tirsdag den 26. juli 2016

How to spell Nahuatl? Nawatl? Nauatl?

My last blog post was about how the Nahua people wrote before the arrival of Europeans with their alphabetic writing system. But almost all Nahuatl texts from the colonial period onwards are of course written in alphabetic writing. In this blog post, I describe the many different conventions for writing Nahuatl using the Latin script.

For the past 80 years, Nahuatl scholars have argued about how to standardize Nahuatl orthography and what conventions to use. Different groups of scholars and activists have recommended  and supported different systems. Sometimes scholars and Nahauatl activists seem to be spending more time arguing about how to write Nahuatl than they do on actually writing it. There are even cases where a single community has two different lanugage revitalization projects that refuse to cooperate because they use different spelling systems!

In this post, I try to describe the different types of writing conventions that are in use for Nahuatl, and to show their relation to different schools of thought within Nahuatl scholarship.

Roughly we can classify Nahuatl orthographies into two main types, each of which has a bunch of variatoins. One group we can call "Classical orthographies", because they base their orthographic choices on the conventions used by the Spanish speaking friars who wrote the first alphabetic texts in the early 16th century. The other group we can call "Modern orthographies" because they were introduced by academic linguists working to find the most linguistically efficient ways to represent the Nahuatl language in writing in the early 20th century. Both types of orthographies can be used to represent colonial Nahuatl as well as contemporary varieties.

For the current purpose we can define the two types of orthographies in this way:

  • Classical Orthographies: are those that value continuity with the colonial tradition of nahuatl writing - and which adopt colonial conventions because of the value they have as connectors with that tradition.
  • Modern Orthographies: are those that value linguistic efficiency and which aim to represent the Nahuatl language in ways that are either easier to learn or which facilitate a higher analytical precision by representing linguistic elements (phonemes, morphemes) in ways that are minimally variable and maximally efficient.
In practice most orthographies include elements of both "classical" and "modern" principles. 

Classical Orthographies: 

Sometimes people talk about "classical orthography" as if it is a single well-established standard. Really it is not, and it never was. In the 16th century when Nahuatl was first written alphabetically, the idea of a standardized orthography didn't even exist - and there was no established orthography for any of the spoken main languages such as English or Spanish (as anyone trying to read Shakespeare or Cortés' letters will realize). Authors writing in any of these languages simply used the writing conventions they learned from their teachers and put them to the best possible use to get their points across in the easiest way. They tended to write these languages as they were spoken, representing the sounds more or less as they pronounced them. And when they began writing Nahuatl they did the same, tried to use the conventions they knew from writing Spanish to represent the sounds of Nahuatl. This is why the only thing that is really shared by all "classical orthographies" is the fact that they represent the sounds that exist both in Nahuatl and in Spanish using the letters that were most commonly used in Spanish to represent these sounds. For example, Spanish had adopted the Latin convention of writing the sound [k] with the letter <c> before the vowels [a] and [o] but with the letters <qu> before the vowels [i] and [e]. Luckily, actually most of the sounds in Nahuatl are also found in Spanish, which meant that this method was fairly succesful. And in fact in the 16th century, Spanish phonology was even more similar to that of Nahuatl - because at that time Spanish didnt have the harsh j-sound (like in scottish Loch), but instead had a soft sh-sound as in fish which also exists in Nahuatl. They wrote this sound with the letter <x>, because that is how they generally wrote the sh-sound in Spanish. Only over the next century did Spanish gradually change the sh-sound to the harsh j-sound (and eventually began writing it with a j). (This, incidentally, is why the x is pronounced harshly in words like Mexico/Mejico, Oaxaca and Xalapa/Jalapa - but not in the corresponding Nahuatl versions which are pronounced meshi'ko, washakak and shalapan).

However there are some sounds that are found in Nahuatl that do not exist in Spanish: Primarily, the Nahuatl signature sound the tl (written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as  [t͡ɬ]), but this turned out to be easy to write with the letter combination <tl>. The sound [kw]  (as in queen )likewise turned out to be easy to write, since this sound also existed in Spanish as (although in Spanish it is a combination of k and u, and not a single consonant sound) so they wrote it <qu> or <cu>. The Nahuatl consonant [ t͡s] also didnt exist in Spanoish, but the Friars knew the sound from Hebrew and wrote it in the same way they would when transliterating the scripture using the letter combination <tz>. Nahuatl also had the consonant sound [w] (as in "wat?") which was not found in Spanish - friars couldn't quite decide on how to write this one, but usually they simply represented it with the vowel letter <u> - sometimes combined with a consonant letter such as <hu> or <gu> (More about this below, under Canger's orthography).

