Nahua (Nahuatl)

While Nahua, or Nahuatl, is the primary Mesoamerican linguistic group, its origins are actually in North America, where the first speakers of the language originated. It is from the general linguistic family known as the Uto-Aztecan, one of several language groups spoken by Native Americans. Among related languages are those spoken by the Hopi, the Comanche, Shoshone, and Ute in the current United States.

It is also spoken by the Tarahumara, Huichol, and Yaqui peoples today in Mexico, among other tribes. In what is known as the Classical period, before the Spanish conquest of 1519–21, it was the language spoken by the imperial Aztecs of Mexico.

The Athabascan language group, in the American Southwest, includes languages spoken by many of the Apache clans, such as the Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Mescalero, Lipan, and Western Apache. It is also spoken by the Kiowa, who are related to the Apache but took to the southern Great Plains of America, where they rode with the Comanche.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Athabascan-speaking Indians came after the Uto-Aztecans. Some archaeological sites point to what could have been savage warfare between Athabascans like the Navajo and Apache and the Uto-Aztecan Hopi.

There is a theory that the Hopi took to their high mesa homes as a refuge from these more warlike people. An indication of this situation is that there is evidence that the Hopi first called themselves the Hopituh, or “the peaceful ones.” Even today, there is rivalry between the Navajo and the Hopi for land in the Southwest United States.


As with all languages, much effort has been made to classify the Nahua, or Nahuatl, branch of the Uto-Aztecan language group. While the Aztecs (Mexica) are no doubt the most well-known Mesoamerican (Central American) speakers, Nahuatl really made its first appearance around the seventh century c.e., when the Toltec came from the north and began to expand at the expense of settled people like the Mayas of Guatemala and the Yucatán in Mexico.

The warrior cultures of both the Toltecs and the Aztecs, including their common language, could lead to the theory that both were from the same general area in North America, the present day United States or Canada, and that the Toltecs were the first wave of conquerors. The Aztecs made their dramatic appearance in the Valley of Mexico in about the 14th century, and perhaps represented the last wave of conquering immigrants from the north.

Chicano (Mexican-American) activists have placed Aztlan in the southwestern United States, in the region that was seized from Mexico by the United States during the Mexican-American War of 1846–48.

This may be, archaeologically speaking, a more accurate assessment. As discussed, the Aztecs and the other Uto-Aztecans may have originated farther north, even with the migration of Asiatic tribes from Siberia, the traditional route of Native Americans into the Americas.

The Indians already settled in Mexico called the newcomers like the Toltecs and Aztecs, the Nahuatl speakers, Chichimecas, a term loosely translated as “barbarians.” Aztec legend recounts there were seven Aztec tribes, including the Tepenecs and the Acolhuas. The Aztecs were the last to arrive in Anahuac, as they called the Valley of Mexico.

The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century with Hernán Cortés, who landed at Vera Cruz in 1519, was the end of Aztec independence, and ultimately that of all the peoples of Mesoamerica. Early Spanish missionaries, after viewing the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, made it their goal to eradicate the Aztec culture and with it their Nahuatl language.

However, there were scholars among the missionaries who saw that the culture of the Aztecs merited preservation. Thus rather than being destroyed, Nahuatl was preserved in considerable measure by enlightened members of the religious orders whose majority attempted to destroy it.

Today some 1.5 million Mexicans still speak Nahuatl, although the language of the Classical period ended with the defeat of the Aztecs. Today Nahuatl is enriched by a large vocabulary of Spanish “loan words,” as Spanish and English have been enlivened by Nahuatl words.

Geographically speaking those who use Nahuatl also include those as far south as the Pipil of El Salvador, thus embracing the whole of Mesoamerica. Considering its influence on English, one can say that today perhaps a larger area is influenced by Nahuatl than at any other time in the history of the language.