I took Latin back in high school. We studied the language, learnt about their culture and read Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Sometimes my mind would wander off to things that may or may not have happened during the Roman Empire…
I have been looking into indigenous languages, so today I’m bringing you some Nahuatl loan words that you probably use every day. But first things first:
- In Nahuatl, <tl> is pronounced /t͡ɬ/.
- It belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family.
- “Nahuatl” literally translates as “clear or pleasant sound”.
- It originally used pictographs and ideographs, and later on acquired the Latin script, which was used to record a large amount of poetry, prose, administrative and legal documents.
- Nowadays Nahuan languages are spoken by about 1.5 million people, most of whom live in central Mexico, and the different varieties are not always mutually intelligible.
The Spanish language has tons of words of Nahuan origin, and some of them made it into English through a process of secondary borrowing. Let’s take a look!
Tomato was borrowed from the Spanish tomate in 17th century. It’s a compound of tomohuac (swelling, fatness) and atl (water), used to refer to spherical fruits or berries with many seeds and watery pulps.
Jalapeno was borrowed from the Spanish jalapeño in the 20th century. This type of pepper is native to the Mexican municipality of Jalapa, named after the Aztec Xalapan. The latter is a compound of xalli (sand), atl (water) and pan (place).
Avocado was borrowed from the Spanish aguacate in the 17th century. Popular opinion suggests that ahuacatl means testicle due to the the shape of avocados, but I haven’t found any reliable source that confirms this theory.
Chili, the loan word for spicy peppers, was introduced in the 17th century. Fact on the side: there are a few theories that explain the etymology of the toponym Chile, none of which is related to the spicy condiment.
Xocoatl was introduced into Spanish and French in the 17th century. It’s a compound made of xococ (bitter) and atl (water), and it originally referred to the drink made of water and cacao seeds.
That’s all for now! If you are into linguistic curiosities, check out more illustrated articles here.
What would happen if natural languages behaved like programming languages?
I’m no expert in programming languages, but I know enough to realize that the slightest mistake can mess up hundreds of lines of code. Luckily for us, speakers of natural languages are better at deciphering messages, even those abound in morphosyntactic blunders.
Tö thøse wîth diåcrìtics iñ theïr näme… I şeê yoü!
Having diacritics in your name is a bit of a nuisance whenever you are abroad, because letters that are commonplace in your language might not exist in others. Whether you want to open a bank account or have some clerk look you up in a data base, it seems like technology doesn’t always acknowledge our existence. Programmers of the world, we want answers!
There are not enough lifetimes to properly delve into all the languages I would like to, for each of them is a fascinating journey of linguistic codes, a puzzle that captures the essence of the world from an unique perspective. Here’s to International Mother Language Day!