Indigenous culture is an integral part of Latinx culture. There are a lot of things we do, eat, and say that actually have roots or a direct link to the native people of today’s Latin America. Take the Nahuatl language, for example. There are words that we use in both Spanish and English that are derived from the words of the Aztec, and modern-day Nahua people. About 1.7 million people, mostly in the center of Mexico, and about 1,000 in El Salvador, speak this language.
You probably don’t know because unfortunately, we aren’t taught much about our indigenous roots, despite the significant role they play in our Latinx identity. It’s time to finally change that. What better time than now to learn about the several Nahuatl words you may recognize already while learning some more. Hopefully, this inspires you to want to learn more about your particular indigenous Latinx background and its language(s) and culture(s). Many of the indigenous languages of our peoples are in danger of becoming extinct and with it part of our identity.
Let’s start with a word that will you will recognize in both English and Spanish. The Nahuatl word for avocado and aguacate is ajuacatl. The word ajuacatl is also linked to “guacamole,” which is a mix of “ajuacatl” and “mole” (which comes from the Nahuatl word “molli,” which means sauce). Avocados are actually native to South Central Mexico and Central America, where its name also originated. So, next time you see a beautiful avocado, or dip a tortilla chip in some guacamole, why not share these Nahuatl words with your friends? Share the knowledge!
One of the first things you learn when learning a new language are the basics. This includes how to say hello. Next time you say hi to your family or friends, use the Nahuatl word “tialli.” The words “niltze” and “pialli,” or “piyali” are other ways to say hi in Nahuatl.
In language learning, you also want to learn all the words for important everyday things. This is especially true if you plan to travel to the place where the language is used. You will definitely want to learn how to say “water,” as it is something you will want to be able to ask for if you need to. “Water,” in Nahuatl, is “atl.”
While you may immediately associate the word “chipotle” with an Americanized burrito place once associated with McDonald’s, the word comes from Nahuatl. “Chipotle,” used in English and Spanish, comes from the Nahuatl word “chilpotkli,” meaning “smoked chili,” and describing a “smoke-dried ripe chile pepper used for seasoning.”
Love is a universal language, but it’s always fun, and romantic, to learn some words that describe it in other languages. Yollotl is the Nahuatl word for “heart.”
Now it’s time for another Nahuatl word you know, in some form or another. Pozolli is the Nahuatl word for “pozole,” or “posole,” the delicious hominy, meat, seasoned and garnished stew from Mexico and New Mexico. This is a good thing to point out to those you are with when downing a bowl of this warm and cozy meal. They should know that many of the words we know are indigenous!
Many Mexican names come from Nahuatl words. Quetzalli is Nahuatl for “feather,” “precious thing,” and/or “which is adorned with the sacred feathers of the quetzal.” These names, in addition to being unique and pretty, also shout out and show pride for indigenous roots.
When learning words in another language, there are certain words that you want to learn first. The words you use the most, that mean the most, and that represent important things in your life. Like the word for “mother.” In Nahuatl, this is “mantli.”
If you read or say the word “koyotl,” what does it sound like to you? Yes, coyote! This is yet another word that we already know, in both English and Spanish. It comes from the Nahuatl “koyotl,” which means “prairie wolf,” and of course, “coyote.”
You can thank the Aztecs for the glory that is chocolate. It originated in Mesoamerica, as did its name. Chocolate is said to come from the Nahuatl word “chocolātl,” which comes from the words “xokok,” meaning “bitter,” “atl,” which we know means “water,” and the Mayan word for “hot,” “chokah.” There are other theories as to where the word “chocolate” came from; check them out here.
Important things to know in another language include everyday words that can help you out if you’re in a bind. Like how to ask for directions. In Nahuatl, the word for “where” is “onkan.”
You already know how to say “mom” in Nahuatl, but like TLC once said, “what about your friends?!” Surprise your BFF by calling her “amiga” in the Aztec/Nahua language: ikniutli.
