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.

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