Endangered Language Alliance


an Uto-Aztecan language of Mexico


With approximately 1.5 million speakers in central Mexico, Nahuatl is one of the most widely-spoken indigenous languages of the Americas. During the 15th century at the height of the Aztec empire, Nahuatl served as the Aztecs’ principal language of administration, culture, and commerce. The variety spoken in their imperial capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) spread rapidly across Mesoamerica. Once partially written with pictographs, Nahuatl has employed a Latin-based alphabet since the Conquest. A rich literary tradition flourished, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, including poems, myths, historical chronicles, administrative documents, and texts in other genres.


Linguists have classified Nahuatl as belonging to the Aztecan branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which extends as far north as eastern Oregon. Today the Mexican government recognizes 30 distinct and sometimes mutually intelligible varieties of Nahuatl; the Ethnologue catalogue recognizes 28. English words that derive from Nahuatl include “avocado”, “chili”, “tomato”, “chocolate”, and “coyote”.


Less than 15 percent of Nahuatl speakers are monolingual, according to one recent survey, and Spanish literacy by all accounts greatly exceeds Nahuatl literacy. After a long period of Hispanization, Nahuatl has in recent years achieved greater recognition as a “national language” of Mexico in the regions where it is spoken. Some varieties have already disappeared and many others are severely endangered, although the number and geographic range of Nahuatl speakers ensures some continued viability.

Academic Work

Classical Nahuatl, spoken at the time of the 16th century Conquest, is comparatively well-attested and researched. Missionaries published several detailed grammars of the language, the best-known of which is Horacio Carochi’s 1645 Arte de la lengua Mexicana, a pioneering work in the history of descriptive linguistics. Several modern textbooks and dictionaries also exist, particularly of Classical Nahuatl and the larger dialects, while some smaller dialects remain virtually undocumented. Studies by Canger, Dakin, and Campbell and Langacker have been influential in recent debates about the history of Nahuatl varieties and how they are relate to each other, including proposals for a fundamental east-west division and a “center-periphery” model that proposes a grouping of central dialects in the valley of Mexico surrounded by three peripheral groups: western, eastern, and Huasteca.

See the Glottolog entry on Aztec (Nahuatl)

ELA’s Work

The mostly widely spoken indigenous Mexican language in New York, Nahuatl speakers in the metropolitan area may number in the thousands. One of them is Irwin Sanchez, a Nahuatl speaker originally from La Resurrección, Puebla, who works as a sous chef six days of the week and teaches Nahuatl on the seventh.

ELA has been working with local speakers of various dialects of Nahuatl (Xalpatlahuac in Guerrero; San Luis Potosí; a dialect spoken in north Puebla), both supplementing existing documentation and creating pedagogical materials with audio. In collaboration with Mano a Mano, a local non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Mexican culture, ELA helped organize Nahuatl classes with maestro Irwin Sanchez, as featured on NPR.

We also produced a sample podcast which students anywhere can utilize to learn the language. This one covers things we see in the sky, fruits, vegetables, things in the kitchen, furniture, people and some simple actions.

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Right click here to download: Nahuatl Podcast

The material for this podcast is largely based on the Nahuatl picture dictionary produced by SIL, Mexico which can be downloaded from here.

ELA also collaborated with photographer Ed Lefkowicz on his exhibit New York’s native speakers of Nahuatl.