50% developed

Classical Nahuatl/Grammar

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Classical Nahuatl grammar sketch

300px Page of the Florentine Codex (ca 1580)showing Nahuatl written with latin script


[edit | edit source]

Syllable structure

[edit | edit source]

Maximal syllable is CVC. Maximal consonant cluster is -CC- medially. Initial and final consonant clusters do not occur. Affixes have two forms, one before/after a vowel, and one before/after a consonant.

Consonant mutations

[edit | edit source]
l + tl > ll (cal- "house" + -tli Absolutive suffix = calli "house (Abs.)")
l + y >/ ll (cual- "good thing" + -yōtl abstract suffix = cuallōtl "goodness")
n + p > mp (on "deictic particle" + pa "locative" = ompa "there")
y wordfinally > x (nicchīya "I observed it" + past tense loss of final vowel = nicchīx "I observed it")


[edit | edit source]

The words of Nahuatl can be divided into three basic functional classes: verbs, nouns and particles. Adjectives exist, but they generally behave like nouns and there are very few adjectives that are not derived from either verbal or nominal roots. The few adverbs that can be said to exist fall into the class of particles.

The Noun

[edit | edit source]

Nouns belong to one of two classes: animates or inanimates. Originally the grammatical distinction between these were that inanimate nouns had no plural forms, but in most modern dialects both animate and inanimate nouns are pluralizable. The noun is inflected for two basic contrasting categories: plural and possessedness. Nominal morphology is mostly suffixing. Some irregular formations exist.

In Nahuatl, nouns take a suffix called the "absolutive". This suffix takes the form -tl after vowels (ā-tl, "water") and -tli after consonants, which assimilates to a final /l/ (tōch-tli, "rabbit", but cal-li, "house"). Some nouns have an irregular form in -in (mich-in, fish). These suffixes are dropped in most derived forms: tōch-calli, "rabbit-hole", mich-matlatl, "fishing net".

  • The absolutive singular suffix has three basic forms: -tl/tli, -lin/-in, and some irregular nouns with no suffix.
  • The absolutive plural suffix has three basic forms: -tin, -meh, or just a final glottal stop -h. Some plurals are formed also with reduplication of the noun's first syllable.
  • The possessive singular suffix has two basic forms: -uh (on stems ending in a vowel) or -Ø (on stems ending in a consonant).
  • The possessive plural suffix has the form -huān.

The table below present some common nouns conjugated as examples.

Plural forms

[edit | edit source]

Only animate nouns can take a plural form. These include most animate living beings, but also words like tēpetl ("mountain"), citlalli ("star") and some other phenomena. Plurals are formed in several ways:

  • The absolutive suffix is replaced with -h (glottal stop), -tin or -meh
  • Some nouns may have a reduplication of their first consonant and vowel, with the reduplicated vowel long.
Possible plurals combination
-h -tin -meh
teōtl, tēteōh tōchtli, tōtōchtin Never occurs
cīhuatl, cīhuah oquichtli, oquichtin michin, michmeh

The plural isn't totally stable and in many cases several different forms are attested.

Noun Inflection

[edit | edit source]
Absolutive singular cīhuatl "woman" oquichtli "man" totōlin "turkey" tlācātl "person (sg.)"
Absolutive Plural cīhuah "women" oquichtin "men" totōlmeh "turkeys" tlatlācah "persons"
Possessed Singular nocīhuauh "my woman" noquich "my man" nototōl "my turkey" notlācauh "my person"
Possessed Plural nocīhuahuān "my women" noquichhuān "my men" nototōlhuān "my turkeys" notlācahuān "my persons"

Possessor prefixes

[edit | edit source]
  • 1st Person Singular: no-

nocal "my house"

  • 2nd Person Singular: mo-

mocal "your house"

  • 3rd Person Singular: ī-

īcal "his/her/its house"

  • 1st Person Plural: to-

tocal "our house"

  • 2nd Person Plural: anmo-

anmocal "Your house (pl.)"

  • 3rd Person Plural: īn-

īncal "their house"

  • Unknown owner: tē-

tēcal "someone's house"

Some other categories can be inflected on the noun such as:

Honorific formed with the suffix -tzin.
cīhua "woman" + tzin+ tli absolutive = cīhuatzintli "woman (said with respect)"

Derivational Morphology

[edit | edit source]
  • -tia derives from noun X a verb with an approximate meaning of "to provide with X " or "to become X".
  • -huia derives from noun X a verb with an approximate meaning of "to use X " or "to provide with X".
  • -yōtl derives from a noun X a noun with an abstract meaning of x-hood or x-ness.
  • -yoh derives from a noun X a noun with a meaning of "thing full of X" or "thing with a lot of X"

The Verb

[edit | edit source]

The verb is marked with prefixes in order to agree with the person and number of the subject and the object of the sentence; additionally, verbs inflect for tense and aspect.

Subject prefixes and suffix

[edit | edit source]

This set of prefixes are used to express the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs . They can also be prefixed to a noun, X, to make a predicative construction with the meaning "is X".

  • 1st Person Singular: ni-

nitlācatl I am a man", nicochi "I sleep",

  • 2nd Person Singular: ti-

titlācatl "you are a man", ticochi "you sleep"

  • 3rd Person Singular: Ø- (none)

tlācatl "he/she/it is a man", cochi "he/she/it sleeps"

  • 1st Person Plural: ti + plural -h/-queh

titlatlācah "we are men", ticochih"we sleep"

  • 2nd Person Plural: an + plural -h/-queh

antlatlācah "You are men", ancochih "You sleep"

  • 3rd Person Plural: Ø- (none) + plural -h/-queh

tlatlācah "they are men", cochih "they sleep"

Object prefixes

[edit | edit source]

This set of prefixes is used to express the direct object of transitive verbs.

