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Mexico’s ancient mother tongue continues to make its cultural claim

One of the great astonishments Mexico holds for even well-prepared newcomers, is its richness of language.

Usually, this is a surprising lushness, that is overwhelming, even to those who have gone to the effort to fortify themselves with courses in Spanish, or who have had the good luck to have been immersed in that language at some point in their past educational wanderings.

The difficulty here of such academic injections of Spanish rhetoric is that it doesn’t prepare us for the great cultural retention of Mexico’s mother-tongue, Nahuatl.

Nahuatl lexicon

Nahuatl belongs to a large language group called by linguists “Uto-Aztecan.” The major voice of this group is Nahua, the most significant dialect of which is Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexicas (who are now popularly called the Aztecs) and the “lingua franca” of their extensive empire. It is a language that is still spoken in one form or another by many Mexicans today, particularly in the countryside.

Not only does the newcomer run into seemingly unpronounceable, unintelligible Nahuatl names for towns, but he also bumps up against whole groups of indigenous plants, foods and animals that are identifiable only by Nahuatl names. And this is merely the beginning. For there is an extensive lexicon of Nahuyatl names popularly used for objects that have quite accurate and appropriate — though traditionally less preferred — Spanish identities.

Nahuatl children

The most easily noticed of these, for a foreign visitor, are those words concerning children, words which seem to express more tenderness and affection than their Spanish synonyms. The word nene or nena, for girls, comes from the Nahuatl noun nentle, meaning “baby,” and is used throughout Mexico when speaking of children with such frequency that it can be found today in the social columns of Spanish-language newspapers.

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