Thinking about Nahuatl in Chiapas

By Janine Gasco, California State University-Dominguez Hills

Over the past few years I’ve been working with contemporary farmers in Soconusco to learn about traditional land-use practices. I quickly discovered that many plant names in Soconusco are in Nahuatl, even though there are common Spanish words for these plants. Many of these plants grow only in lowland tropical forest environments, not in the Central Mexican highlands (Texcamote=malanga (Xanthosoma spp); tzompante=colorin (Erythrina Americana)). In addition to Nahuatl plant names, I have noted local farmers using Nahuatl words for practices related to farming: pantli for a row, acahual for a fallow field.

As we all know, Nahuatl words have been borrowed into many Mesoamerican languages, both before and after the Spanish invasion and into Spanish and other languages in the Colonial period. I am hoping to convince someone with greater linguistic skills to get interested in this, but my real goal here is to understand a bit more about some of the social processes that not only lead to lexical borrowing but the sustained use of borrowed words in the face of language change.

In the case of Soconusco, there are four primary reasons for lexical borrowing from Nahua languages, and these are not mutually exclusive:

  • The Nahuatl influence that resulted from the Aztec presence in the region in the Late Postclassic and contact periods
  • The reported existence of Pipil speakers in the region, presumably due to a Nahua diaspora sometime between around AD 800-1200
  • Spanish colonial policies that encouraged the use of Nahuatl as a lingua franca for the indigenous population of Mesoamerica
  • The particular linguistic history of colonial Soconusco

Until recently, I had attributed the presence of Nahuatl in historic and contemporary Soconusco to the first factor, the strong Aztec influence, but now I suspect that all four factors may have played some role.

Aztec Influence in Late Postclassic Soconusco

In Soconusco we know from the Codex Mendoza that following the Aztec conquest of the Soconusco region under Ahuitzotl, two high-ranking officials glossed as gobernadores were stationed in the town of Soconusco, the administrative center of the province. One was a tezcacoacatl named Omequauh (Two Eagles) and the other a tlilancalqui, possibly named Acueyotl (Wave). There are also references to an Aztec military garrison near the town of Soconusco, and an archaeological site on a ridgetop near the colonial town of Soconusco is a likely candidate. The tribute paid by the eight named Soconusco towns to the Aztecs is reported in both the Matricula de Tributos and the Codex Mendoza. Unfortunately, we know nothing else about relations between the local residents and the Aztec officials and soldiers, and we know very little about the conquest itself or the role the Aztec officials and soldiers may have played.

The first tribute assessments for the Province of Soconusco by the Spaniards in April and December, 1530 names two individuals, Tlatuscalca and Huecamecatl as the “yndios gobernador” of the cabecera of Soconusco.

By 1565 the town of Soconusco had lost its status as cabecera and Huehuetan had become the cabecera. In that year, the principales of Huehuetan, all of whom have Nahuatl surnames, wrote a letter to an official in Guatemala in Nahuatl complaining about the bad treatment they received at the hands of the Spanish governor. This document was transcribed in Beyond the Codices by Anderson, Lockhart and Berdan, and their analysis of the Nahuatl led them to conclude that it shared similarities with Nahuatl in the western fringe.

These early documents tell us that indigenous leaders in Soconusco in the first decades after the conquest had Nahuatl surnames and in some cases, they were literate in Nahuatl. In fact, the principales in 1565 were bilingual in Spanish and Nahuatl; another letter from the same individuals 1566 is written in Spanish.

The likelihood that the native nobility of Soconusco had adopted Nahuatl is not at all surprising given that Nahuatl was viewed as a language of privilege and prestige and had become the language of politics and finance across the Aztec Empire.

Even though early colonial accounts from Soconusco state that the native language of the entire Soconsuco region was a Mixean language called Tapachultec by modern linguists (Campbell 1988), early colonial reports also note that Nahuatl, or “mexicano legitimo” served as a lingua franca. While the Tapachultec language survived until the early 20th century, I am not aware of a single document written in that language. All of the native language documents from Soconusuco-–and there aren’t many—are written in Nahuatl.

So, I think it is safe to conclude that the Aztec influence contributed heavily to the presence of Nahuatl in the Late Postclassic and early Colonial period, particularly the adoption of Nahuatl by elites. But I’m not satisfied that this explains the full extent of Nahuatl use in Colonial and post-colonial Soconusco.

