What Montezuma’s Aztec Sounded Like – and how we know

Montezuma ran a vibrant empire from one of
the world’s largest cities… with an amazing headdress! But unlike his Mayan neighbors,
he didn’t leave us books and monuments full of sentences. And yet we know the Aztecs called
him Huēyi Tlahtoāni, not Emperor, that he didn’t call chocolate “chocolate” and that
Montezuma is not how he said his name. No, no, that’s not it either! After college, I went through linguistics
withdrawal. So I tore through any languagey book I could, including Empires of the Word.
Right away there’s this epic encounter between Spanish Conquistadors and the Aztec Emperor.
But if we see a people inevitably about to be wiped from history, this book saw two high
cultures meeting across a great divide, each telling their own story in their own words.
I lowered the book. Their own words. We know how Montezuma spoke? Turns out, we do! Partly because, while some
brought swords to the New World, others reached for pens. And informants. They wrote histories!
And dictionaries! And rough grammars with tips about Aztec. Well, the Mexican Language,
Nāhuatl. Tips like, when you see two consonants in
a row, pronounce both: a house was /kalli/, not /kaji/ like if this were Spanish. Tips like there are only four vowels: a e
i o. So if you spot an u, it’s really just an o in disguise. The word for flower is xochitl. Vowels can be long, too: ā ē ī ō. A flower
isn’t just xochitl, it’s xōchitl. Spelling is clunky, but it works if we see
it as Spanish letters layered over simple Aztec sets: za ce ci zo ca que qui co tza
tze tzi tzo. Linguists would’ve done a better job, but bygones. Above all, the old grammars show off the structure of Nāhuatl. Nouns attach affixes. (Oh, do they ever.) Nāntli, nāntzintli, tonān,
tonāntzin, titonāntzin, tonāntziné. Verbs use “incorpration”, jamming things we’d
call different words into a single verby body: nicuā, nitlacuā, nitamalcuā. The grammar
only gets more fun from there! But there’s a lot these premodern grammars
don’t tell us. Take a concrete example. An important one: chocolate. We suspect it must’ve
come from xocolātl, bitter water, but there’s no trace of that in the early literature.
In classical times, the base word for the bean and the drink was cacahuatl. To sort out all these missing words and sounds,
look into Montezuma’s future… and his past. Montezuma’s Aztecs also had books, āmoxtli!
I was always told āmoxtli were full of pictographs not real writing, but experts are taking a
second look. Spell the word cihuātl “woman” as you like, here’s how one glyph does: with
two bars. The bars stand for the syllable “wa”. Compare that to the way colonial writers
spelled the sound w: āhuacatl, huēyi, nocihuāuh. So this isn’t a vowel “u”, it’s an h plus
u representing the consonant “w”. But our best evidence comes from modern mouths.
Yep, people still speak Nāhuatl! They may call it mācēhualli, meaning “commoner”,
or even just “Mexican”, but they help pin down its sounds. Those uh’s do indeed correspond
to w’s. There really are four vowels, and this fourth vowel drifts freely between o
and u, which explains those earlier spelling variations. And elephant in the room, or jaguar in the
temple, but this t-l all over the place is /tɬ/, /tɬ/, /tɬa/! You’ll even hear two k sounds: /k/ as in “skull”,
calli, plus a tricky /kw/ made by rounding your lips: cuā, cuīca. This sound can even
end a syllable: tēuc. The spelling here is awkward and inconsistent. Today I’m going
with this one. Tie all this pronunciation analysis together and we can dig up a glimpse
of what Montezuma’s name sounded like in his day: Mo-tēuc-zō-ma. Motēuczōma. But out of respect, you might want to add
the polite suffix: Motēuczōmatzin. Do you hear that? “Tsin̥” not “tsiN”! Certain consonants
were voicelss at the end of a syllable. Try this one, nocacahuauh, with voiced w in the
middle and a voiceless w at the end! L’s are particularly noticeable there: not āltepētl
but āɬtepētɬ. But there were still too many unknowns. Remember
your favorite sound? Well, some speakers ditch it. They say Nahuat or Nahual! Who’s right? Or take this h before a consonant. Colonial
texts imprecisely called it a saltillo, a skip. (C’mon, the IPA wasn’t even invented
yet!) Today most people say mēxi[h]ca; a few say mēxi[ʔ]ca. Which one’s older? Zoom out from Nāhuatl to see its siblings,
cousins, parents, grandparents. Carefully comparing them for patterns, linguists proved
they’re part of a Uto-Aztecan family that stretches from Central America up to the western
US. Linguists, including this guy, Whorf, placed
Nahuatl within that history. Whorf worked out that an early “t” sound changed into “tl”.
Oh, so Nahuat is older! Wait. Later linguists showed this change applied to the entire Nahuan
branch. “Nahuat” and “Nahual” were the innovations. So keep practicing your “tl”! The pesky saltillo, that sound you lop off
words when you borrow them even if it’s the Aztec name for themselves, that was even more
elusive. But hard work showed a syllable-final stop, like a k or a t, turning into a catch-in-your-throat
before becoming the popular hhh sound. In the old days, they said: mēxihcatl, tlahtōlli,
tlahtoāni. Oh, and they stressed the second-to-last syllable:
cuīcatl, Huēyi Tlahtoāni. So Aztec had a family! shared the same features, including a special
ritual language. Aztec ritual speech was unlike the common
mācēhualli speech. Elite schools, calmecac, taught noble children the old ways, in Huēhuehtlahtōlli.
So if you’ve been paying attention, you know that xōchitl means flower and cuīcatl means
song. Well, you still need ancient parallelisms to grasp the noble phrase in noxōchiuh in
nocuīcauh, a stylish way to say “my poem”. This is the same ritual language from my tale
of the fall of the empire: in mātzin in motepētzin just to say “your city”. He was at the crossroads of an ancient language,
one that wasn’t just about articulating Nāhuatl sounds or building intricate words, but making
your speech ring with poetry like a real emperor. I mean, Huēyi Tlahtoāni. Stick around and subscribe for language!

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