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.

torsdag den 21. januar 2021

Nahuatl Scholar Interview: Frances Karttunen

This time, the Nahuatl scholar blog has the pleasure to publish another interview with an important Nahuatl scholar, namely professor Frances Karttunen, who has been a major figure in the field of Nahuatl studies since the 1970s when she published several works conjointly with historian James Lockhart. Her work is interdisciplinary and covers fields from lexicography, ethnohistory, historical sociolinguistics, stylistics and ethnopoetics, and grammar. I have had the pleasure to meet Dr. Karttunen several times at the Northeastern Group of Nahuatl Studies annual meeting which she has often attended, and once in the spring of 2016 I visited her on the island of Nantucket. I had hoped to do an interview with her at the annual meeting in 2020, but due to the pandemic the conference did not take place. Luckily professor Karttunen agreed to do the interview by email. 

Professor Frances Karttunen front and center in the group photo of the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Northeastern group of Nahuatl Scholars in Albany

        Could you tell our readers a little about your academic background?

On my maternal grandfather's side, I am a 12th-generation descendant of the small group of English couples who settled on Nantucket Island beginning in 1659. There was a great deal of intermarriage, so people like me who are known as "descended Nantucketers" have an unusually small number of ancestors. However, my grandfather married out (more about that below), and so did my mother. Our family continues to live on the island, however, as do many of my relatives.

I grew up on the island and had all my education through high school in the Nantucket Public Schools. There is a science organization on Nantucket, the Maria Mitchell Association, and when I was in high school, three women of this association (the current and former directors of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, and the librarian of the Maria Mitchell science library) mentored me.  All three were graduates of Radcliffe College, the women's college of Harvard University, and they made an effort to have me admitted there. They were successful, and I earned my bachelor's degree from Radcliffe.

In the course of my undergraduate studies, I realized that my strength and my interest lie in languages—not primarily in the literature of various languages but in the structure and what it is we know about language without being taught.  Although I took multiple language courses at Harvard, I did not take any undergraduate linguistics courses. In my senior year, however, I was given an excellent reading list from the linguistics department.

Upon graduation from Radcliffe I received an NDEA Title VI fellowship for graduate studies in linguistics and Finnish at Indiana University. 

In my experience, linguists almost always come from bi- or multilingual homes or have experienced displacement early in life that required acquisition of a new language, or have dealt with language difficulties such as stuttering. I had a close relationship with my grandmother who immigrated to the USA from the Swedish-speaking coast of Finland and facilitated the immigration of her four sisters. The sisters spent considerable time with us on the island, so I was exposed to Swedish as a home language from the beginning. My American-born uncle and aunt, three of my cousins, and I all spent time in Finland, but I am the only one of us who broke out of the Swedish environment there and began intensive study of Finnish. This formative experience broadened my expectations of how languages might work and was the door for me into non-Indo-European languages.

When I arrived at Indiana University as a beginning graduate student in linguistics, Joe Campbell was a newly appointed assistant professor. I took his course in the history of linguistics, but during my time in Bloomington, he had not yet begun to teach Nahuatl. The IU computing center was open 24/7 365 days a year, however. I was often there, and Joe was always there. This and Nahuatl have defined our long collegiality rather than our initial teacher-student relationship.

After I completed my Ph.D. at Indiana University with a dissertation on Finnish phonology, I went to Tampere, Finland for a semester as a Fulbright teacher, and then I spent a year as a post-doctoral visitor at MIT.

At work in Finland in 1963

My appointments at the University of Texas at Austin were for the most part non-teaching appointments at the Linguistics Research Center there, but I taught summer Nahuatl courses at the University of Texas Institute of Latin American Studies. I have also taught courses in phonology, general linguistics, Nahuatl, and language contact studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Helsinki, and Umeå University in Sweden.

            So when and how did you come to study Nahuatl in the first place?

During the year 1967-68 I had a National Science Foundation fellowship to work in computational linguistics at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. In Santa Monica I met James Lockhart. He posed to me, as a linguist, the question of how one goes about learning a language where there are few accessible language courses or effective teaching material. At the time his interest was shifting from the social history of Peru and Quechua to Mexico and Nahuatl. He was aware of the vast amount of existing notarial documentation in Nahuatl, and he was anxious to access it.

