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Created: 970227

Inadequate Nahuatl Reference Grammar

D.K. Jordan

Picture of Snake Swallowing Person Studying Nahuatl

Preliminary Note: This material began life as my notes on various Nahuatl grammars and texts that I have used over the last few years. In printed form it has provided a handy reference for our local Recreational Nahuatl group, although the notes are too compact to serve as a first introduction to any of this.

The following two files are available for those preferring a print-out:

Table of Contents

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Notation Conventions

# = shows a word boundary when compulsory (e.g., a final i is shown as i#).
- = sign that shows where an affix attaches to another element. (e.g., a suffix may be shown as -lo.)
: = Two dots over a vowel (huän) show that it is long. (In standard orthography a macron is used.) Two dots on the front of a suffix (-:an) show that it lengthens the previous vowel.
< = what follows is a plural form. (E.g. pilli < R-tin means that the plural of pilli is pïpiltin. See below for meaning of R.)
> = what follows is a preterit (past) form. (E.g., päca > päc means that päca has the preterit form päc.)
<< = derived from
>> = produces, goes to, gives
C = consonant
DO = Direct object
IO = Indirect object
k = the sound k, whether spelt c or qu. (This is used here only when spelling will vary by context.)
kw = the sound kw, whether spelt cu or uc. (This is used here only when spelling will vary by context.)
Launey = Tags usage from Launey's Introduction à la Langue et à la Littérature Aztëques.
R = first syllable is reduplicated (and the vowel lengthened) in the plural. (Used only in abbreviating plural formations, e.g. pilli < R-tin means the plural of pilli is pïpiltin.)
s = the sound s, whether spelt z or c. (This is used here only when spelling will vary by context.)
V = vowel
V1, V2, V3, V4 = verb of class 1, 2, 3, or 4. (I have normally tried to indicate the transitivity of the verb, e.g. Vt2.)
Vb = verb
Vi = intransitive verb (usually followed by a class number: Vi3)
Vr = reflexive verb (sometimes followed by a class number: Vr3)
Vt = transitive verb (sometimes followed by a class number: Vt3)
Vtt = bitransitive verb (always takes two objects)
w = the sound w, whether spelt hu or uh. (This is used here only when spelling will vary by context.)

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Aide-Mémoire to Verbal Subject & Object Affixes

Subject Prefixes
SingularPluralSingularPlural
1. ni- (n-)ti (t-)Iwe
2. ti- (t-)am- (an-)youyou
3. — s/hethey
Object Prefixes
SingularPluralSingularPlural
1. nëch-tëch-meus
2. mitz-amëch-youyou
3. c-/qui-quim- (quin-)him/her/itthem
somebody
tlasomething

Reflexive Prefixes
SingularPluralSingularPlural
1. no- (n-)to- (t-)myselfourselves
2. mo- (m-)mo- (m-)yourselfyourselves
3. mo- (m-)mo- (m-)him/her/itselfthemselves

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Aide-Mémoire to Pronominal & Noun Affixes

Possessive Prefixes
(showing possessor)
SingularPluralSingularPlural
1. no- (n-)*to- (t-)*myour
2. mo- (m-)*amo- (am-)*youryour
3. ï-ïm- (ïn-)his/her/itstheir
*-The -o- is dropped before a, e, or "strong" i.
Possessive Suffixes
(added to possessed nouns)
SingularPlural
C-hui
V-uh
-huän

Absolutive Suffixes
(added to non-possessed nouns)
SingularPlural
C-tli-tin/meh
V-tl-(me)h
l-li-tin
-in*-meh, -tin
*-The absolutive suffix -in is largely used in a small number of words related to bugs, worms, and other very small animals.
Agentive Suffixes
(used for nouns derived from verbs)
SingularPlural
C-qui
C-co
V-c
-queh

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Summary of Nahuatl Noun Morphology

Plural is marked for animate items only, although this is compromised by the creation of animatizing and inanimatizing metaphors. All nouns are either possessed (composed of items 1-2-3 in the following list) or absolutive (composed 4-5). Addition of item 0 creates a clause.

