To date, the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and Aztec hieroglyphics have not been fully understood nor explored by most of the world outside of Central Mexico. While about 1.5 million people still speak the ancient Aztec language, these people are mostly clustered around Central America, and many don’t fully comprehend the old ways of Aztec writing.
Even ancient Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs weren’t all conversant with the writing style of the Aztec civilization. That’s one of the main reasons being an Aztec scribe was one of the most coveted positions in Aztec society. It was almost always reserved for royalty or high-born people.
The Aztec Codex Painter
As one of the greatest imperial civilizations, governing the Aztec empire required a great deal of record-keeping and paperwork. Most of this paperwork was all about:
- Keeping records of taxes
- Keeping track of tributes paid
- Keeping records of the years’ key events
- Keeping records of the ruling class genealogy
- Recording prophecies, lawsuits, and temple business
- New territories
The list goes on. Scribes, therefore, were highly important and necessary for this system of governance to function. Codex painters were highly trained in an advanced school for nobles called the Calmecacs. Sometimes, the ruling class adopted a few highly talented commoners into this class for Aztec writing lessons.
After the Spanish conquest came around, these codex painters worked closely with the priest to record details of Aztec life. Some of these codices, such as the Codex Mendoza, are the richest sources of insight and information on the way of life of the great Aztec civilization and culture.
Nahuatl: The Aztec Language and Writing System
As far as we know, the Aztecs didn’t have a typical writing system like ours. Instead, this great civilization mainly made use of pictograms. These little pictures are designed to convey a specific message or several messages, depending on the context.
Pictography typically combines ideograms and pictograms—mostly graphic symbols like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or pictures that would represent an idea. These were similar to Chinese or Japanese characters.
To understand pictography, the reader needs to have a basic understanding of the cultural conventions being discussed. The graphic symbols portrayed also needed to resemble everyday physical objects.
For example, in Aztec writing, the concept of death was represented by a drawing of a corpse that would be wrapped in a bundle. Concepts such as night were portrayed by a black sky combined with closed eyes, just as footprint trails would portray the concept of walking. However, footprints would also convey the concept of time passing depending on the context.
Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs
Since they mostly used pictography, Aztec writing decipherment doesn’t call for the classic kind of deciphering, where you would typically find long texts that one couldn’t read because they didn’t understand the language.
Aztec hieroglyphic writing was primarily in the Nahuatl language, and there are glyphic scripts and transliterations into the Latin alphabet, making the translation of this ancient language a bit easier and more straightforward.
In most cases, when trying to decipher Aztec hieroglyphs, it’s hardly ever about what the glyphs mean but more about how they work to give the intended meaning.
When it comes to how complex Aztec writing truly was, scholars such as Alfonso Lacadena and Gordon Whittaker tend to disagree.
While Lacadena was for the idea that Aztec scripts were simple pictographs that were merely nothing more than a frontrunner for writing, Whittaker believed that there was so much more being overlooked when it comes to the linguistic anthropology of this ancient civilization.
Whittaker believed that Aztec literature shone brightest in phonetic writing. While the Aztec language and writing were far younger than the Maya system, there are some similarities and differences to be drawn between the two that would help us understand the latter better.
In the Maya writing system, signs represented either a word (logogram) or a syllable (syllabogram). As such, the Maya writing system closely resembled the Mycenaean Linear B of early Greece. If the Maya sign had a logographic value, it generally didn’t have a syllabic value. The reverse was also true.
The Aztec writing system, however, was different. Signs often had multiple logographic values, generating multiple phonetic values. As such, the Aztec writing system more closely resembles that of the Akkadian cuneiform and Sumerians. In many cases, Aztec hieroglyphics were more complex.
Most Aztec glyphs or signs tended to have both a logographic and phonetic value. In some cases, they had even more than that. For example, if you came across an Aztec drawing depicting a foot or a human leg, then that drawing had one phonetic value as well as logographic values such as:
To understand the actual meaning of the drawing, one would have to take a closer look at the entire context. Unfortunately, this was still insufficient to arrive at the intended meaning.
As you can imagine, the Spanish conquest and influence brought with them further complications in the writing of most ancient languages, including Nahuatl. The writings of most Mesoamerican civilizations became deeply influenced by the Spanish alphabet, which on many occasions, created some chaos in terms of translation.
Say, for example, that an Aztec scribe wanted to translate the Spanish name Diaz, which didn’t exist in Nahuatl. In this instance, the scribe assumed that the name Diaz was equivalent to the Spanish word for the numeral ten, Diez. This, in turn, was equivalent to màtlactli in Nahuatl.
And since numbers in Nahuatl were simply a series of dots, the scribe applied the correct Aztec glyph of ten small dots in sets of five. That’s just one example of the complications of understanding and translating ancient languages such as Nahuatl.