Saturday, February 3, 2007

Mesoamerican Tidbits: Etymology

This semester, I'm taking ASB 322 Peoples of Mesoamerica from Dr. John K. Chance, a long-time expert in the indigenous cultures of central Mexico. It is not an archaeology class, but rather an ethnohistorical view of the peoples living in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala today.

Each time I learn something unexpected (and somewhat interesting) about Mesoamerica, I plan to post it here. Experts in Mexico or Mesoamerica will say "well, duh," but those of you who have known only a little about the region might learn somethin new and surprising (as I have).


You certainly know words from other languages that have made their way into English-- words such as cockroach ("cucaracha" in Spanish) or balcony ("balcone" in Italian).

Dr. Chance surprised our class today by sharing a brief list of English words which originated in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs (among others):

  • tomato (tomatl)

  • chocolate (chocolatl)

  • avocado (aguacatl)

  • coyote (coyotl)

  • mesquite (mizquitl)

You can find several more here.

Nahuatl is an Uto-Aztecan language, still spoken by over a million people in Mexico today (see map above). Mexican Spanish has incorporated many Nahuatl words, particularly place names.

Several languages spoken by Native Americans across the American West are also Uto-aztecan (e.g. Paiute, Shoshoni, Commanche, Tohono O'odham).

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