Words & Stuff

qq: You Say Tomato...

(26 April 1998)

Everyone's heard of Quetzalcoatl, the winged-snake god of the Toltecs and Aztecs. And many have heard of Popocatepetl, a volcano in Mexico. But not everyone knows that that funny-looking "tl" at the end of each of those words is the transliteration of a single letter of the Aztec language Nahuatl. (My dictionary says that's pronounced /'nA ,wA t@l/; I've also heard /nA 'hwA t@l/.)

And not everyone knows what these English words have in common: tomato, avocado, chocolate, coyote, peyote, axolotl.

That last word in the list probably gave away the answer even if the context didn't. Yes, all of those words derive from Nahuatl: tomatl, ahuacatl (literally "testicle"!), xocolatl, coyotl, peyotl, axolotl. I would have assumed that the endings changed because we don't generally have the "tl" sound in English, but that doesn't explain "axolotl." The truth is that all of the others arrived in English via Spanish, where the "-tl" ending became "-te." ("Toltec," by the way, also comes from Nahuatl by way of Spanish -- "toltecah" was the plural of Nahuatl "toltecatl," meaning "someone from Tollan.")

One might think that if "tomato" is from Nahuatl, "potato" must be too -- after all, the potato was originally a New World plant. (It achieved its wide popularity in Europe, I've read, because it provided more calories per square meter of farm land than any other plant available to 16th-century Europeans.) And the word does come to English by way of Spanish ("batata"), but there the paths diverge; it came from the Taino language.

One might also guess that all English words containing "tl" are from Nahuatl. In fact, though, there are plenty that aren't -- like "saintly." Well, perhaps all English words that end in "tl"? Such a hypothesis could lead to interesting but doomed theories about the origins of shtetl (perhaps the Aztecs were one of the lost tribes of Israel?) and Kwakiutl.

Although Classical Nahuatl as spoken by the Aztecs is now a dead language, there are twenty-six other varieties of Nahuatl which are in current use, with well over a million speakers total (as of 1980). Though these tongues are mostly not exactly thriving; for most of those varieties, most of the speakers are older, and Spanish is widely used as a second language among Nahuatl speakers. Nahuatl is among the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. (I found this information by consulting Ethnologue '96, a catalog of the world's languages; a bit heavy on statistics in some places, but fascinating browsing.)

You can also find out about Classical Nahuatl on the Web. The language appears to be an item of some cultural and historical pride in Mexico; there's an interesting set of pages that briefly describes the language, with comic-book-style illustrations, in Spanish. Unfortunately for me, I don't speak Spanish, and though Babelfish provides some amusing translations of the pages, they're not exactly helpful. There is a version of the pages en Inglés which is a little more coherent than the Babel-ized version but is missing certain of the pages.

In particular, the Nahuatl proverbs are only available translated into Spanish, and that's a shame because Babelfish really doesn't generally do well with proverbs. Armando Alcaraz and Mya Rorer generously translated a couple of them for me; I took some liberties with the translations they provided, though, so mistakes and over-looseness of rendering are probably mine (or, in a couple of cases, Babelfish's).

Ma mixtlapohui in amix in amoyollo.
Let them open their eyes and their hearts.

Ayoppa in piltihua, ayoppa in tlacatihua.
You only live once.

Ayamo cenca noconmati.
I'm not going to let this bother me.

Cuix nelli, cuix no amo nelli.
Could be yes, could be no.

Accan huel netlacualilo.
There is no place for rest.

Huel oncan in nocehuian.
I am there in my center.

Titololxochtn titlanixquipile.
You're a little flower, but you're carrying a heavy bag.

Almo nelli in cuicatl quehua.
Don't sing the good song. [Whatever that means...]

Anyway, proverbs don't often translate well. These have now been translated through two languages, and may have lost a little in the process.

In case proverbs aren't your thing, those Web pages contain English translations of some Nahuatl poetry. The part I liked best was at the end of a poem by Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco -- the poem more or less asks "What will I leave behind me when I die?" and ends with

Ti nezkayototiuh xochimeh
Ti nezkayototiuh kuikameh

Which the people who put up the Web page translate as:

Let's leave at least flowers,
Let's leave at least songs.

A nice sentiment.

There's plenty of other Nahuatl information on the Web. For starters, try nahuatl.net; then move on to the Nahuatl Home Page. And if you're inclined to learn Nahuatl yourself, and can make your way to the San Diego area, you should definitely consider D. K. Jordan's article on recreational Nahuatl as an alternative to bowling. Be sure to read his explanation of the ocelot picture.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>