Subsequently, he left UCLA and came to the University of Texas, where we resumed our conversations about Nahuatl. I went to Finland for a year and spent the following year at MIT. During this time, Jim sent me large amounts of Nahuatl he had transcribed, and we began working on it together long-distance. I previously had no knowledge of any indigenous language of Latin America, and in fact, I had never taken a Spanish language course.

Frances Karttunen and Joe Campbell
at one of the meetings of the
Northeastern Group of Nahuatl Scholars 

By the time I was back at UT-Austin, Jim had returned to UCLA. Joe Campbell, however, had moved from Indiana University to the University of Texas at San Antonio, and I began commuting to San Antonio once a week to attend his Nahuatl classes. The exercises Joe created for those classes formed the basis of our Foundation Course in Nahuatl Grammar. I made a choice from the existing exercises, wrote the explanatory material, created a key to the exercises, and generated glossaries for the chapters. We used it to teach Nahuatl in two NEH Summer Institutes, and afterward I taught summer Nahuatl classes at UT-Austin from it. Thanks to John F. Schwaller, the Foundation Course has since been very widely distributed.

       Just clarifying: So you met Joe Campbell already when you were working on your Finnish  phonology dissertation, and he was working on Nahuatl, but you didn't take an interest in Nahuatl   until you met Lockhart? If so, that is a fun coincidence. 

So far as I know, Joe hadn’t begun working on Nahuatl during the time I was at Indiana University. We both got there in the fall of 1964, me as a first-year grad student not even starting my dissertation, and Joe as an assistant professor. So I first knew him as a student in his course on the history of linguistics. He provided a reading list beyond human possibility of completion short of a lifetime, or so it seemed to me. I assume Joe had, nonetheless, already read everything on it. From the beginning, we bonded through our constant presence in the IU computing center and also through the very active social scene among the IU linguists.

I only spent three years in Bloomington. Having completed my course work and passed my general exams that admitted me to Ph.D. candidacy, I left to go to the Rand Corp. with a National Science Foundation grant in computational linguistics, From there I went to Austin, Texas, where I completed my dissertation and returned to Bloomington only long enough for my defense. Joe met Elvira and brought her to IU for a semester after I had departed for Santa Monica, so I only met her much later in Hueyapan with Joe.

By the time Joe had moved to San Antonio, Texas, and was working on Nahuatl and teaching it, I had already begun working with Jim on Nahuatl, so yes, it was a lucky coincidence.

            That really is an amazing coincidence with Joe, he told me that he first went to Tepoztlan with Ken Hale in 1962 and knew that he was interested in Nahuatl, from then on, then in 1969 he was asked to teach Nahuatl at Indiana. So when you knew each other neither of you knew that you would become nahuatologists!

            In the 1970s you published some very influential work with James Lockhart including "Nahuatl in the Middle Years", which is never far from my working space, - it is basically the first monograph work to systematically look at the way Nahuatl was used in the colonial notarial documents. But you also studied more literary forms of Nahuatl, for example you wrote the article in Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl about " La estructura de la poesía náhuatl vista por sus variantes", which presents a typology of different kinds of colonial Nahuatl poetry. And you did a translation and analysis of the important Bancroft dialogues, “The Art of Nahuatl Speech”. Could you talk a bit about your collaboration with Lockhart?

The first book James Lockhart and I co-authored was Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Later we co-authored another book, The Art of Nahuatl Speech: The Bancroft Dialogues. We also published quite a number of articles together and separately. I think that "La estructura de la poesía náhuatl vista por sus variantes" in Volume 14 of Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl may be the most significant of our co-authored articles. Jim later reprised much of the content of these works in his book The Nahuas After the Conquest. Up through The Art of Nahuatl Speech, it is nearly impossible to point to any sentence in any of our publications as written by one or the other of us or to say who first drafted it.  After The Art of Nahuatl Speech, we moved in different directions. He wrote The Nahuas After the Conquest, and I wrote Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors.

            How did you and Lockhart collaborate when it came to writing the analyses? 

