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Nahuatl Language

Nahuatl Language

The indigenous languages of Mexico are linguistic traditions that hev been the subject of analysis ever since the arrival the Spanish in the Americas.

Mexico is one of the most populated countries of the American continents. Its ethnic and cultural diversity is reflected by the fact that it is the country with the largest amount of pre-Hispanic language speakers in the Americas. In 2010, 65 living languages were registered in the country of the Aztecs.

The large quantity of languages used in the country does not represent however a large proportion of speakers within the total population. Other countries such as Guatemala, with 52.8% of the people speaking pre-Columbian languages, Peru with 35% and Ecuador and Panama both with percentages of Amerindian speakers close to 10%, all have higher percentages of people who speak indigenous languages.

When we talk about the indigenous languages of Mexico, we must keep in mind that these linguistic traditions, with a richness that is difficult to compare, has been the subject of analysis and study ever since the arrival the Spanish in the Americas. In the 19th century, Manuel Orozco y Berra organized the native languages into groups. That task was continued in the 20th century by Morris Swadesh, who organized them into language families, in the same way that Indo-European languages had been organized in studies carried out in Europe. The fact that not many written documents existed in these languages made Swadesh’s work especially difficult, but the American linguist concluded that these could be categorized into a corpus of eight language families, which includes the Uto-Aztecan, Mayan and Oto-Manguea languages. Of the 140 languages spoken in Mexico that Swadesh categorized, today only 65 exist, as mentioned above.

Nahuatl is without question the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico, with nearly one and a half million Mexican speakers that use it for their daily communication. Nahuatl belongs to the Uto-Azteca family, which has existed since at least the 7th century. Due to the expansion of the Toltec Empire, it became Mesoamerica’s lengua franca. The expansion of the Aztec Empire, beginning in the 8th century and lasting until its fall in the 16th, confirmed this language’s position as the most important in the region. Nahuatl is in fact also known as the Mexican Language.

With the arrival of the Spanish, Nahuatl’s widespread use began to decrease when the conquistadors imposed Spanish as the dominate language. The desire to evangelize the indigenous people however, lead many clergymen to use Nahuatl as a way to form a closer relationship with them. In 1570, King Felipe II decreed that Nahuatl be the language of the native people of New Spain, to promote more effective communication. In 1696 however, Carlos II established Spanish as the exclusive language for official matters.

With the arrival of independence, a predominately liberal political landscape gave way to a series of education policies that encouraged the exclusive use of Spanish among all Mexicans. The policies were made under the notion that a single unifying language would integrate all residents, including indigenous people, and foster equality in the new Republic. Only during the Second Mexican Empire, would an interest for native languages make a brief reappearance, moving away from the trend of eliminating these languages. Not even Benito Juarez, who was of indigenous origin, showed much interest in preserving pre-Columbian languages.

Shifting trends in the numbers of indigenous language speakers throughout the 19th and the 20th century show patterns of dramatic ups and downs: in 1889, it was calculated that 38% of Mexicans spoke Amerindian languages, a figure that stands in stark contrast to the estimated 60% in 1820. By the end of the 20th century, that percentage stood around 10%. It has been determined that about one hundred languages have disappeared. Today, the number of pre-Columbian language speakers in Mexico is estimated to be about seven million, which make up just 6.5% of the population.

In 1992, the second article of the Mexican constitution was changed; it now recognizes Mexico’s cultural diversity and obligates the state to “protect and promote the expression of that diversity”.

La Organización de Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas (the organization of writers in indigenous languages) drafted a legal project to open the doors to the protection of the native languages of Mexico. The project lead to the enactment of the General Law of the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the preservation, development and promotion of pre-Columbian languages.

In the same way as their neighbors to the north, the United States, Mexican federal government does not define any official language, however the laws designed to favor cultural and linguistic diversity can help prevent these languages, Nahuatl in particular, from disappearing. Interesting facts worth emphasizing here are: the Mexican National Anthem was translated into Nahuatl and it is sung in that language, Nahuatl is still used to give mass in many areas and movies have been made in the language such as the 1975 film In Amatl Mexicatlatoani.

Nahuatl, the Mexican Language, is still alive and on the road to stability and expansion.