But the most difficult sounds to write were the glottal stop (or h) neither of which existed in Spanish; and the distinction between long and short vowel duration. At first most friars didn't even realize that these sounds actually existed in Nahuatl, so they simply didnt write them! This is the main difference between the orthographies of the Franciscan friars and the Jesuits.

Franciscan style orthographies:

In the 16th century the most widely used Nahuatl orthographies were those developed by the Franciscans. The Franciscans had a highly practical approach to evangelizing, without too many theoretical considerations - they just did whatever seemed to work (which sometimes got them on the wrong side of other ecclesiastic orders such as the more orthodox Dominicans). The same approach worked in the area of orthography, where the Franciscans never pined much about being consistent or about how best to write. This pragmatic approach was probably partly what allowed the Franciscans friars and their indigenous aides to author the most extensive documentation of  any Indigenous language in the colonial Americas. The 16th century saw major Nahuatl works like Andres de Olmos' Nahuatl grammar, Bernardino de Sahagún's 12 volume encyclopedia about Indigenous Nahua culture (now called the Florentine Codex) and Alonso de Molina's vocabularies. None of these works represented the saltillo or the vowel length distinction, and they were extremely inconsistent in representing sounds like [w] and [j]  - and even so they worked fine and thousands of Nahuas learned to write using these loose conventions. Apparently they didn't loose much sleep worrying about the fact that the representation of some minimal pairs was ambiguous (e.g. [tla:tia] "to hide" and [tlatia] "to burn" both of which was written <tlatia>, or [paʔti] "to become well" or [pa:ti] "to melt" both of which were written <pati>, and even the difference between plural and singular of verbs in the present tense as [kochi] "he sleeps" and [kochiʔ] "they sleep" were both written <cochi>). When Franciscans sometimes heard the saltillo (they only ever seem to have heard it bwhen it occurred before another consonant) and decided to write it, they used the letter <h> giving <pahti> "to cure", <pati> "to melt". 

Other than these conventions Franciscans (and the vast majority of colonial 
Nahuatl authors) were very unruly in their orthographies - for example they used the letters u and o interchangeably for the vowels [o] and [o:], they used the letters <i> and <j> and <y> interchangeably both for the vowel [i] and the consonant [j], they used <hu>, <u> and <o> intechangeably for the consonant [w] and used the letters <z>, <c>  and <ç> for the sound [s]. '

Really, by modern standards the Franciscan orthography was a mess - and yet we are fully able to read it today just as they were back in the 16th century. This tells me that consistency and standardization of orthographies is vastly overrated. 

Jesuit style orthographies: 

Page from Carochi's 1645 grammar which uses macron to show long vowels
and circumflex accent to show wordfinal saltillo.
Among the catholic orders the Jesuits have a reputation for being studious and academically inclined. The jesuit orthographic tradition for Nahuatl embodies this reputation for thoughtfulness, and Jesuits were among the first scholars to have theoretical insights about how the Nahuatl language differed from Spanish and other well known languages and how this ought to influence the way the language was written. Nonetheless, most of the honor for these insights should probably be given to the first Nahuatl grammarian who was also a Nahua person and a Nahuatl native speaker: the jesuit priest Antonio del Rincon. He wrote a short grammar in which he noted the existence of the saltillo and vowel length distinction and to suggest marking it in writing to represent the language more faithfully. His suggestions were taken up a fifty years later by fellow Jesuit Horacio Carochi who introduced a fully developed system for marking vowel length and saltillo systematically. Following Rincon, Carochi used diacritical marks to show these distinctions and he marked the saltillo with an accent (grave, or circumflex) and vowel length with a macron.

Hence the words "to cure" and "to melt" he wrote <pàti> and <pāti> respectively and the difference between "he sleeps" and "they sleep" he wrote <cochi> and <cochî>. Sometimes he marked short vowels with a breve sign <ă>, but he did not do this consistently (since it is redundant to mark both long and short, he only marked short vowels when a long vowel would change the meaning).

