How Classical Nahuatl Became Light Reading for Me

I’m probably not the most normal college student you’ll find.  I’m majoring in computer science as well as foreign languages, for example.  I’m also of the opinion that I’d much rather spend a Thirsty Thursday inside watching Disney movies with my friends than out getting smashed at a frat.  (I don’t know about other schools, but that seems to be pretty popular here.  Of course, I currently live in a dorm that is right next to a bar, so that probably influences how much sloppy drunkenness I see on a regular basis.)   Thanks to my nerdy tendencies, I ended up wandering around the scarily humongous empty university library last Saturday evening.  There wasn’t anything exciting going on–the place was deserted, it being Saturday evening and all.  The people working looked like closing time couldn’t come soon enough.  Can’t say I blame them–who wants to be stuck in a library on a Saturday evening, anyway?  (Oh wait, that’s right, me.)  I wandered around for a while, getting lost in the shelves.  (Yeah, I get lost every time I go into the library.  I don’t know what to blame, the library for being so huge, or myself for having such a bad sense of direction.)

And that’s when I found it–wandering somewhere on the second floor in the overwhelmingly long aisles of bookshelves, there it was: Introduction to Classical Nahuatl.  Now, I’ve studied Spanish for about eight years, so I’ve had some exposure to Nahuatl words and names through Spanish classes.  I’ve only ever seen the Nahuatl place names as “big, scary, impossible-to-pronounce words with lots of Xs and the “tl” combination…” up until now, that is.

To be clear, I didn’t pull this book off the shelf to learn the language–I’ve got enough of that going on right now, trying to study Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin concurrently–but I did pull it off to learn about the language and to uncover the mysteries of the xs and tls and other odd-looking words.

The verdict?

Nahuatl is fascinating.  I haven’t studied much outside of the Indo-European family–formally, I’ve only studied Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin, and Arabic (not all at once!)–so maybe the difference is what makes it so interesting.  In Romance languages, verbs are conjugated in tons of tenses and moods, but only the ending is changed.  English verbs become a little more complicated–some change the ending, some use helping words, many don’t follow any apparent pattern for their conjugation.  Mandarin verbs have been the best so far: none require conjugation, although trying to figure out which helping word to use can get tricky sometimes.

Nahuatl verbs have not one, not two, not three, but up to nine parts in addition to the stem.  Not all parts are required in every single conjugation–thankfully; everything in Nahuatl would take forever to say otherwise–but while in Spanish one can get away with taking the root of the verb and one ending, in Nahuatl, one must use particles to determine the order, the person, the specific object, the direction, the reflexive object, the nonspecific human object (I honestly still don’t know what this is), the nonspecific human object, then (finally) the stem, the tense, and the number.  Yikes.  This results in really long verbs that say a lot–they have to, what with all the pieces involved–such as “nitlahuelmati” (I enjoy something), “nimitztlamaca” (I give something to you), and “tontocuepazqueh” (we shall return thither).

(Come on.  Those are pretty awesome looking combination of letters. Admit it.)

Although I don’t intend on fully learning the language, my interest in Nahuatl (and other languages like it) is piqued and I would like to learn more about it in the future.  (That being said, if you know of any online Nahuatl resources, I wouldn’t mind hearing about them!).  In the meantime, however, I’m just going to have to content myself to keep on reading this book…:)

(About the book: “Introduction to Classical Nahuatl,” by J. Richard Andrews.  Copyright 1975.  IBSN 0292738048.)


About D. E. Cushing

I'm just trying to make my way in the world of writing.
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2 Responses to How Classical Nahuatl Became Light Reading for Me

  1. Jim Comegys says:

    Dear Langaholic,
    If you love Nahuatl or at least don’t mind being around it, and if you don’t mind puzzling your way through ambiguities and uncertainties, I have a wee task that might intrigue you. Google the “Voynich Manuscript” which I believe can be demonstrated to be a Nahuatl medical book, probalby part of the legacy of Francisco Hernandez, protomedico under Felipe II. The Voynich is an ongoing mystery still unsolved despite more than 50 years of being the darling computer project of the RAND cryptologists. By the way, see if you can find any efernce to the verbal “nanlloni” meaning, what? ovulation or menstruation or something. Jim Comegys

    • langaholic says:

      I read the Wikipedia page for it (I know, Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source)–but it looks fascinating! I’ve heard of the Voynich Manuscript before but I didn’t know anything about it until now. I didn’t find any reference to “nanlloni” at all, unfortunately. I really like Nahuatl and I’d love to take a class on it at some point, but unfortunately I have to make it through my undergrad degree first. 😛 Thanks for pointing this out to me–I’m definitely going to do a bit more research into it!

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