Possessed Nouns

Unpossessed (Absolutive) Nouns

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Summary of Nahuatl Verb Morphology

A Nahuatl verb is composed of the following elements:

How to Choose Object Pronoun

(Relevant to items 4 & 7 above.) The object pronoun prefix always agrees with the rightmost in the following sequence that is overtly expressed:

Direct Object < Indirect Object < Benefactive Object
("I give it < to you < for her.")

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Verbs & Their Forms

A normal Nahuatl verb has nine "time/mood" forms. How they are formed depends on which of four "classes" the verb falls into. Further, the nine time/mood forms are sometimes usefully thought of as derived from three "bases," although these may not be of much interest to a beginner. Table 1 shows the forms for regular verbs. Table two shows the four "irregular" verbs of Nahuatl. Table three explains how to assign a verb to a class. (Remember: In these tables, C = consonant, V = vowel; but Vi, Vt, Vr = verb intransitive, transitive, reflexive.)

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Verb Table 1: Bases & Time/Mood Endings (With Examples)

(Letters in paretheses are added only in the plural.)
Verb Class Class 1Class 2Class 3Class 4
cry live bathe eat
BASE 1: chöca- yöli- ältia- cua-
Present -(h)-(h)-(h)-(h)
Quotidian*-:ni(h)-:ni(h)-:ni(h)-:ni(h)
Imperfect -ya(h)-:ya(h) -:ya(h)-:ya(h)
Examples:
ti-chöca-h = we cry
ti-ältia-:ni = you are in the habit of bathing
am-qui-cua-:ya-h = you were eating it
*-The quotidian form stresses that an action is usual or customary. Some writers call it the "customary present."
Verb Class Class 1Class 2Class 3Class 4
cry live bathe eat
BASE 2: chöca- yöl- ältih- cuah-
preterit* -k(eh) -(queh) -(queh) -(queh)
Pluperfect -ca(h) -ca(h) -ca(h) -ca(h)
Admonitive** -h(tin) -(tin) -(tin) -(tin)
Examples:
ö-ti-älti-h-queh = we bathed
ti-yöl-ca = you had lived
mäca qui-cuah-tin = let them not eat it, lest they eat it
*-Also called the perfect, the preterit is used for single past events. Note that the use of the prefix o: is compulsory with the preterit.
**-The admonitive form is sometimes called the vetative. It is used to warn against something. My sources conflict on whether it is more usually used with mä or mäco. Apparently it contains a negative within it, and is not negated by a separate negative added to it.
Verb Class Class 1Class 2Class 3Class 4
cry live bathe eat
BASE 3 chöca- yöli- ältï- cuä-
Future-z(queh) -z(queh) -z(queh) -z(queh)
Optative* -(cän) -(cän) -(cän) -(cän)
Conditional -zquiya(h) -zquiya(h) -zquiya(h) -zquiya(h)
Examples:
chöca-z-queh = they will cry
mä yöli-can = let them live
cältï-zqueh = they will bathe him
cältï-zquiyah = they would bathe him
ö-c-ältï-zquiya = she would have bathed him
*-What I have here called optative is usually called imperative . It is used to express the wish that something be done. Note that in the optative, 2nd person singular and plural subject prefixes become xi-.

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Verb Table 2: The Four Irregular Verbs

What is irregular about these verbs is that they do not have complete paradigms based on the same root, but rather mix two different roots together, also using the preterit forms of the second root for the present. It is easiest simply to call them irregular and memorize the table.

Letters in paretheses are added only in the plural

Dictionary
Form
cä/ye huïtza yä/huih huällä/huälhuih
To be To go To come To come
BASE 1:
Present sing. cah huïtz yauh huällauh
Present pl. . cateh huïtzeh huih huälhuih
Imperfect. yeya(h) yäya(h) huälhuiya(h)
BASE 2: . catca- ya huälla-
preterit. -(h) huïtza(h) -h(queh) -h(queh)
BASE 3. ye- yä- huälla-
Future. -z(queh) -z(queh) -z(queh)

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Verb Table 3: Assigning a Verb to a Class*

*-This table has been remarkably robust. So far it has accurately predicted the verb class of every Nahuatl verb I have seen.