The Andrews-Campbell-Karttunen orthography:
Karttunen's dictionary which has
popularized the ACK orthography.
In the mid-twentieth century American historians discovered the rich trove of Nahuatl language writings and began working with them. Among the earliest historians looking at these works were Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble who translated Sahagun's Florentine Codex into English. Another scholar to take up the study of Nahuatl was the grammarian  J. Richard Andrews, who published his grammar of the "classical" language in 1975. He chose an orthography that was linguistically accurate marking all the phonemes including the vowel length distinction and the saltillo - and which combined aspects of the Franciscan and Jesuit tradition. Specifically he adopted Carochi's use of macron for marking long vowels, and the tradition penchant for marking the saltillo with <h>. He conventionalized the use of <hu> to write the sound <w> before a vowel and <uh> syllable-finally

Andrews' orthography was in turn adopted and conventionalized further by R. Joe Campbell and Frances Karttunen in their Foundation Course and in Campbell's morphological dictionary, and the important dictionary of Frances Karttunen (the first full Nahuatl-English dictionary, and the first to consistently mark the vowel length distinction). This orthography was further adopted by the school of historians trained by James Lockhart who collaborated with Karttunen in the 1970s. Today, almost all new editions of colonial Nahuatl texts adopt the Andrews-Campbell-Karttunen orthography as the standard (although many of them choose not to mark vowel length). 

One problematic feature of the ACK orthography (thanks to John Sullivan for introducing this term which i stole from one of his facebook statuses) is that it uses the letter <h> in three distinct functions - as the saltillo and as a part of the <hu>-digraph used to write [w] and as part of the <ch> digraph. This gives spellings with two consecutive h's such as  michhuacan [mit͡ʃwaʔka:n] (name of the state Michoacan - "Place of Fishowners"), or ohhui [oʔwi]"difficult". And it also creates near-ambiguity in cases where a [k] sound written with <c> precedes a [w] written with <hu>  over a syllable boundary (e.g. cachuia "to provide someone with sandals" where the reader has to realize that the <ch> is pronounced as [kw] and not [ch].) From the point of view of a proponent of a modern "efficiency based" orthography, clusters like <hhu>, <chhu> and <chu> where the letter <h> has a different value, comes across as unelegant and unnecessary - even though it is not technically ambiguous.

The use of <h> for saltillo also has the problem that it makes it impossible to distinguish in writing between varieties that pronounce the saltillo as a glottal stop, and those that pronounce it as an [h] - and it also somewhat implies that the h-pronunciation is the norm, when in fact we know that the normative pronunciation in the Nahua capital of Tenochtitlan was the glottal stop. 

The main advantages of the ACK orthography is that 1. it is very similar to the ortography used for most colonial texts and makes the transition from the study of the grammars (using Andrews and Karttunen's works) to the reading of colonial texts very easy, 2. it marks each Nahuatl phoneme with a single letter (or letter combination) and uses only symbols found on a standard American keyboard. 

Launey's orthography

About the same time that Andrews was working in the US, a French linguist was also working on a major analysis of the Nahuatl language based on the Florentine Codex and on Carochi's grammar. Michel Launey published a full didactic grammar of Nahuatl in French in 1979. He chose to use Carochi's conventions for marking saltillo with diacritic marks, standardizing them, and getting rid of the breve accent on short vowels. Since Launey's work was first published only in French and Spanish, (and a somewhat inadequate English translation in 2011) it mostly gained currency in Europe and Mexico, and among linguists more than among historians. His main work, the 1986 thèse d'etat, still exists only in French. It is to my mind the single best grammar of colonial Nahuatl written - surpassing the work of Andrews, and that of Carochi (francophone readers can check it out here). 

The Carochi-Launey orthography has the advantage that because the saltillo is marked as a diacritic it avoids the collisions of digraphs that are found in the ACK orthography, and it avoids implicitly suggesting the pronunciation <h> as the way to pronounce the saltillo.

Canger's orthography

Una Canger is a Danish linguist (and my first Nahuatl teacher) and writes in many different orthographies - this is because she works with many contemporary varieties and adopt the conventions that work best with the variety and its speakers and her own linguistic sensibilities. For the writing of Nahuatl she has made one important proposal. 

In a 2011 article, Canger described the how it happened that Nahuatl grammarians ended up writing the sound [w] with the letter combination <hu>. She shows that the tradition originates with the Franciscan Andres de Olmos - but she also shows that he did not always write the phoneme [w] as <hu> or <uh> - in fact he mostly did this when the [w] followed a consonant or preceded a word boundary or a consonant in the subsequent syllable. When the u was For example he wrote the word [siwatl] "woman" as <çiuatl>, but the word [yeʔwatl] "he/she/it" he writes <yehuatl> and the word "my wife" [nosiwaw] he writes <noçiuauh>. This leads Canger to suggest that what Olmos was doing was that he was using the <h> to show to the reader that the <w> is pronounced differently when it occurs wordfinally or before or after a consonant than when it occurs between two vowels. In fact drawing on her knowledge of contemporary Nahuatl, Canger suggests that it is exactly the aspiration that often accompanies the devoiced variant of <w> that Olmos was representing with the h (this argument is also strengthened by the fact that Olmos also writes h after the letter l in the same positions - since l also devoices under those conditions). Canger then shows that subsequent grammarians adopted Olmos convention of using hu without understanding the way that he used it, and instead of writing only devoiced w with h they used it across the board. This confusion is the ultimate reason for the problematic digraphs found in the ACK orthography and other orthographies that use the <hu> convention. Instead, Canger suggests returning to Olmos original principle - representing the [w] sound with the vowel letter <u>. Hence Canger does not write "nahuatl" but nauatl (as did Olmos and many colonial authors) or else nawatl writing the [w] as <w>. 

