What Montezuma’s Aztec Sounded Like – and how we know

Montezuma ran a vibrant empire from one of
the world’s largest cities… with an amazing headdress! But unlike his Mayan neighbors,
he didn’t leave us books and monuments full of sentences. And yet we know the Aztecs called
him Huēyi Tlahtoāni, not Emperor, that he didn’t call chocolate “chocolate” and that
Montezuma is not how he said his name. No, no, that’s not it either! After college, I went through linguistics
withdrawal. So I tore through any languagey book I could, including Empires of the Word.
Right away there’s this epic encounter between Spanish Conquistadors and the Aztec Emperor.
But if we see a people inevitably about to be wiped from history, this book saw two high
cultures meeting across a great divide, each telling their own story in their own words.
I lowered the book. Their own words. We know how Montezuma spoke? Turns out, we do! Partly because, while some
brought swords to the New World, others reached for pens. And informants. They wrote histories!
And dictionaries! And rough grammars with tips about Aztec. Well, the Mexican Language,
Nāhuatl. Tips like, when you see two consonants in
a row, pronounce both: a house was /kalli/, not /kaji/ like if this were Spanish. Tips like there are only four vowels: a e
i o. So if you spot an u, it’s really just an o in disguise. The word for flower is xochitl. Vowels can be long, too: ā ē ī ō. A flower
isn’t just xochitl, it’s xōchitl. Spelling is clunky, but it works if we see
it as Spanish letters layered over simple Aztec sets: za ce ci zo ca que qui co tza
tze tzi tzo. Linguists would’ve done a better job, but bygones. Above all, the old grammars show off the structure of Nāhuatl. Nouns attach affixes. (Oh, do they ever.) Nāntli, nāntzintli, tonān,
tonāntzin, titonāntzin, tonāntziné. Verbs use “incorpration”, jamming things we’d
call different words into a single verby body: nicuā, nitlacuā, nitamalcuā. The grammar
only gets more fun from there! But there’s a lot these premodern grammars
don’t tell us. Take a concrete example. An important one: chocolate. We suspect it must’ve
come from xocolātl, bitter water, but there’s no trace of that in the early literature.
In classical times, the base word for the bean and the drink was cacahuatl. To sort out all these missing words and sounds,
look into Montezuma’s future… and his past. Montezuma’s Aztecs also had books, āmoxtli!
I was always told āmoxtli were full of pictographs not real writing, but experts are taking a
second look. Spell the word cihuātl “woman” as you like, here’s how one glyph does: with
two bars. The bars stand for the syllable “wa”. Compare that to the way colonial writers
spelled the sound w: āhuacatl, huēyi, nocihuāuh. So this isn’t a vowel “u”, it’s an h plus
u representing the consonant “w”. But our best evidence comes from modern mouths.
Yep, people still speak Nāhuatl! They may call it mācēhualli, meaning “commoner”,
or even just “Mexican”, but they help pin down its sounds. Those uh’s do indeed correspond
to w’s. There really are four vowels, and this fourth vowel drifts freely between o
and u, which explains those earlier spelling variations. And elephant in the room, or jaguar in the
temple, but this t-l all over the place is /tɬ/, /tɬ/, /tɬa/! You’ll even hear two k sounds: /k/ as in “skull”,
calli, plus a tricky /kw/ made by rounding your lips: cuā, cuīca. This sound can even
end a syllable: tēuc. The spelling here is awkward and inconsistent. Today I’m going
with this one. Tie all this pronunciation analysis together and we can dig up a glimpse
of what Montezuma’s name sounded like in his day: Mo-tēuc-zō-ma. Motēuczōma. But out of respect, you might want to add
the polite suffix: Motēuczōmatzin. Do you hear that? “Tsin̥” not “tsiN”! Certain consonants
were voicelss at the end of a syllable. Try this one, nocacahuauh, with voiced w in the
middle and a voiceless w at the end! L’s are particularly noticeable there: not āltepētl
but āɬtepētɬ. But there were still too many unknowns. Remember
your favorite sound? Well, some speakers ditch it. They say Nahuat or Nahual! Who’s right? Or take this h before a consonant. Colonial
texts imprecisely called it a saltillo, a skip. (C’mon, the IPA wasn’t even invented
yet!) Today most people say mēxi[h]ca; a few say mēxi[ʔ]ca. Which one’s older? Zoom out from Nāhuatl to see its siblings,
cousins, parents, grandparents. Carefully comparing them for patterns, linguists proved
they’re part of a Uto-Aztecan family that stretches from Central America up to the western
US. Linguists, including this guy, Whorf, placed
Nahuatl within that history. Whorf worked out that an early “t” sound changed into “tl”.
Oh, so Nahuat is older! Wait. Later linguists showed this change applied to the entire Nahuan
branch. “Nahuat” and “Nahual” were the innovations. So keep practicing your “tl”! The pesky saltillo, that sound you lop off
words when you borrow them even if it’s the Aztec name for themselves, that was even more
elusive. But hard work showed a syllable-final stop, like a k or a t, turning into a catch-in-your-throat
before becoming the popular hhh sound. In the old days, they said: mēxihcatl, tlahtōlli,
tlahtoāni. Oh, and they stressed the second-to-last syllable:
cuīcatl, Huēyi Tlahtoāni. So Aztec had a family! shared the same features, including a special
ritual language. Aztec ritual speech was unlike the common
mācēhualli speech. Elite schools, calmecac, taught noble children the old ways, in Huēhuehtlahtōlli.
So if you’ve been paying attention, you know that xōchitl means flower and cuīcatl means
song. Well, you still need ancient parallelisms to grasp the noble phrase in noxōchiuh in
nocuīcauh, a stylish way to say “my poem”. This is the same ritual language from my tale
of the fall of the empire: in mātzin in motepētzin just to say “your city”. He was at the crossroads of an ancient language,
one that wasn’t just about articulating Nāhuatl sounds or building intricate words, but making
your speech ring with poetry like a real emperor. I mean, Huēyi Tlahtoāni. Stick around and subscribe for language!

