Syllables and Stress in Nahuatl

graphic: Tlaloc, the rain god


Nahuatl generally permits syllables with a single vowel (V), optionally preceded by a single consonant (C), and optionally followed by a single consonant. That is, the syllabic pattern is (C)V(C). Of the kinds of syllables this pattern permits, the most common (and the preferred one) is CV, but there are also many CVC syllables, and a few VC and V syllables.

There are no consonant clusters within syllables; that is, there are no CCV or VCC patterns in Nahuatl at the beginning or end of a syllable. Only in the middle of a word are there CC clusters, and then only because the two consonants are in separate syllables, that is, when the pattern is (C)VC.CV(C). Three consonants in a row (CCC) never occur.

It must be remembered that these rules hold with regard to phonemes, not necessarily letters of the alphabet. Several Nahuatl phonemes are represented orthographically by a pair of letters. Thus a word like tzīkatl 'ant', although it appears to have two initial and two final consonants, has the phonemic form CV.CVC, that is, /tsī.katƚ/, and chīchtli 'shaman', although it may seem to have four medial consonants, really has only two, that is it is CVC.CV /tšītš.tƚi/.

Nahuatl generally does not have diphthongs, so when two vowels are written together, they belong to different syllables. Thus kitlālia 'he puts it', although it is written like the Spanish word Italia /i.tál.ia/ 'Italy', is not pronounced like it, but rather has the syllabic structure ki.tƚā.li.a, and is pronounced like the Spanish word valía 'it was worth'.

Saying that CV is the preferred syllable is tantamount to saying that consonants prefer to be at the beginning rather than at the end of syllables. Thus, where there is a CVCVCV sequence, the norm will be to syllabify it as CV.CV.CV and not CVC.VC.V or some other possible configuration.

At times evidence can be found showing that syllabification follows morpheme boundaries in such a way as to override this preference. For example, the word inohwi 'their path' may syllabify in.oh.wi VC.VC.CV (and not, in the preferred way, V.CVC.CV) because its morphemic structure is in-ohwi (their-path).

Normal Nahuatl stress is penultimate; that is, the next-to-last syllable of the word is stressed. Still, in some varieties of Nahuatl, there are cases of ultimate (last-syllable) stress and of antepenultimate (third-from-last syllable) stress.


--David Tuggy

For more information


The graphic at the top of this page depicts the rain god Tlaloc. It is from the Codex Laud, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen, used by permission.