While it seems that Canger would prefer a more modern orthography using k and w and s instead of c/qu and u and z/c, she suggests that also scholars who prefer a classical style of orthography ought to return to writing [w] as <u>. Canger's proposal shares all the advantages of the ACK and Launey orthographies - and avoids the problematic digraphs combination found in both of them. The main drawback is that the other orthographies are already in wide usage and that by now it will be quite hard to get people to start writing Nauatl instead of Nahuatl.

Comparison of "Classical orthographies":

”we do it”

Modern orthographies: 

"Modern" orthographies also differ among themselves - but they share the principle that they aim for maximal efficiency rather than maximal continuity with colonial writing traditions. But efficiency can be measured in different ways that are not always compatible. One criterion of efficience might be simple graphic efficiency to have the smallest and most parsimonious array of graphic units  - for example following the principle of "one phoneme - one letter". This kind of "phonemic efficiency" would prefer to remove all the digraphic letters (tl, tz, ch, kw) so that no letter is used to represent two different phonemes and no phoneme is represented by two distinct typographic units. Another kind of efficiency would be to make sure that the orthography is maximally easy to learn - a kind of "pedagogical efficiency". Another kind of efficiency is to make sure that the orthography is maximally accessible to linguists - for example by using symbols for sound values that are internationally established in the linguistic community (e.g. in the same values as in the International Phonetic alphabet, or the Americanist Phonetic Alphabet). 

The Americanist orthography

The Americanist orthography stems from the earliest studies of contemporary spoken Nahuatl by American and Mexican US-trained linguists in the first half of the 20th century. They tended to use a phonetic notatoin system now known as APA (Americanist Phonetic Alphabet), which aimed towards being strictly phonemic and based on the principle of one letter per phoneme. Hence they used single letter symbols for all of the sounds that the "classical" orthographies represented with digraphs -

APA style transcription key:
  • tl = ƛ
  • tz = ¢ (or sometimes c)
  • cu/qua = kw (or sometimes q)
  • ch = č
  • x = š
  • c/qu = k
  • hu/uh = w
  • h = h
  • ʔ = '
Americanist orthography is really very efficient in this way - except that it requires a bunch fo special symbols not found on ordinary keyboards. Hence many linguists taking a practical approach retained tl, ts, ch and x avoiding unnecessary additional signs apart from those already on a standard keyboard.

Such a modified Americanist orthography was in fact adopted as the official standard by the participants in the first Aztec Congress which was held in Milpa Alta in 1940 and attended by many native speakers. They stated that they prefered this orthography exactly because it didnt use the Spanish-style digraphs que/qui ce/za etc. In this way the choice of a "modern" and "scientific" orthography was a political move towards decolonization. Today a variant of this orthography (without the special symbols, but with k and w) is used by most Nahuatl speakers in the Zongolica region where the linguist Andrés Hasler has promoted it for several decades. 

SEP and SIL's orthographies

Example of the SEP/SIL orthography from a textbook.
It uses the letter j to represent the h sound.
In the 1940s an American missionary organization called Instituto Linguistico de Verano (Summer Institute of Linguistics or SIL) began collaborating with the Mexican Ministry of Education (SEP) to develop educational materials in indigenous languages. Because the government wanted indigenous peoples to learn Spanish and primarily wanted to use indigenous language education as a way to teach Spanish, they considered that the orthographies should only use letters already found in Spanish. They developed many different orthographies for different Nahuan varieties - some of which used the "classical" Spanish digraphs, and others which used k and w (although most use hu or simply u for [w]).  The only common denominator seems to be that they use the letter j for the saltillo when it is pronounced as an [h]. This presumably is because the letter <h> is "mute" in Spanish which migh confuse the children during the gradual transition from Nahuatl to Spanish. Today SIL still consider the ease of acquisition for students who are already literate in Spanish as the main criteria for efficiency. Most SEP/SIl orthographies do not mark vowel length, because most Nahuatl speakers are not actually aware of this feature of their language, and vowel length is not very important in distinguishing words from eachother. Some of them however do and when they do they tend to use either double vowels (aa/ee/ii/oo)  or underlining (a, e, i, o) to mark long vowels.