100 Replies to “What Montezuma’s Aztec Sounded Like – and how we know”

  1. Civilizations like the Aztecs and Incas and Mayans had a written system. Except the Spanish effaced writing because writing is one of the signs of an advanced civilization. The narrative that these civilizations lacked writing survived, sadly. Perhaps in an alternative universe, the hemisphere from Alaska to the point of present day Argentina, all languages survived.

  2. I used to live (for about a year) in Oaxaca. The name used to baffle me, because I speak Spanish but “Oaxaca” was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I wonder if this helps explain some of the language differences that I heard in general speech.


  4. It seems to be similar to Japanese and Korean. In particular, the sounds and sequences of vowels and consonants are very similar.

  5. Real Mexican is only who speaks the Aztec Language.
    Every Mexican should learn Aztec language in school and later Mexico should switch to the Aztec language.
    Spaniards killed the last Aztec Emperor. So why keep using their language.

  6. Where i live most of the population speaks a native language like aymara or quechua, in the market or in the countryside i have no idea what the're talking about

  7. So many tribes that were in the empire many don't know of , they all think all were mexica they should be teaching it in school we can't let our native languages disappear.

  8. Fact, the Aztecs did leave a lot of records in the form of Codices, however the Spanish priests burned most of them after deeming them heretical because they couldn't understand the written Nahuatl.

  9. These are the kinds of things I wish we would have known about when I went to school. But when I was a kid schools still taught stuff like "Columbus wanted to prove the Earth is round" and other myths like that, so I shouldn't be surprised that the history of the Aztecs wasn't discussed.

  10. Oh I know what Montezuma sounds like… very well.. HE always denounces me on Civ V and CiV 6. I'm getting tired of seeing his face and voice threatening me,demanding resources from me and of course.. denouncing me. It's like.. he needs to see and yell at me for every turn.

  11. You are mispronouncing the dashed vowels… its literally a modern day "tilde" among spanish speakers. So about half of this video is mispronounced.(For example you ĀHUACATL @ 3:10 is pronounced as AHŪACATL (which is wrong). The dash is on the A and not the U. Modern day spanish translation is AGUACATE and we still mispronounce it as we stress the accent on the GRAVE syllable. If it were to be a Sobresdrújula syllable then we would have the old pronunciation with a tilde! LOL.)

  12. I know it’s a dream, but I’d love to see a revival of the Nahuatl languages in Mexico, Coptic/Egyptian in Egypt, as well as everyone having at least some basic knowledge of their ancestral languages.


  14. When you said ran a vibrant empire, I thought you said ran a viprin empire ( viprin is a creator in geometry Dash )

  15. Before clicking, I thought this video was going to be about what their environment sounded like, what kind of native animals they heard, nearby bodies of water, volcanoes, etc.

