Magnus! Very illustrative and helpful. I would just make a correction on the Modern Hasler System. It does not use "Ts" (Xitsekuini). It rather uses "Tz" (Xitzekuini), (although here we would write "Xitzikuini"). This way, the letter "s" is not repeated: "s" for [s] and "ts" for [¢]. This also makes the letter "z" only appear as part of the digraph "tz" for [¢].

    I also noticed that in the table where you compare different writing systems, you wrote "nahuatl" under Hasler, where it should be "nawatl".

    On another note, I think it would be useful to include other writing systems that used a "modern-like" alphabet, like the one used by Robert H. Barlow at the beginning of the XXth century...

    Finally, I was reading the previous comments about different scholastic exercises on the nahuatl alphabet, and I can't help but to think that if we were to break away with previous writing traditions, the most easily accesible and common-sense alphabet for nahuatl speakers today would be the following:

    "a" for [ a ] or [ aː ]
    "w" for [ w ] or [ b ]
    "c" for [ t͡ʃ ]
    "e" for [ e ] or [ eː ]
    "h" for [ h ] or [ ʔ ]
    "i" for [ i ] or [ i: ]
    "k" for [ k ] or [ g ]
    "l" for [ l ]
    "m" for [ m ]
    "n" for [ n ]
    "o" for [o] or [oː]
    "p" for [ p ]
    "q" for [ kʷ ]
    "s" for [ s ]
    "t" for [ t ]
    "tl" for [ t͡ɬ ]
    "z" for [ ¢ ]
    "x" for [ ʃ ]
    "y" for [ j ]

    This alphabet fits perfectly into any computer keyboard and it only has one digraph. It would not be meant to represent every sound, but rather to use it as a simple and friendly convention.

    However, although I think this would be easier and more logical than other alphabets used today, I believe it's best to stick to one of the ones used today for practical reasons. Anything else, it's just scholastic amusement. Cheers!

    1. You are right about the tz, that was a slip on my part. I actually use the scheme you suggest at the end when I need to write in a phonemic orthography without digraphs (when I need to compare phoneme structures of words across dialects for example) but then I use lambda for tl to avoid the last digraph. (I also use c with hacek for ch and cent sign for ts).

  8. And for something really different ... have you seen this? :


    I seriously need to update it as my thinking on certain things has changed since I first wrote this. For example, (1) I now firmly believe the orthography should preserve grammatical roots, so the root "cal" in "cal-li" should always preserve the sub-joined consonant "el" sign. I also need to (2) add a translation in Nahuatl and (3) a new section (or possibly even a video) on how you actually can write this in your school or field notebooks where certain cursive conventions for speed and efficiency begin to play out in important ways.

    In other words, this one is not just a creative exercise. This is what I have been using and also used again almost exclusively when I was in Mexico in August of this year.

    Best -- Ed

  9. Hi Ed, I think we discussed this somewhere, on facebook perhaps? I think the idea is even worse than cyrillic. One has to understand that most people are not like us, privileged with almost endless educational resources and time.
    For most people schooling is hard, it is a scarce resource. Many people don't have access to it. Many people who have access don't have the possibility of attending it for a particularly long time. Many people find it hard to learn when they do. Most people in the world have to make the most of their school time by learning only things that are immediately useful for achieving their most immediate pressing goals. Even if any Nahuatl speakers were actually using the system earning an abugida for writing a single language in communities that are mostly bilingual would be a huge waste of time and effort.

    There is one single case in which I thikn creating a new writing system like this would make sense for a Nahuatl speaking community: if the community decided that they wanted to have their own writing system to make it harder for outsiders to access their writings and meddle in teir internal communication. But in that case the system would have to be made by the speakers for the speakers.