(Examples show production of preterit from present.)

1. Closed List of "Exceptions"

Four irregular verbs: cä/ye, huïtza, yä/huih, huällä/huälhuih (See previous table.)
päca (päc) = to wash (V2 not V1)
töna (tönac) = to be warm; to prosper (V1 not V2)
zöma (zömah) = to irritate (V4 not V2)
Owl from the Bologna Codex

2. Verbs in -hua and -ya

-hua (Vi) >> 1
ëhua >> ëhuac = he departed
-hua (Vtr) >> 2
ëhua >> mëuh = he arose (raised himself)
-ya (Vi) >> 1 or 2 as you like

3. Selected Monosyllables

Monosyllables in #Ca# >> V4
Monosyllables in i# >> V1 (and i >> ï)
i >> quïc = he drank it

4. Verbs in -o, -tla, and -ca

Co >> V1 (and o >> ö)
pano >> panöqueh = they passed
temo >> temöc = he descended
-tla >> V1
mötla >> quimötlac = he threw stones at him
-ca >> V1
chöca >> chöcaqueh = they wept
tëca >> motëcac = he lay down

5. Other Verbs

CCV >> V1
itta >> quittaqueh = they saw it
ahci >> ahcic = he arrived

VCV >> V2
quïza >> niquïz = I sent out
miqui >> mic = she died; miqueh = they died
tzacua >> niquitzauc = I covered it
nëci >> nëzqueh = they appeared
xima >> ninoxin = I shaved myself
chiya = nitlachix = I looked
mati = quimah = he knew it

VV >> V3
ihtoa >> ihtoh = he spoke, quihtohqueh = they said it

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Owl from the Bologna Codex

Verb Table 4: "Passive" Endings*

*-I find passives confusing and unpredictable. This table is helpful, but I do not guarantee that it accounts for all cases.

Class 1 & 2 Verbs

-o, -ö, ï    -:hua
transitive in -i, -a    -lö
intransitive in -i    -ïhua, -ohua
intransitive in a    -ohua

Class 3 Verbs -:lö

Class 4 Verbs -lö

Irregular verbs:

cah >> yelohua    yä >> huïlohua
For some verbs -lö optionally alternates with -o.

Note that applying the passive endings always produces a Class-l verb, with past in -c/-queh and future in -z.

Root Consonant Mutations With the Suffix -:hua

cV# >> cöhua
mV# >> möhua
huV# >> öhua
VsV# >> Vxöhua
VtzV# >> Vchöhua
CsV# >> Cxïhua
CtzV# >> Ctzïhua

Usage examples:

The passive, better called "non-active" or "middle-voice," cannot show an agent. When applied to an intransitive verb, it shows a general condition.

ï = Vt1 to drinkïhua = it is drunk
teca = Vt1 to lay downtecahua = he is laid out
äna Vt2 to captureänalo or äno = he is captured
tläza = Vt2 to hurltläzalo or tläxo = he is thrown
itta = Vt1 to seeittalo or itto = you are seen
miqui = Vi2 to diemiquih = they are dying
mico = people are dying

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Causatives & Applicatives

General Form: Vb + tia = to make sb Vb [st]

Example: quiza = exit (Vi)
quix-tia (causative)= remove, kick ou (cause to exit) (Vt)
quix-ti-lia (applicative of causative) = remove (something) from (somebody) (Vtt)

How to Form a Causative: -tia -ltia

Causatives From Intransitive Verbs:

-ti# (verb derived from noun) >> -lia
-i# >> ïtia
Vqui# & Vca# >> Vctia
:huV# >> :uhtia
:mV# >> :mtia
:nV# >> :nVtia
zV# >> xtia
tV# >> chtia
Owl from the Bologna Codex

Causatives From Transitive Verbs:

Passive formed in -lo# >> -ltia
Passive formed in -o# or -hua# >> tia

Causatives From All Verbs (optional variant)

-a# >> -altia (less common than above)

Causatives From Irregular Verbs:

cah >> ?
yäuh >> huïca (Vt1) = conduct, lead

Causatives from Non-Verbs

N+ti(y)a = to provide somebody with N
Adj+tia = to render something Adj

How to Form a Semi-Causative

(Converts Vi to Vt. Not a productive device? but many pairs of verbs conform to this.)

