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  • A Brief Lesson in Nahuatl
  • Post author
    Melissa Guerra

A Brief Lesson in Nahuatl

A Brief Lesson in Nahuatl

My goal this summer is to spend each morning carefully studying one of my many, many Latin American cookbooks.  I came across one I should have unwrapped a long time ago: Cocina Mexicana by Salvador Novo. It is a culinary history of Mexico City, with a history timeline that starts with native Nahua eating habits, and travels to modern day Mexico City taco stands, and European restaurants.

For me, reading history is cerebral anesthetic. Sorry history lovers, but this is my blog and I am going to say what I want. Usually I have to read significant passages three times: The first time, I look up all the multi-syllabic words I don't understand, the second time I try to process what the author is trying to say, the third time I wait for the earth to tremble with the historical significance I have just ingested. And, oh God help me if it a document written in 17th century high falutin' Spanish. My kids have caught me violently shaking my noggin, trying to realign my crossing eyes, while reading some of my heavier stuff. (btw this method only works until I get to the next sentence. Whole lotta shakin' goin' on...)

Word Nerd Alert: Avert your eyes, those who do not wish to learn anything today...

So having said that, I came across something some of you bi-lingual types will find interesting. Many of you know that one of the original languages in Mexico before the Spanish explorers (who brought the Spanish language) was Nahuatl, which was spoken by the Nahua tribe. This is the language of Moctezuma, the Aztec king whom Cortez defeated. Many words that are specifically Mexican (not Spanish) come from a Nahuatl root:

Spanish Nahuatl English
Aguacate  - auácatl -  Avocado
Tomate  - tómatl  - Tomato
Cacahuate  - cacáhuatl  - Peanut
Molcajete  - molcáxitl  - Stone mortar
Coyote  - coyotl  - Coyote

The author Novo talks about a Nahuatl verb cua which means "to eat." But he also says that the word cua was attached to other words to indicate goodness:

CUALNEZCA-TLATOANI - gracious, well spoken man

CUAL-TLAXCAL-CHIHUA-NI - She who makes good tortillas

From a psychological and cultural standpoint, it is fascinating to think that the original language of Mexico associated every commentary on goodness with the word for eating. From the minute a human is born, food is comforting, satisfying and deeply pleasurable. For the Nahuas, the concept of "good" couldn't exist without comparing it to eating.

I pity the folks that think Mexican food stops at the enchilada plate and margarita.

  • Post author
    Melissa Guerra