Aztec Letters Guide – Deciphering Aztec Writing

The Aztec empire was one of the most advanced of its time. It encompassed most of Central America and included Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, now Mexico City.

Nahuatl, the Aztec language, might be forgotten now, with only a few people speaking it, but we still have Aztec letters and scripts, which give us insight into the kind of life this advanced civilization led.

As is commonplace when dealing with ancient civilizations and their writings, fully understanding what the letters, symbols, and glyphs mean requires some interpretation.

aztec icons

Classical Nahuatl, on the other hand, doesn’t present long monolingual texts. And since we know that most Aztec letters were written in Nahuatl and that there are glyph scripts that transliterate them into the Latin alphabet, as well as some Spanish translations, these writings are much easier to understand.

In fact, for the most part, it’s never really about what the Aztec letters mean but how they worked to arrive at the originally intended meaning. The best part is that most of the glyphs in Nahuatl mostly consist of people’s names and places.

Before the Spanish invasion, the Aztec people spoke a language known as classical Nahuatl. It was a mixture of Nahuatl logograms, words in the form of symbols, ideographic writing, and syllabic signs. Nahuatl was the main language spoken in the 7th century in a large area of Mesoamerica, which included sections of Mexico and the Western United States.

The language consisted of several dialects that were mutually understood across several regions.

Specifically, the Nahuatl script utilized a combination of pictographs that worked as a mnemonic device that mentioned oral texts understandable by the culture. The Aztec language could take the Nahuatl script and figure out a way to turn it into a recorded language.

When looking at the Aztec language, some viewers may consider them to be intricate cave drawings, but in the real sense, it is an intricate mix of words, visuals, and sounds that operate in intricate ways to communicate ideas.

ancient writing

The Maya script has started getting into handbooks on writing systems. Aztec writing has not done that well. Aztec writing has been discounted as a forerunner of writing and classified as a plain Indian “pictography.” This is not a precise assessment of Aztec writing. When it comes to phonetics, the Aztecs thrived.

Compared to the Maya script, the Aztec script is far more recent. The Aztec script survived the Spanish invasion. The well-known Aztec Codex Mendoza—found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford—was made in 1541 and was explained in Spanish. However, it stopped being used in the 4th quarter of the 16th century, approximately the same period as the last Aztec scribes.

Despite a few exceptions, the Maya system is relatively straightforward despite its complexity. A sign can be either a logogram or a syllabogram, meaning a word or a syllable.

Therefore, the Maya system is similar to Mycenaean Linear B, the earliest Greek script for writing. This means that when a Maya sign’s value is logographic, it will not have a syllabic value.

By contrast, when it comes to the Aztec system, one sign can have different logographic values and produce several phonetic values. This means the Aztec script is similar to Sumerian and Akkadian Cuneiform but more complicated.

Most Aztec symbols and signs have both logographic and phonetic values, with some having more than two. The context determines the exact value of many Aztec glyphs, which is never definite.

Post-Spanish conquest, Aztec scribes were affected by the Spanish alphabet, which increased the phonetic variety in the Aztec script.

Aztec Codices

Some historians dismiss Aztec pictographs as simple forms of art, but in reality, they formed a detailed alphabetical system that depicted more than a pictogram idea. Scribes gained knowledge of writing the Aztec language at Calmecacs.

ancient animals symbols

These were schools mostly attended by the nobles. However, on a few occasions, exceptional children from common families were permitted to attend school at Calmecacs and train as scribes. The duty of a scribe (also known as a codex painter) was to be a significant carrier of Aztec tradition.

Codex painters worked together with the priests to record what occurred daily in life and religious beliefs. The codices’ pages were bound together to form a book.

The pages were made using various materials such as deerskin, paper, or maguey cloth made from the bark of a fig tree. Some objects they used as writing instruments included a bone with animal hair attached to dip into ink.

The aspects of Aztec lives that were recorded in the Aztec codices included the following:

  • They recorded taxes and tributes, which included public donations from people in communal codices.
  • They recorded political events, family gatherings, and other celebrations, especially if they involved the royal family.
  • It recorded specific and fastidious family histories of their leaders or rulers.
  • The Aztecs also recorded prophecies concerning religious experiences and natural events.
  • The particular movements in the temple were scrutinized in the Aztec culture, which meant they had to keep elaborate records of who went in and out of the temple.
  • The Aztec community also maintained clear records on the owners of different properties. This information included maps, boundaries, and owner information.

It also had account information for different businesses. Such information includes who owes whom and the amount owed.

The Aztec letters can be interesting, especially when deciphering their deep meaning. Some of the scripts, as illustrated above, can have more than one meaning, depending on the context.

Deciphering any ancient language, no matter how simple it might look and sound, isn’t easy. Not the Aztec letters, not the Mayan scripts…any ancient language.

That being said, scholars may find deciphering Aztec writing useful because the Aztec community has a rich history that is worth exploring. Most of this history is stored in the Aztec letters or scripts.

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