The analyses in Nahuatl in the Middle Years?  Jim mailed me a very large amount of transcription of notarial texts he made in Mexico while I was in Finland and then at MIT. NMY is a collection of some of those transcriptions plus the language-contact phenomena to be found in them and a glossary of loan vocabulary. Jim and I carried on a dialogue about all this by mail.  Only at the end of the process, when NMY was nearly ready to go to press, did I travel to Mexico City, where Jim had been working for months, to go over the manuscript together in person before publication. When you think about it, my work with Lorenzo Ferrero on his opera was accomplished in much the same way except that we had the advantage of electronic communication rather than copying machine and the postal service.

            How did you happen on the different topics you ended up working on - from poetry and rhetorics to painstaking analyses of orthography and grammar in notarial documents? What do you consider the most important discoveries you did in that work?

In Mexico City, Jim introduced me to the vast holdings of notarial documents in various repositories there. I tried my hand at transcription and discovered that without prior training in paleography, I was pretty good at it. But the University of Texas is not a repository of notarial texts, so aside from what Jim transcribed in Mexico and mailed to me, I couldn’t do that in Austin. However… 

One of the two collections of Nahuatl poetry is the Romances de los señores de la nueva españa in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. There in Austin, I transcribed the Romances, noticing much along the way. The Benson also holds a copy of the early photographic facsimile of the Cantares méxicanos, so I transcribed that to compare with the Romances. At some point it became known to us that John Bierhorst was also transcribing the Cantares. I am not sure exactly when that came to our mutual knowledge. When Jim and I were both in Mexico City again, we got access to the original manuscript of the Cantares in the National Library. I had with me my transcription from the Peñafiel photos with specific issues we hoped to clarify by seeing the ms. Unfortunately, the ms has deteriorated since the photos were made. The photographic facsimile now preserves more information than the ms.

The Romances ms has marginalia and some diagonal lines that would seem to indicate prosodic units in the lines, but Jim and I could make no sense of them. The Cantares has drum-beat notation, but that is ambiguous. It was through examining both transcriptions and locating duplications of some of the songs that the structure we discuss in our publication in Estudios de cultura náhuatl 14 emerged, namely that the songs are composed in verse pairs with shared coda and that the preferred form of complete songs consists of four verse pairs. I personally think this is the most important discovery that emerged from our transcription work.

            Really, I think your work with Lockhart can be considered pioneering in the field of historical  sociolinguistics, did you have any model or inspiration for applying these sociolinguistic analyses on the colonial texts?

Not exactly, because the Finnish material I was (and remain) interested in is similar to the material Joe has collected over the years, namely transcriptions of oral material, not written material produced by speakers.

            Could you use the same methods on the colonial documents as you used when studying immigrant Finnish?

Not really. Recording and transcribing the speech of elderly Finnish immigrants to the USA and Canada is comparable to what Joe has done over decades in his fieldwork with Nahuatl speakers in Mexico. (I have had the privilege of accompanying Joe on his collecting trips occasionally.) My concern for Joe's corpus of spoken Nahuatl is that much of it probably remains untranscribed. Until the audio is transcribed, it would be difficult/impossible to bring to it what I and others have been able to bring to the transcriptions of spoken Nahuatl by Whorf, Barlow, and Horcasitas.

    Your An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl from 1987, has been an amazing tool, and I think every English speaking student of Nahuatl knows this work very well. How did you decide to make the Analytical Dictionary, and what were the different considerations and decisions you made about how you wanted the dictionary to be made and organized? How did you work on the dictionary?

After the publication of J. Richard Andrews's Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, it was clear that a modern dictionary was needed to supplement Molina's and Siméon's dictionaries. This new one would include as much information as possible about contrastive vowel length and segmental glottal stop. Both features are barely recognized by Molina and not at all by Siméon. Because of my background in computational data processing, I had a clear idea of how I could organize data from multiple sources and create such a dictionary. I was invited to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation to do so, and my proposal was successful. At that time, I attended an International Congress of Americanists meeting in Manchester, England. There I queried attending Nahuatl scholars, including Una Canger, about what they would want to see in terms of organization and format of such a dictionary. Una gave me my watchword for the project, namely that it was less important how I presented the material in the dictionary than that I make it clear to users of the dictionary exactly how it works. I wrote an introduction that aims to do that with the clarity that Una mandated, and I can only hope that every user of the dictionary takes time to read the introduction.