  • 1st Person Singular: nēch

nēchitta "he/she/it sees me", tinēchitta "you see me"

  • 2nd Person Singular:mitz

mitzitta "he/she/it sees you", nimitzitta "I see you"

  • 3rd Person Singular: qui

quitta "he/she/it sees him/her/it"

  • 1st Person Plural: tēch

tēchitta "he/she/it sees us"

  • 2ndPerson Plural: amēch

amēchitta "he/she/it sees You (pl.)"

  • 3rd Person Plural: quim

quimitta "he/she/it sees them"

  • unknown animate object:

tēitta "he/she/it sees someone"

  • unknown inanimate object: tla

tlatta "he/she/it sees something"

Temporal and aspectual suffixes

[edit | edit source]
  • Present: has no suffix.
  • Perfect: -c/h/?/Ø niquittac "I saw him/her/it (preterit aspect) "
  • Future: -z niquittāz "I will see him/her/it "
  • Imperfect: -ya niquittāya "I saw him/her/it (imperfect aspect) "
  • Irrealis: -zquiya niquittāzquiya "I would have seen him/her/it"


[edit | edit source]

The applicative construction adds an argument to the verb. The role of the added argument can be benefactive, malefactive, indirect object or similar. It is formed by the suffix -lia.

  • niquittilia "I see it for him"


[edit | edit source]

The causative construction adds an argument to the verb. This argument is an agent causing the object to undertake the action of the verb. It is formed by the suffix -tia.

  • niquittatia "I make him see it/I show it to him"

Unspecified Subject/Passive

[edit | edit source]

The construction called "passive" by some grammarians and "unspecified subject construction" by others removes the subject from the valency of the verb, substituting it with a null reference, and promoting the argument marked by object prefixes to subject. The passive or unspecified subject construction uses one of two suffixes: -lo or -hua.

  • quitta "he sees it"+ -lo= quittalo "it is seen (by someone)"
  • miqui "he dies" + hua = micohua "there is dying/people are dying"

Directional Affixes

[edit | edit source]


  • -on- "away from the speaker"
  • on+ tlahtoa "to speak" = ontlahtoa "he/she/it speaks towards there"
  • -huāl- " towards the speaker"
  • huāl+ tlahtoa "to speak" = huāllahtoa "he/she/it speaks towards here"

Introvert: Imperfective: -qui "comes towards the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + qui ="quittaqui "he/she/it will come here to see it" Perfective: -co "has come towards the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + co =quittaco "he/she/it has come here to see it"

Extrovert: Imperfective: -tīuh "goes away from the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + tīuh ="quittatīuh "he/she/it will go there to see it" Perfective: -to " has gone away from the speaker in order to X" qui + itta "to see" + to =quittato "he/she/it has gone there to see it"


[edit | edit source]

A number of different suffixes exist to derive nouns from verbs:

  • -lli used to derive passivized nouns from verbs.

tla "something" + ixca "roast" + l + tli = tlaxcalli "something roasted/ a tortilla"
tla + ihcuiloa "write/draw" + l - tli = tlahcuilolli "scripture/ a drawing"

  • -liztli used to derive abstract nouns from verbs.

miqui "to die" + liztli = miquiliztli "death"
tlahcuiloa "to write something" + liztli = tlahcuiloliztli "the concept of writing or being a scribe"

  • -qui used to derive agentive nouns from verbs.

ichtequi "to steal" + qui = ichtecqui "a thief"
tlahuāna "to become drunk" + qui = tlahuānqui "a drunkard"

  • -ni used to derive habitual nouns from verbs.

miqui "to die" +ni = miquīni "a mortal"
cuacua "to bite" + ni = cuacuāni "someone that is known to be capable of or to habitually bite"

Verbal compounds

[edit | edit source]

Two verbs can be compounded with the morpheme -ti-.

Relational Nouns and Locatives

[edit | edit source]

Spatial and other relations are expressed with relational nouns. Some locative suffixes also exist.

Noun Incorporation

[edit | edit source]

Noun incorporation is productive in Classical Nahuatl and different kinds of material can be incorporated.

  • Body parts
  • Instruments.
  • Objects.


[edit | edit source]

The particle in is important in Nahuatl syntax and is used as a kind of definite article and also as a subordinating particle and a deictic particle, in addition to having other functions.


[edit | edit source]

Classical Nahuatl can be classified as a non-configurational language, allowing many different kinds of word orders, even splitting noun phrases.

VSO basic word order

[edit | edit source]

The basic word order of Classical Nahuatl is verb initial and often considered to be VSO, although some scholars have argued for it being VOS. However, being non-configurational, all wordorders are allowed and are used to express different kinds of pragmatic relations, such as thematization and focus.

Numeral System

[edit | edit source]

Classical nahuatl has a vigesimal numeral system.


[edit | edit source]
  • cē -1
  • ōme -2
  • yei -3
  • nāhui - 4
  • macuilli -5
  • chicuacēn - 6
  • chicuōme - 7
  • chicueyi - 8
  • chicunāhui - 9
  • matlactli - 10
  • caxtolli 15
  • cēmpōhualli - 20

Colour Terminology

[edit | edit source]

The Nahuatl colour system lacks a separate term for blue, and instead uses a single term to cover both blue and green nuances. It has been argued that Nahuatl has no basic colour terms, (in the Berlin & Kay sense of the word) because they are all derived with a -tic suffix from verbs or nouns.

Basic Colour terms

[edit | edit source]
  • īstac - white
  • tlīltic - black
  • chichiltic - red
  • costic - yellow
  • xoxoctic- green and blue
  • quiltic - green
  • tlilectic - dark

Kinship Terminology

[edit | edit source]

The kinship system of Classical Nahuatl distinguishes older and younger siblings.