Titlahtoa in Mazewaltlahtolli? Do you speak the Nawatl language? If you grew up Chicano, Chicana, or Chicanx, odds are that you use hundreds of words every day that are of Nawatl origin!
Out of the 63 Indigenous languages currently spoken in Mexico, Nawatl remains the most widely spoken with nearly 2 million native speakers. Here are 8 words of Nawatl origin that are common in Chicano communities!
1. Jacalero: From Xakalli, hut. A person who lives in a hut. Often used to describe a transient or poor person.
2. Tlapaleria: From Tlapalli, paint. A small neighborhood hardware store.
3. Tocayo: From Tokaitl, name. Someone with the same name. A namesake.
4. Chueco: From Choko/Chiko, lame in one foot. Used to describe something crooked or “messed up.”
5. Talache: From Talacha, A combination of Tlalli, earth and hacha, axe. A pickaxe.
6. Mitote: From Mitote, a ceremony. Used to describe people who gather and gossip. A snitch or busy body.
7. Cuate: From koatl, snake or “twin.” A good friend.
8. Tequio: This is a term for “communal labor.” In New Mexico and Southern Colorado, tequio describes the communal act of cleaning the acequias prior to use.
Pretty cool, right?
Now, some folks may be wondering why I spell Nawatl with a “W” rather than “Nahuatl.”
As any student of the Nawatl language can tell you, there are a variety of ways that you can write the Nawatl language. You see, when Spanish priests began transcribing Nawatl into a written form using Latin characters, the concept of a standardized orthography (style of spelling) did not exist. Each priest simply wrote what he was hearing to the best of his ability.
This means that if you study the Nawatl language, you will doubtlessly see it spelled in a variety of ways: Nahuatl, Nauatl, and even Nawatl if you are studying a modern variant.
So which one is correct? Well, they all are. What is important is that the method of spelling allows for accurate pronunciation.
Personally, I have adopted an orthography inspired by the Aztec Congress of 1940, which took place in Milpa Alta (Boone and Cummins 1998:439). This orthography adopted the use of the K and W as a way to consciously reject a Spanish style of writing and was used in the Nawatl language newspapers Mexihkayotl and Mexihkatl Itonalama, which were published in the 1950s. The reason for rejecting the “Spanish” style was grounded in resistance and self-determination. Or as Miguel Barrios Espinoza put it:
“Inin totlahtol okse: tleka tikihkwiloskeh kemen Kaxtillan?”
“This language of ours is different, why write it as if it were Spanish?”
— Miguel Barrios Espinoza, Mexihkatl Itonalama
I would have to agree with Mr. Espinoza on this. Personally, I feel that this orthography helps facilitate proper pronunciation, especially for English speakers. Of course, the fact that actual native Nawatl speakers have adopted this style of spelling has not stopped self-righteous “defenders of the language” from complaining whenever they see the K or W appear.
Interestingly enough, the people who complain the loudest about this modern orthography tend to be folks who have never actually studied the language, let alone spent time with native speakers. Perhaps they can go to Mexico and inform the Nawa communities there that they are mistaken in how they spell words in their own language.
I’m sure they would love it.
Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on Amazon.com. In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.