One of the most important words in any Latina’s life is “mujer.” It’s super cool to learn how to say this empowering and strong word in Nahuatl. The term is “siwatl,” also written as “cihuatl,” and it is also used to describe a wife/bride, female, girl, hen, and uterus. Now, go and say “siwatl/cihuatl,” loud and proud!
Next time you’re curling up and reading a book, you will smile knowing you know how to say the word in another language. In Nahuatl, the word for “book” is “amoxtli.” Now that you’ve learned quite a few new words in Nahuatl, a good tip is to look on Google and/or YouTube to find videos showing how to pronounce these words, and/or those similar to them.
Another Nahuatl word that has been used as a beautiful name for women is xōchitl. It is the Nahuatl word for “flower,” and also the name of a legendary Toltec queen.
Beans are a staple of Latinx food, and we usually refer to them in Spanish as frijoles (also habichuelas, gandules, habas, etc. depending on the specific type of bean and/or the country where the Spanish is being spoken). In Nahuatl, beans are referred to as “etl.”
The summer months are right around the corner, and with it comes hotter temperatures. You can convey that you are feeling hot, in Nahuatl, by saying “tlatotoniya.” If you click on the Instagram photo above, it also shows how to pronounce the term.
The next word in Nahuatl we will learn next is another familiar-looking one. “Nohpalli” is how we got the word “nopal.” Nopales refer to prickly pears, a.k.a. Opuntia cacti (native to Mexico), and their pads.
If you know how to say bananas in Spanish, which is “platanos,” then you are one step closer to knowing how to say the word in Nahuatl! In the indigenous language, the term is “polatanox.”
Coffee is life, and because of that, you should know how to order it in as many languages as possible. Kidding aside, whether you use it during your travels to Mexico, or just want to find a new way to describe your favorite beverage, the Nahuatl word for coffee is “acochcayotl.”
Whether you speak English or Spanish (or both), you call a tortilla a tortilla. It’s cool to know that there’s another word used to describe it. In Nahuatl, tortillas are referred to as “tlaxcalli.”
Cilantro (a.k.a coriander) is a major herb in Latinx cuisine, and it turns out its name has its roots in Nahuatl. Cilantro (and we assume culantro as well, as it is native to the Americas) comes from the Nahuatl word “culanto.”
Even the way to say Aztec is different than how we have been saying it. In Nahuatl, the word for the Aztec people is “aztectl.” Many words in Nahuatl, as you may have noticed, end in -tl.
Home is where the heart is, so it’s natural to want to know how to describe our abode in more than one language. What we call “casa” in Spanish is “chantli” in Nahuatl.
Tamales are a Mesoamerican food that evolved to become a part of our diet in most, if not all, Latin American countries. Did you know that the way to say tamales is the same in both the Mayan and Nahuatl languages? By saying “tamali/tamalli,” you are describing masa and other ingredients, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf, in two indigenous languages from Latin America!
One of the theories regarding the etymology of “taco” is that is originated from the Nahuatl word “tlahco/tlako.” The term means “half” or “middle,” which would make perfect sense since tacos are folded in half. Seeing as how most everyone loves tacos, impress them all with this cool little nugget of both indigenous/Latinx and culinary history!
Chili peppers originated in Mexico, and so did their name. “Chili,” as it is described in both English and Spanish, comes from the Nahuatl word “chilli;” these peppers were definitely a big part of Aztec cuisine.
Dia de los Muertos originated in what is now Mexico, by the Aztecs, Toltecs, and other Nahua over 3,000 years ago. While we know a lot about the items used to make the ofrendas, the overall traditions, and its aesthetic, we don’t know the name for the Day of the Dead in Nahuatl. You do now! It’s “Mikisiluitl.”
Now back to a word you do know — on some level. The Nahuatl “tomatl,” which means “swelling fruit” (because as they grow, tomatoes become large and filled with water), became the Spanish “tomate,” which then became the English “tomato.”
We have learned so many cool new words in Nahuatl! The last word we will be learning in this article is “cococ.” The word is perfect for when you are eating chili (another Nahuatl word) since it means “spicy.” Just don’t use it to describe Latinxs (or anyone else for that matter), because we don’t play that stereotypical game anymore.