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.

Diacritical Error

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!

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language Comics, Diacritics, Linguistics, Humor, Characters, Programming

Tú, usted, vosotros

Tú, usted, vosotros, vos. You, you, you, you. No wonder native English speakers attempting to speak Spanish may want to flip tables. When it comes to delving into a foreign language, the toughest bits to grasp are the ones that your L1 [native language] conceptualizes in a different manner. In this case, the English pronoun correlates with several variables in Spanish. That’s quite the challenge for a native English speaker to comprehend, let alone use correctly in speech. So, when do you use which one? Let the Linguiputians explain:

Are you talking to your friend or acquaintance? Use tú. Are there more than one? Use vosotros. Are you addressing your boss, an elderly person, a big fish, or an aristocrat wearing a monocle and a wig? Use the formal and reverential usted.

If you are unsure about whether to use tú and usted, pay attention to the people around you and how they address each other. When it doubt, use usted. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

You might be thinking: hold on, if tú has the plural vosotros, what happens if you talk to more than one wig-wearing aristocrat? I’m glad you asked.

In this case, we ought to use ustedes, the plural form of usted. In addition, if you address multiple female friends or acquaintances, pick vosotras – as opposed to the plural masculine pronoun vosotros.

“Waaaah! The Linguiputians are making my head hurt!” – I know, too much information. Let’s recap before we move on to the fun part:

Whereas English is quite happy with its functional and simplistic <you>, Spanish seems to be a master hoarder of personal pronouns. But how did we get here? Well, it all goes back to the original language.

Latin had two personal pronouns for the second person: <tu> and <vos>. The pronoun <tu> worked in the same manner as the modern-day Spanish tú, and <vos> had two usages: plural (y’all) and reverential (Your Highness) – pretty much like the current French vous. Quaint, uh?

The Castilian folks inherited these two pronouns from Latin, and used them happily throughout the Middle Ages. However, a few things happened to vos. First, having only one word for “y’all” and “Your Highness” was somewhat ambiguous, so they came up with vosotros (vos + otros más) in the 13th century. So, at that point we had:

Additionally, vos – originally reserved to monarchs and nobles – became an ubiquitous trend. Everyone was tweeting about it: #LinguisticChange, #ImVosToo. Everyone wanted to be a vos. It became so overused among peasants and their family members that, in the 17th century, the pronoun had lost its deferential usage. It was basically a “you” to address your king, lord, trusted blacksmith, spouse, fellow farmer, dad, sister, uncle, lover, cattle and stray dog.

Monarchs and overlords weren’t pleased. They needed to flaunt their power and wanted a linguistic device that separated them from their subordinates. That’s when the plebs came up with deferential formulae such as “vuestra reverencia” (Your Reverence), “vuestra señoría” (Your Honor) or “vuestra merced” (Your Grace) in order to keep their masters happy.

As it always goes, artifacts we manipulate the most, wear out faster. These formulae were not an exception. Their phonetic surface morphed after years of recurrent usage. It went down more or less like this:

Whereas most of these formulae were rendered obsolete, “vuestra merced” turned into usted, the reverential pronoun that made its way to present-day Spanish. That’s how Peninsular Spanish ended up with tú, vosotros and usted, and the pronoun family lived happily every after.

Right. Not only did vos lose its deferential value, but it also became quite derogatory in its final stages, and left to address folks of inferior status. Vos wasn’t cool anymore, #NotMyPronoun. By the 18th century, it had vanished into thin air.

Sorry, my bad. Vos was no longer around in the Iberian Peninsula because it had become a globetrotter of sorts. It joined the Spaniards who crossed the Atlantic during the 15th and 16th centuries. But vos didn’t travel around the vast continent all at once, nor did it stick everywhere it went. Some regions embraced it, some leaned towards tú, and some kept both.

And that’s why vos is nowadays alive and kicking in no less than seventeen Latin American countries. Vos is predominant in some regions (e.g. Argentina, Nicaragua), absent in others (e.g. Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico), and some have a three-tiered system – vos-tú-usted – that reflects the degrees of respect and familiarity (e.g. Honduras, Chile).

And that’s one of the many reasons why Spanish is one of the richest, most vibrant and fascinating languages on this rich, vibrant and linguistically fascinating planet of ours.