-a# >> -ia#

-i# >> -a#
-ki# >> -tza#

-i# >> -ia#
-ti# >> -tla#

How to Form an Applicative: -lia -ia

-ca >> quia (or quilia)
-hua >> huia (or huilia)
-iya# >> -iyalia
-sV# >> xlia
-tlV# >> tilia or chtlia
-tV# >> chlia
-tzV# >> chilia

#Ca# >> #Cälia
-Ca# >> -Cilia

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Auxiliary & Intentional Verb Suffixes

Table of Auxiliary Suffixes

Ten verbs (in their preterit stems) are frequently used as suffixes to other verbs to lend more complex nuances. their English translation formula is normally awkward, and often best omitted, but it is important to recognize the forms.

future
verb present past formula
cah = be -ticah -ticatca -tiez to be Vb-ing
ëhua = rise, depart -tëhua -tëhuac -tëhuaz to depart, Vb-ing
huetzi = fall -tihuetzi -tihuetz -tihuetziz to Vb quickly
huïtz = come -tihuïtz -tihuïtza   to come Vb-ing
ihcac = stand -tihcac -ticaca,
-ticaya
-ticaz to stand Vb-ing
mani = be (spread out) -timani -timan, -timanca -timaniz to be Vb-ing
nemi = live -tinemi -tinen(ca) -tinemiz to go about Vb-ing
(on)oc = lie -toc -toca -toz to lie Vb-ing
quïza = emerge, pass -tiquïza -tiquïz -tiquïzaz to pass, Vb-ing
yauh = go -tiuh (<<ti+yauh) -tia (<<ti+yah) -tiaz (<<ti+yaz) to be Vb-ing

Table of Intentional Suffixes

"Coming & Going in order to Vb" Use present stem (Base 1)

Come (Introverse conjugations) Go (Extroverse conjugations)
tense sing plural tense sing plural
fut -quiuh -quihuih pres/fut -tïuh -tïhuih
pres/pret -co -coh pret -to -toh
optative -qui -quih optative -h, -ti -tih, tin

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Verbal Nouns

Nouns are often derived from verbs to show an actor or agent ("runner"), a patient ("employee") or an abstraction ("running").

Abstract Nouns

In Nahuatl abstract nouns derived from verbs normally simply add -liztli or -iztli to the verb stem:

Sometimes transitive verbs include të- or tla- dummy object prefixes (for people and things respectively or mo for reflexive verbs) in the abstraction:

Agentive Nouns

Agentive nouns (indicating actors) are usually formed in the absolutive form in one of three ways:

  1. Add the suffix -ni to verbal stem (and form the plural by adding -meh to that): mati = to know, tla.mati = to know (something), tla.matini = scholar, tla.mati.ni.meh = scholars, the scholarly people.
  2. Add the suffix -qui (plural: -queh) to the preterit form (deleting the preceding o-):
  3. In a few cases, the preterit agentive form omits the singular -qui (but not the plural -queh) and is indistinguishable from the preterit verb except that the ö is missing:

When possessed (non-absolutive), all agentive nouns take the same form: preterit + -ca- + -uh (plural: -huän):

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Consonant Mutations

Vh always produces a short vowel.

All final vowels become short.