I did a great deal of the data entry and organization of the material from multiple sources at the Linguistics Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. I was assisted by an LRC staff programmer, Robert Amsler, who was supported in part from my NSF grant. I transported all my data files in print-out form to Finland one summer and worked on them there. James Lockhart read through the organized raw data and my proposed dictionary entries and made invaluable suggestions. In the case of verbs ending in long vowels we could not resolve a disagreement about representation, and I gave preference to my own choice over his objections.

You mentioned my publication with Lyle Campbell of Benjamin Lee Whorf's study of the Nahuatl of Milpa Alta. Lyle and I had both been working on it, each unaware of the other. An editor at The International Journal of American Linguistics made us aware of our potential duplication of effort. Lyle expressed pleasure that it was I who was also working on Whorf, and the result was our joint publication.

            Some of your ethnohistorical work has also been a project of writing about Nahua women who  became cultural and linguistic intermediaries at important historical moments, but who have previously been sort of marginalized from their own stories. You have published about Doña Luz Jimenez and on Milpa Alta, how did you come to do that work and what did you find? You have also written about Malintzin, the Nahuatl translator of Hernán Cortés, what was your inspiration here, and how do you see your work within the larger tradition of representations of Malintzin?

I enjoyed a friendship with Fernando Horcasitas, who brought most of the stories told by doña Luz Jiménez into print. Later I became acquainted with John Charlot, whose father, the muralist Jean Charlot, had a long and very different relationship with Luz and her family from that of Horcasitas. I had the opportunity to spend an academic year at the Jean Charlot Collection at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Through different perspectives on doña Luz, one from the point of view of a linguist and the other of an artist, I came to appreciate the complexity of relationships across languages and cultures. Joe Campbell and I cultivated a relationship with the grandchildren of doña Luz and learned unexpected things along the way. The career histories of many different men and women are related in Between Worlds.  The life experiences of doña Luz fed into the book, as did the life experiences of people in Finland of my great-grandmother's generation.  Doña Marina (Malintzin) fit into this story of unusually gifted and ultimately marginalized indigenous individuals. I have written about her twice, once in Between Worlds and again in the collection Indian Women of Early Mexico.  

            You are also the first to have translated the libretto of an Opera into Nahuatl - Lorenzo            Ferrero's  Opera La Conquista which premiered in 2005; could you tell a little about that                  project?

Bowing at curtain call for Lorenzo Ferrero's opera
"La Conquista" in Prague in 2005.

Just when I had retired from the University of Texas and was at work on my first post-retirement book, The Other Islanders, I was contacted by composer Lorenzo Ferrero. He was working on a concept that had won a competition for a new opera about the conquest of Mexico for the National Theatre of Prague. This was to have the Spaniards sing in 16th-century Spanish, the Aztecs to sing in Classical Nahuatl, and doña Marina to interpret to the audience what was going on and how she felt about it. Lorenzo had engaged a man in Italy who claimed to be a speaker of Nahuatl, but he was not up to the task.  Someone directed Lorenzo to me as a possible language consultant. After working together for some time, he surprised me by proposing that we share credit as co-librettists.  I met Lorenzo in person for the first time in Prague for the final rehearsals and took a bow with him at curtain call on the opening night of the opera. It was one of the most unexpected experiences of my life.

            Is there a sort of thematic connection that ties together the different strands in your                 work, including your non-Nahuatl work on Finnish immigrants and Cape Verdean immigrant communities in New England?

When I was a graduate student at Indiana University, a professor from the University of Helsinki arrived to collect samples of how Finnish was spoken among aging immigrants to various parts of the USA and Canada. I went along on some of his travels and then visited more Finnish populations in Massachusetts after he returned to Helsinki. From the collected data, I extracted various characteristics of American Finnish.  Lexical borrowing and phonological adjustment were obvious, but how borrowed material was incorporated into Finnish morphology was less so.  Working through this data set provided me the background I later brought to the initial work James Lockhart and I did with Nahuatl in contact with Spanish.

Cape Verdeans were one of two Portuguese-heritage immigrant groups who settled on Nantucket in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially only seamen came to the island as crewmembers on Nantucket whaleships. Some of these men married local women and stayed. In the latter half of the 19th century, under pressure from overpopulation and political turmoil, whole families began to come to Nantucket from the Azores islands. In the first decade of the 20th century, Cape Verdean families came to work for the expanding commercial cranberry industry. The Azorean immigrants spoke an insular variety of Portuguese. The Cape Verdeans for the most part spoke Portuguese-based Kriolu. These are not mutually intelligible, and for this and other reasons the two groups were not mutually supportive. Each settled into a separate niche within the Nantucket community, and they have become multigenerational segments of island society. I have repeatedly given a lecture series at various venues about Nantucket's Portuguese heritage. These and many other groups are part of my book The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket's Oars, a social history of Nantucket's working people.

