graphic: Ocelotl warrior


The Vowels of Nahuatl


Nahuatl generally has four basic vowels: the front vowels i and e, and the back vowels a and o. These vowels can also be classified into the high [1] vowels i and o, vs. the low [1] vowels e and a. (Note that this is different from the pattern in languages with a u vowel, where u is high and o is mid, and where a is considered central rather than back.) Each of these four vowels also has a long counterpart, which yields a set of eight vowels. They can be charted as follows:

Vowel chart

On this site long vowels are written, as is traditional, with macrons, (ā, ē, ī, ō).

In the modern Nahuatl languages (or dialects), length often exists, but it is often very difficult to hear, even for native speakers. Long vowels in Nahuatl are typically nowhere nearly twice as long as short ones. Listen for instance to the contrastive recordings of length in Orizaba Nahuatl (Nawatl). As was commonly the case in Classical Nahuatl, length is typically not represented in practical orthographies, even though it may be the only difference between two words (i.e. it is contrastive). This works well because the functional load of length is not large, i.e., length is not usually the only difference between the words, and in any case the context usually clues the reader in to which of the two words was intended.

For example:

English Nahuatl Both are written as:
I follow him niktoka niktoka or nictoca
I plant it, bury him niktōka
he burns it kitlatia kitlatia or quitlatia
he hides it kitlātia


In Mösiehuali (Nahuatl of Tetelcingo, Morelos) length has been converted into phonetic differences which can be heard more easily.

Generally these vowels are pronounced like their Spanish counterparts. However, in a number of the Nahuatl languages, o in some contexts is pronounced nearly as a u, e.g. as an open or lax u (open u sound [ʊ], the vowel sound of push). Similarly i in some contexts is pronounced open i sound [ɪ], like the vowel sound of bit.

In practical orthographies, these vowels have usually been written like their Spanish counterparts, though length has been written in various ways.

--David Tuggy


For more information

For information about how these vowels have been written, see:

See also:


The graphic at the top of this page depicts a warrior dressed as an ocelot (wildcat), being attacked by the god of Venus, Tlahuixcalpantecuhtli. It is from the Codex Cospi, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen, used by permission.