Arranged by InputArranged by Output
ch + ch >> ch (optional)
ch + tz >> tz (optional)
kw + p >> kp l + tl >> ll
l + y >> ll
m# >> n#
mC >> nC unless C = m or p
n + y >> yy
t# >> h# (usually written t anyway)
tz + ch >> ch (optional)
tz + tz >> tz (optional)
uc + c >> cc
uc + o >> co
uh + m >> mm (optional)
uh + o >> o
uh + p >> pp (optional)
y# >> x#
z + ch >> zz (usual)
z + l >> zz (usual)
z + t >> xt
z + tz >> zz (usual)
z + x >> zz (usual)
z + y >> zz (usual)
cc << uc + c
ch << ch + ch (optional)
ch << tz + ch (optional)
co << uc + o
h# << t# (usually written t anyway)
ll << l + tl
ll << l + y
kp << kw + p
mm << uh + m (optional)
n# << m#
nC << mC (unless C = m or p)
o << uh + o
pp << uh + p (optional)
tz << ch + tz (optional)
tz << tz + tz (optional)
x# << y#
xt << z + t
yy - n + y
zz << z + ch (usual)
zz << z + l (usual)
zz << z + tz (usual)
zz << z + x (usual)
zz << z + y (usual)

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Summary Table of Nahuatl Numbers

0/5 1/6 2/7 3/8 4/9
prefix forms: cëm- or cën- öm- or ön- (y)ë(y)(i)- nähui- or näuh-
cë = 1 öme = 2 ëyi (= ye)= 3 nähui = 4
mäcuïlli = 5 chicua + 1 = 6 chic + 2 = 7 chicu + 3 = 8 chiuc + 4 = 9
mahtlactli = 10 10 on 1 = 11 10 om 2 = 12 10 om 3 = 13 10 on 4 = 14
caxtölli =15 15 on 1 = 16 15 om 2 = 17 15 om 3 = 18 15 on 4 = 19
cem-pöhualli = 20 20 on 1 = 21 20 om 2 = 22 20 om 3 = 23 20 on 4 = 24
20 om 5 = 25 20 on 6 = 26 20 on 7 = 27 20 on 8 = 28 20 on 9 = 29
20 om 10 = 30 20 om 10 on 1 = 31 20 om 10 om 2 = 32 20 om 10 om 3 = 33 20 om 10 on 4 = 34
20 on 15 = 35 20 on 15 on 1 = 36 20 on 15 om 2 = 37 20 on 15 om 3 = 38 20 on 15 on 4 = 39
öm-pöhualli = 40 40 on 1 = 41 40 om 2 = 42 40 om 3 = 43 40 on 4 = 44
40 om 5 = 45 40 on 6 = 46 40 on 7 = 47 40 on 8 = 48 40 on 9 = 49
40 om 10 = 50 40 om 10 on 1 = 51 40 om 10 om 2 = 52 40 om 10 om 3 = 53 40 om 10 4 = 54
40 on 15 = 55 40 on 15 on 1 = 56 40 on 15 om 2 = 57 40 on 15 om 3 = 58 40 on 15 on 4 = 59
cem-pöhualli. = 20
öm-pöhualli. = 40
yë-pöhualli. = 60
näuh-pöhualli.
(or nap-pöhualli). = 80
mäcuïl-pöhualli. = 100
chicua-cem-pöhualli. = 120
chic-öm-pöhualli. = 140
mahtlac-pöhualli. = 200
mahtlac-pöhualli once. = 201
caxtöl-pöhualli. = 300
cem-pöhualli. = 20 = 20^1
cen-tzontli. = 400 = 20^2
cen-xiquipilli. = 8000 = 20^3
cen-pöhual-xiquipilli. = 160,000 = 20^4
cen-tzon-xiquipilli = 3,200,000 = 20^5
? = 64,000,000 = 20^6

1997 = (näuh-tzontli) + (caxtölli-on-näuh-pöhualli) + (caxtölli-on-öme)
(4 four-hundreds) + (15 + 4 twenties) + (15 + 2 ones)

2006 = mäcuïlli-tzontli chicua-cë (6)
(5 four-hundreds) + (5+1 ones)

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Reference Table of Most Affixes

The following alphabetical table is intended to include all of the affixes in the foregoing tables in a single list. It is divided into prefixes and suffixes (based on which side of the root the affix goes on).

Prefixes

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Suffixes

Owl from the Bologna Codex

The morning-after owl is from the Bologna Codex.

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