Nahuatl Loan Words

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!

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, tomatl

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.

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, xalapan

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).

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, ahuacatl

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.

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, xilli

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.

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, xocoatl

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.