SEP and SIL style orthographies are extremely influential in Mexico and those Nahuatl speakers who have been lucky enough to have classes in their languages in school are likely to have learned them. Also most Nahuatl language authors tend to use these orthographies (because most of them are trained as bilingual teachers through SEP). Many SEP and SIL orthographies also do not write the double [ll] sound which is very common in Nahuatl but instead writes it as a single l. This is of course because Mexican Spanish pronounces the double l as the [j] sound (which is written with y in Nahuatl).

The drawback of using <j> to write the sound [h] is that it often causes non-Nahuatl speakers to erroneously pronounce it as the harsh Spanish j-sound and not as a soft h-sound. Writing the double l as a single-l is problematic from a grammatical viewpoint because the double-l is what happens when the absolutive suffix -tli occurs after a root ending in -l. So by writing only a single l, the grammatical structure of the language is obscured making it harder to teach the grammar. 

"Intuitive orthographies"

Example of intuitive orthpography form a kindergarten in Hueyapan. It says
"xi nech ate ki an xinech pojpua nochipan kion kual le ni koponis"
which usually would be written as
"xinechateki an xinechpojpoa nochipan kion kualle nikoponis"
which means
"Water me and weed me, that way I will always bloom"
Most Nahuatl speakers have not received any education in Nahuatl and many have never even been aware that their language can be written down. Usually Mexican schools teach only Spanish. This means that they have to invent new conventions almost from scratch (or based on Spanish) when they start writing their language since they havent been taught any of the existing orthographic conventions. These new Nahuatl-writers tend to adopt ways of writing that are intuitive to them based on their knowledge of Spanish and sometimes English orthography. Such intuitive orthographies can be seen on the internet where Nahuatl speakers sometimes converse in writing withouth ever having been taught how to write their language. These orthographies are often  sinmilar to the SEP orthographies (using j for h) - but two new features that are not used in any of the established orthographies are often found in intuitive Nahuatl writing. One is that they often use <sh> instead of the traditional <x> to write the sh-sound. This is probably because most Mexicans are associate this sound with English, and know that it is written sh in the English orthography. The second is that they often write grammatical prefixes as separate words, instead of fusing them together as Nahuatl grammarians do. This is probably because they often think in Spanish when they write in Nahuatl translating from Spanish into Nahuatl and therefore isolating elements of meaning the way it is done in Spanish.

Comparison of Modern Orthographies:

”we do it”
tic chiua
shi tsecuini

Note that the SEP1 and SEP2 and the "intuitive" orthography are just possible examples, but many different combinations of the different choices exist.

So Which One Should You Use?

There is no objective answer. Each orthography comes from different ideas about what is important, and is used by certain communities working within specific genealogies and traditions.

That fact of the matter is that regardless of which orthography you use someone will inevitably tell you that you are using the wrong one. I think the best approach is to learn to read all of them and to use one consistently. But really as I noted consistency is overrated. Shakespeare and Chaucer and Cervantes were able to found their national literatures without using standardized orthographies. Molina and Sahagun were able to found Nahuatl literature without one. The important part is that we keep writing and reading in Nahuatl.

Now I have told how one writes in the Nahuatl language
aʃka:n onikiɁtoɁ ke:nin se:  t͡ɬakwilo:s i:ka nawat͡ɬaɁtolli
aška:n oniki’to’ ke:nin se: ƛa’kwilo:s i:ka nawaƛa’tolli
axcan oniquito quenin ce tlacuiloz ica nahuatlahtolli
axcān oniquìtô quēnin cē tlàcuilōz īca nahuatlàtolli
axcān oniquihtoh quēnin cē tlahcuilōz īca nahuatlahtolli

axcan oniquijtoj quenin se tlajcuilos ica nahuatlajtoli

axkan onikijtoj kenin se tlajkuilos ika nahuatlahtoli
axkan onikihtoh kenin se tlahkuilos ika nawatlahtolli
ashkan onik itoh kenin se tlacuilos ica nahua tlajtoli

(Note: This post was edited on July 31st 2016 to make some minor corrections to the section on the ACK orthography based on comments from Frances Karttunen on the Nahuatl-l listserver)