Aztec or Nahuatl writing is a pictographic and ideographic system the Aztecs used to write Nahuatl. It is not considered to be a true writing system since there were no set of characters that represented specific words, but rather ideas. Nahuatl today is written in Roman characters used by the Spaniards when they began annotating the language.
The spelling rules are largely based on then-Spanish orthography, rather than phonemic rules and therefore have not perfect grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence.
Nahuatl has four short vowels: a, e, i, and o. The vowels a, e and i sound similar to Spanish, while o can sound like either a Spanish o or a u. Unlike in English, where cuter and cutter have different vowels, the vowels of Nahuatl don't change depending on what follows them.
Each vowel also has a long form, marked by a line or macron over the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō. They have the same sound as the short vowels, but are simply held longer.
Nahuatl ch, m, n, p, t, and y are pronounced like English.
As in English, c represents an s-sound when followed by e or i, but a k-sound elsewhere.
Cu is pronounced kw, like in Spanish, or like English qu. Its inverse, uc, is the same sound at the end of a syllable.
Hu is pronounced like English w. Like cu, it is reversed at the end of a syllable, so auh sounds like ow, and iuh sounds like eww.
H alone, when not part of ch, hu or uh, may have represented a glottal stop, as in the Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or it may have been a sound like English h. Unlike English h, it is pronounced at the end of syllables: ah isn't simply a vowel, but a vowel followed by a consonant.
Before a vowel, l is the same as English or Spanish l. Before a consonant or at the end of a word, however, it is neither dark like English l in full, nor clear like Spanish l. It is a voiceless sound, like Welsh ll. This isn't important to understanding, though, and it can be pronounced like an English l without introducing confusion.
Double ll is simply l, held longer. It isn't a palatal sound like in Spanish, or a single l like in English.
Qu is used to represent the k-sound before e and i, like in Spanish. It isn't pronounced "kw" as in English.
X is pronounced like English sh.
Tl is pronounced like t with the tongue held in a position for l
Tz is pronounced like German z, or like English ts except that the t is pronounced even at the start of words — not like tsar or tsunami, where the t may be silent for some speakers.
Z is pronounced like English s.
Stress regularly falls on the second last syllable of a word.
The spelling used here is a modern standardized system, in order to represent all the sounds of Nahuatl consistently. The spelling used in the original manuscripts did not always represent Nahuatl pronunciation accurately. In particular, vowel length and h were usually omitted.
Spelling & Pronunciation of Classical Nahuatl Words
Because the spelling of Nahuatl was originally based on spelling conventions in Spanish, Nahuatl texts are generally "pronounced like Spanish," with the following exceptions and points to note:
- Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U) regardless of final consonants
- X is pronounced like English SH.
- LL is pronounced like a long L (not as in Spanish).
- TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
- U does not occur as an independent vowel. The only Nahuatl vowels are A, E, I, and O, although each of them can be long or short.
- CU and UC are both pronounced KW.
- HU and UH are both pronounced W.
- H without an adjacent U represents a "silent" glottal stop (as in go_over); in modern Nahuatl it sometimes has a sound similar to an English H and may have had that value in some dialects of Classical Nahuatl as well. (For an English speaker, pronouncing the H like an English H is not really wrong and has the advantage that it helps one remember that it is there.)
- C before E or I is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
- Z is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
However over the centuries there has been considerable instability in the spelling of Nahuatl. Some common variations:
- The letters U and O may be used interchangeably to represent the sound of O.
- The letter U alone may be used instead of UH or HU to represent the sound of W.
(At the time of the Conquest, the written letters V and U were usually reversed in Spanish from their modern values, so U indeed had the value of a modern English W.)
- The letter H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written.
- Vowel length may or may not be marked.
- The consonant Y may be written with the letter I.
- The vowel I may be written with the letter Y.
- The letter Ç may be used in place of Z to represent the sound of S.
In this century, linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish and more in accord with IPA usage. Thus:
- W may be used in place of HU or UH for the sound of W.
- K may be used in place of QU/C for the sound of K.
- S may be used in place of Z/C for the sound of S.
For compound letters, single symbols may also be used to match the Americanist orthography found in other writings about North American indigenous languages:
- ƛ for TL
- č for CH
- ¢ for TZ
- kw for CU/UC
This is done in order to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds. However, these symbols are rare and not found on standard keyboards, so they are not widely adopted.