Pipil in Soconusco

Early colonial accounts record the presence of a second Nahua language in Soconusco described as “mexicano corrupto” , and remnants of this language were recorded in Huehuetan in the 1960s-70s. Also, Torquemada reported that the Nahua speakers in Nicaragua and Costa Rica had come from Soconusco. Apart from these tantalizing tidbits, we know absolutely nothing else about a Pipil-speaking population in Soconusco and how it may have contributed to a Nahua influence in the region. But a deeper and older Nahua presence in Soconusco might help to explain colonial and post-colonial linguistic patterns.

Spanish Colonial Language Policies

A third factor that may have contributed to the use of Nahuatl in the Colonial period is the Spanish colonial policies that encouraged the use of Nahuatl as a lingua franca for the indigenous population of Mesoamerica. I have only recently begun to realize just how extensive these policies were. Early Spanish language policy for its new colonies in New Spain was developed in the wake of the reconquista and Spain’s new-found nationalism, and it stressed the importance of the imposition of Castellano along with Christianity. Antonio de Nebrija, who wrote the first Spanish grammar, famously stated in 1492, “Language is the perfect instrument of Empire”. But converting natives to Christianity and teaching them Castellano proved to be impractical, and by the 1550s, the clergy had begun to propose that Nahuatl should be the language of the Indians of Mesoamerica. Not only was this language widely used across the region, but as members of the clergy themselves learned Nahuatl, many began to acknowledge their admiration for the language and its expressive features.

In 1570, King Philip II declared that Nahuatl was the official language of the Indians of New Spain, and until 1627 numerous edicts from the Spanish Crown reinforced this position. All clergy serving in New Spain were required to know Nahuatl, and over this period, it was becoming more common for Mexican-born Spaniards to learn at least some Nahuatl. Indigenous scribes had adopted Roman script, and Nahuatl was the language of native literacy.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the Spanish Crown again reversed its view, and began to promote the teaching of Castellano. Much of the clergy, however, resisted this shift, sometimes with the support of Spaniards and criollos who saw the continued reliance on native languages for theh Indian population as a successful way to maintain a segregated society. Ironically, by the early eighteenth century, it was Indians themselves who began to push the Crown to promote teaching Castellano to Indians because they argued it would give them greater social mobility.

I suspect that the impact of over a century and a half of Spanish colonial policy that promoted Nahuatl as the language of the indigenous population may help to explain the long-term Nahuatl influence in places like Soconusco. This really helps to explain why a 1653 document from the Soconusco town of Ocelocalco includes the priest’s personal records that were written in a combination of Spanish and Nahuatl. Perhaps the clergy were partly responsible for introducing a broad range of Nahuatl words into the local lexicon.

The Specific Linguistic History of Soconusco

At the time of the Spanish invasion, four languages apparently were spoken in Soconusco: Nahuatl as a lingua franca, perhaps among the elites, Pipil, the native Tapachultec, and a few communities of Mam speakers who had migrated to the region prior to contact. The high population loss among the indigenous population of Soconusco in the early Colonial period led authorities to encourage migration to the region from elsewhere.

One early record of this is a document from 1573 listing all of the residents of the 8 towns in the parish of Ayutla, the southeasternmost district in Soconusco. Many years ago Lyle Campbell looked at this document for me and he identified Nahuatl, Mixe-Zoque, Maya (K’iche’ and Mam), and Mixtec surnames in all of these towns. This diversity almost certainly reflects immigration to the region, although it may have included long-time residents, as well. Although native surnames virtually disappear from the documentary record after this date, documents well into the 18th century provide data about migration to the Soconsuco by native peoples from across Chiapas and Guatemala. In 1656 at least eight native languages were reportedly spoken in towns across Soconusco.

An interesting footnote is that in Ocelocalco (where the priest kept records in Nahuatl just three years earlier), residents reportedly spoke a Zoque-like language, presumably Tapachultec. Documents from the 18th century record immigrants from towns where at least 13 languages may have been spoken, and in some towns as many as eight languages may have been spoken in a single town. Throughout these years interpreters were used for official documents.

While the microscopic view reveals that multiple languages may have been spoken in most towns, casual and short-term visitors to the region increasingly reported that Mexicano was the language of Soconusco. I think that it’s likely that the native population of Soconusco came to use Nahuatl as the lingua franca. If in the 16th century, the use of Nahuatl as a lingua franca may have been more common among elites, by the 18th century or before its adoption had become a practical solution to facilitate communication among native peoples who spoke diverse languages. This may have been a solution encouraged by the clergy.

Into the early 20th century, reports indicate that Nahuatl was in use (and apparently Pipil), but gradually Spanish became the dominant language across the entire region. But the legacy of Nahuatl survives to the present day in the lexicon of today’s Spanish speakers.

— Janine Gasco,
Do not cite without permission of author


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