The 13th of this month marks the 500th anniversary of the fall of Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City is today), to Hernán Cortés. That date was only 30 years into the centuries-long series of Spanish incursions into the New World, but it marked a decisive change of fortune for native civilizations and for native languages.

From that fateful day forward it was a done deal that Spanish would become the lingua franca of what is now Mexico. Spanish displaced the standing lingua franca of the region, Nahuatl, which was the language of the Aztec empire. It seems fitting then to salute Nahuatl and its many colorful and delicious contributions to Spanish and to English.

What words of Nahuatl origin do you know? Off the top of your head you may think of none, but if you turn your thoughts to popular food items from south of the border, it's not hard to begin your list. The Spanish colonial era succeeded in imposing its language on the native population, but during all that time the native population was very successful in stuffing its staples into the pie-holes of the conquerors. As a result, many of the names for the most popular foods we associate with Mexico are not of Spanish origin; they come from Nahuatl and they are called by a descendant of their original name today in both Spanish and English.

But before narrowing the focus to the contributions of Nahuatl to those two languages, zoom out to what are undoubtedly Nahuatl's greatest and most enduring contributions to languages around the world: one on the savory side — tomato — and one on the sweet side — chocolate.

Both of these words are from Nahuatl, and in nearly all languages around the world, it's not hard to hear a trace of the Nahuatl etymon chocóllatl in words such as Schokolade, cakulan, sô cô la, or czekolada (as it is rendered in German, Hausa, Vietnamese, and Polish). And it's hard to think of a civilization that does not make tomatoes central in its cuisine. A vestige of Nahuatl tomatl survives in many languages, whether it's Macedonian domat, Urdu tomater, or Moroccan Arabic matesha.

Keen consonant observers will have noticed a pattern by this time: a number of Nahuatl words have the terminal consonant sound -tl and the final consonant doesn't quite make the cut when the Nahuatl etymon is naturalized in another language. This is surely because a terminal -tl sound is not a regular feature of most languages, and so it would be unnatural, linguistically speaking, to import it. So if you're in search of other Nahuatl natives in your lexicon, you'll do better to search on a t as the final consonant, not l.

Nahuatl words that have landed in English may throw out the terminal l sound altogether (as in mesquite and ocelot) but more commonly, the terminal l sound becomes an unaccented vowel, as in peyote, epazote (a Mexican herb), or achiote (a Mexican spice). English has a dual option in coyote, which can end with a vowel sound or a t sound. All of these words have terminal -tl in their Nahuatl form.

Epazote. Photo: By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9843604

If you're an English speaker from somewhere other than the United States — perhaps from somewhere other than the western United States — you may be thinking "wait a minute; I've never heard of these words before!" To address that it's instructive to see just how fluid the border is, linguistically and ethnically, between the United States and Mexico. Chances are that the closer you live to that border, the more likely you are to have heard many naturalized Nahuatl words. Proximity to the Mexican border (or to lands that were under Spanish control before they became part of the United States) makes it likely that you are in much closer contact with words and ways from south of the border. In the map below, the deeper shades of red represent greater proportions of the population that are of Hispanic or Latino origin.

So to put it simply, you're much more likely to have eaten tamales, guacamole, posole, nopal, jicama, or chili in the last week if you live in Los Angeles than if you live in London. All of these words are from Nahuatl and they all circulate much more conspicuously in American English, especially western American English, than they do in other English dialects.

Chili (also rendered as chilli and chile in English) deserves special mention because of its productivity. Mexican Spanish borrowed it from Nahuatl, where it designated any fruit of the capsicum genus. English uses it today more narrowly, to designate the piquant varieties of capsicums, but it may also be short for chili con carne (the dish), or for the piquancy that spicy capsicums impart ("Whoa! Too much chili!"). Spanish has fully owned chili by putting it to work in words that are otherwise of Spanish origin. The poster child of this phenomenon is surely enchilada, a filled tortilla covered with sauce; but morphologically, enchilada means "thing that has been chilified".

A modern form of Nahuatl is still spoken today in Mexico by a million and a half people or more, and it is one of Mexico's official languages. Its legacy on New World Spanish is surely permanent and it continues to make surprising inroads to English.

Chipotle, a direct borrowing from Nahuatl for a smoked chili pepper, has been around in English since the 1920s, but it's a household word today in the US, owing to the popular fast-casual restaurant chain that adopted it as its name (though oddly, Chipotle does not actually serve chipotles, except perhaps as an ingredient in salsa). Chipotle is also singular in keeping the Nahuatl consonant pair tl intact upon importation.

And in this century two other food items that owe their origins to Nahuatl have gained considerable currency in English: chia, the protein-packed seed of a mint family plant, and pupusa, a type of Salvadoran stuffed tortilla. I expect that there are still more food items in the inexhaustible Nahuatl pantry that may become food fads, and perhaps eventually household words, in English.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 5th, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Gale M.
This is a fascinating column. Thanks for the enlightenment!
Saturday August 7th, 12:14 AM
Comment by: Donna C.
sure do appreciate your attention to the southwestern US - Spanish & Nahuatl are alive here in our everyday vocabulary!

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