Classical Nahuatl
(ISO code nci)

Eagle on prickly-pear cactus, from the Codex Borgia


Classical Nahuatl (nahuatl clasico) was the Nahuatl language spoken by the Mexica (Aztecs) of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (the heart of modern Mexico City) in the days of the Aztec Empire.

Although the Empire was relatively short-lived (it lasted only about a century), it had great social, political and cultural influence in Mesoamerica (the region stretching from central México down into Central America). This variant of Nahuatl was enormously influential, especially over the other Nahuatl dialects it came in contact with. The Aztec empire was a successor to other influential Nahuatl-speaking civilizations, including those of Teotihuacan, Tollan (the Toltecs), and Tetzcoco. At the time of contact with the Spanish, Classical Nahuatl functioned as a lingua franca for other, non-Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups. It is also particularly important to scholars because it is the earliest form of Nahuatl in which we have written documents and of which we have contemporary descriptions. The study of Classical Nahuatl has occupied philologists and historians over several centuries, and much work continues to be done on it.

Map of the Aztec Empire
Approximate extent of the Aztec Empire


The area colored green on the map shows where Classical Nahuatl was the politically dominant language at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Most of the people in many of these places spoke other languages, including other variants of Nahuatl, but they were politically subject to the Aztecs.

Classical Nahuatl was written before the arrival of the Europeans by a partially ideographic writing system, and some documents have been preserved which give us examples of that writing. After the arrival of the Spanish, the Spanish priests devised an alphabet based on the letters of Spanish and Latin, and that orthography, or some specialized version of it, is still used by many who study and write about Classical Nahuatl.

There are many books and scholarly works dealing with Classical Nahuatl, and a great deal of information is available on the internet. Since the Summer Institute of Linguistics specializes in living languages, we do not have much information about Classical Nahuatl on our site.


--David Tuggy

The graphic depicting an eagle on a prickly-pear cactus (symbol of the city of Tenochtitlan) is from the Codex Borgia, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen. Used by permission.