  16. Your videos can be wonderful demo tutorials for beginners in Linguistics interested in Historical Linguistics. Good job!
    Also, can you make one for Sino-Tibetan languages, if possible?

  17. Was surprised to learn that the Aztecs never called themselves by that name…but that it was a name that the Spaniards called them.
    They always referred to themselves as the Mexica…..Me-she'-ka…..where Mexico comes from.

  18. Once had a manager named Xochitl. Never knew it was an Aztec word. She is South American so it makes sense! Neat. :T

  19. What is the Aztec for “Your tribe lost a war because you are inferior. We will now cut your heart out.”?
    It must have come up, sometime.

  20. Nahuatl sounds like* Aztecs were another culture of people that lived in Atzlan until overpopulation and some differences forced the Nahuatl to move. Though when the Spaniards asked where they came from, they said most recently from Atzlan living with the true Aztecs. New Spain wanted to simply to call them Aztecs because it was hard to really label the huge mix of races of older Olmec, Toltec, mixed with Nahuatl and chichimecas.

  21. Hoping someone on here can help me. I'm trying to work out how to pronounce 'tepemeh' meaning hill. Just want to make sure I'm pronouncing it right. Is it; te-pe-may; te-pe-me, te-pe-mE or te-pe-m-air. Or am I not even close lol

  22. Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jaques Soustelle is an amazing book for anyone interested on the Aztecs. Soustelle's style is engaging and easy to read, and his immense admiration for the Aztecs is visible in nearly every sentence. In fact, sometimes it's almost too visible, as Soustelle doesn't really use the objective, detached style of writing that we modern readers are used to finding in history books. You get sucked into the world of how these citizens lived from waking up in the am to the rituals in the late night and takes turns explaining how they all lived from the simplest servant professions to how the more high status professionals lived.

  23. Human Sacrifice Among The Aztecs? By Peter Hassler is a book that challenges the widely preferred paradigm of human sacrifice and defends that there really is no evidence that the Aztecs did what Cortez claimed in his letters to the king of Spain in order to have an excuse to receive soldiers and conquer the paradise he said was like their babylonian ancestors.

  24. these vowels are used by Alty language, Korean and Japanese. Korean and North Chinese cross the link to the hte American continent and down to central America.

  25. is the orthogrpahy for classical nahuatl different from modern? CanalNahuatl, a channel by Yan Garcia, has pronynciations esp in "frases comunes en nahuatl" ,, he doesn't seem to pronounce "uh" at all, and I've seen people use "-teuctli" // "-tecuhtli" interchangeably, is this an actual change in the language, or misinformation?

  26. Great vid. Do u happen to have any phrases in the HUEHUETLATOLLI or Old Language of the Aztecs. If so you give me a reference book or can u compare it to Ojibwe/Chippewa language of Anishnaabemowin? I have come to the conclusion that the Ancient Aztec ancestors Patrilineally came from Michinimakinac Island, Michigan. Especifically Michinimakinago Tribe of the Mishike clan or Turtle clan of the Annishnaabe peoples of the Great lakes.

  27. Fake. They sounded more like "fllshhhh flshshhssshhh crrrhjj" The sound of bones and flesh of human bodies in their mouths while talking.

  28. this is exactly how Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 10th Muse of Mexico, a 16th century nun. She spoke Spanish, in rhimes

  29. Low key showing you who the real indigenous Americans were.

    AMER'ICAN, noun A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America.

  30. Read the journal of Bernal Diaz (Cortez' first mate) about what the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was really like. They were far ahead of Europeans in many regards except (sadly) for warfare and disease immunity.

  31. I love native american dialects, latinos with native american heritage should be proud to be able to speak these languages, their culture is so rich

  32. Huhhh…watching a video about japan last night, I learned that flower means poem…and they also have it as singing flowers. All languages derived from one language thus there are som similarities found between all of them. ..

  33. What the fuck am a watching ?
    I was watching nate diaz interview stoned then realised something about Spanish Concordes.

  34. Thank god for the Caucasian IQ and intelligence. They can actually record history when words on paper with language. Unlike the rest.

  35. My only question is this: if it's pronounced chocolate, why spell it with an x? That's freaking stupid. Spell it like it sounds, it was a language without letters! God!

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