        Do you have any overarching insights about Nahuatl and working with Nahuatl that you would  like to share?

When James Lockhart and I began to work together on Nahuatl, there were few individuals in the USA and not that many in Mexico who could conduct research from Nahuatl documents. It was acceptable for Anglophone historians of Mexican history to write entirely from Spanish and English language sources. That has completely changed. At UCLA James Lockhart trained a generation of historians to work from Nahuatl and other indigenous-language sources. He was by no means the only person contributing to the surge in Nahuatl studies. The list of Nahuatl scholars in multiple fields in the USA, Mexico, and Europe is too long to enumerate here. Contributing to this has been a revolution in technology. Nahuatl studies today exist in a completely different environment from the 1970s when James Lockhart and I carried out our long-distance collaboration via copy-machine and the postal service.

My experience with speakers of Nahuatl has been inspiring. In the face of apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the individuals I have known over the years have had faith that by their own efforts they could make tomorrow better. They have been generous and more than willing to put up with the tedious inquiries of linguists about what must often seem inconsequential matters. They have genuinely liked talking in and about their language. Most gratifying of all is that I occasionally receive a thank-you note from someone in Mexico whom I do not know saying that the Analytical Dictionary and the Foundation Course have been helpful.

I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude for the generosity of many colleagues over the years, among them James Lockhart, Joe Campbell, Fernando Horcasitas, don Miguel León-Portilla and Ascensión H. de León-Portilla, Alberto Zepeda, Yolanda Lastra, Thelma Sullivan, Fred Nagel, John F. Schwaller, John Charlot, Lyle Campbell, Una Canger, Karen Dakin, Jane and Ken Hill, Ken Hale, and the list goes on.

            What about the future: Is there any particular work on Nahuatl that you are planning to do, or     that you would like to see other scholars take up?

I have a personal project I would like to see taken up.  While I was still in Austin and loosely attached to Mexic-Arte Museum, I conceived a museum exhibition, "Luciana's Worlds," that would gather works that represented Milpa Alta and México City over the lifetime of doña Luz Jiménez. Her worlds, as represented in the exhibition, would be the indigenous world before and during the Mexican Revolution, the world of the radical artists who employed her as a model, and the world of the linguists and anthropologists who employed her as a native informant. Although doña Luz initially moved through these worlds successively, she also returned to each repeatedly during her lifetime, People with whom she interacted in each world were to a large extent unaware of the others. This is a highly visual journey narrated throughout by doña Luz herself.

We staged a pilot exhibition at Mexic-Arte, "Luz and the Good Teachers," but Mexic-Arte could not provide the environmental controls, security, and insurance to borrow the original art for "Luciana's Worlds."  Lorenzo Ferrero suggested a documentary film in which the art would be photographed in situ. A documentary film could reach a much larger audience than a museum exhibition with a catalog. Lorenzo proposed that he compose the music for such a film.  This has not come about, and more recently still, I have begun to conceive of "Luciana's Worlds" as a graphic novel, mass-produced and inexpensive, for distribution in Mexico.

There are relatively few female role models for Mexican girls. The Virgin of Guadalupe is an unattainable ideal. Doña Marina, characterized as la Malinche, is reviled. The lives of sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz and of Frida Kahlo were painful. Doña Luz was an indigenous woman from a humble background who by force of character and intellect shaped her life as she herself saw fit. She experienced dangers and obstacles, but on the whole, she lived her life on her own terms, and as she herself once said, "There I am all over the walls of the National Palace."

I would like, at this point, to become a senior partner in the creation of  a documentary film or a graphic novel of "Luciana's Worlds."

        That is a great idea, I hope that a Mexican filmmaker sees this idea. Maybe Yalitza Aparicio could play the role of Doña Luz. Maybe our readers will know of someone who could work with you on this. Thank you very much for participating in this interview, and for all of your contributions to the field of Nahuatl studies.