AZTEC LANGUAGE AND WRITING
The Aztecs, who referred to themselves as the Mexica, extended throughout much of central Mexico and existed from the 14th century until the 16th century when they were conquered by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortés. However, to understand the Aztec Empire, it is first important to understand their connections to the other Mesoamerican people that came before them and the influences that these people had on the Aztec civilization. One of the main connections between the Aztec and the other societies of Mesoamerica can best be seen in language.
AZTEC LANGUAGE (NAHUATL)
The language of the Aztec is called Nahuatl, which was the dominant language of Central Mexico from as early as the 7th century CE. While historians and linguists have identified several different varieties of Nahuatl, it is best known as the language of the Aztecs from their rise to prominence in the 14th century until they were conquered by Spanish conquistadors in 1521. As well, there is some disagreement among historians about where Nahuatl originated as a language but it is generally accepted that the language first began in Central Mexico or a little more to the north in Northern Mexico or the Southwestern United States.
As stated above, the Aztec were not the first prominent Mesoamerican society to speak Nahuatl. For instance, some historians have argued that the citizens of Teotihuacan may have spoken the language, although other historians have argued against this claim. Teotihuacan was a Mesoamerican society and city-state that is located northeast of modern-day Mexico City. Historians are unsure of exactly how or when the city-state was founded but believe that it emerged to prominence around 100 BCE to 300 BCE, nearly 1000 years before the height of the Aztec civilization. Archeologists studying the ruins of Teotihuacan estimate that it reached its peak as a city-state around 450 CE. At its height it may have had a population of around 150,000 people and the influence of the city likely extended throughout much of Mesoamerica. However, historians and archeologists are unsure as there is no concrete information or evidence. The city is famous for its magnificent ruins, which are among some of the best preserved in all of Mexico. The word ‘Teotihuacan’ is a Nahuatl word (language of the Aztec) for ‘city of the gods’. The Aztec gave the city this name and believed it to be a particularly important site in Mesoamerica. For example, as part of the Aztec religious beliefs, they believed that Teotihuacan was where the gods created the universe. As such, Teotihuacan was a very significant religious and cultural place for Aztec people.
Nahuatl was also the dominant language of the Toltec people. The Toltec were a Mesoamerican civilization that was located in central Mexico from about 900 CE to 1168 CE. They are an important civilization in the history of Mesoamerican culture because many different later societies in the same area considered the Toltec to be an example of the height of craftsmanship and civilization. For example, the Aztec considered themselves to be the successors to the earlier Toltec. In fact, the Aztec admired the Toltec for many different aspects, including: art, architecture, craftsmanship and culture. Some historians have questioned whether or not the Aztec people were the descendants of the earlier Toltec society, but this suggestion has also been made about other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Teotihuacan. Regardless, the Toltec language was Nahuatl, which was the same as the Aztec. As well, the Nahuatl word for Toltec, in the Aztec society, came to mean ‘artisan’ in reference to their view that the Toltec were the height of culture, art and design in Mesoamerica.
In terms of writing, the Aztec did not have a developed alphabet with a fully written language. Instead, Nahuatl writing was based on other forms of writing in Mesoamerica, such as: Olmec writing and Zapotec writing. These forms of writing were centered on the use of glyphs and pictographs, meaning the Aztec wrote using images that represented the different words or themes of which they wished to express. For instance, the Aztec codices are important records of these Aztec glyphs and pictograms.
Aztec Codices are books containing Aztec writing that were created before, during and after the arrival of Europeans during the Age of Exploration. The codices are important to our modern understanding of the Aztec because they are some of the best first-hand accounts of Aztec history. The codices were not books in the same sense, as we understand them to be today. Instead, they were more like long, folded sheets that were made out of deer skin. As well, the Aztec had no known written language, and instead displayed their ideas in glyphs or pictures. This means that the Aztec wrote using images that represented the different words or themes of which they wished to express. Most of the surviving Aztec codices are from the timeframe around European colonization of central Mexico, with very few remaining from before the arrival of European explorers. For example, the Florentine Codex is one of the best examples of an Aztec codex. It was created by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún from about 1545 until 1590. Sahagún worked with different Nahua men from the region to research and organize his findings in the Florentine Codex. In all, the work ended up filling twelve books totaling over 2400 pages. As well it included over 2000 pictographs drawn by Mesoamerican artists that depict the history and life of the Aztec people. While, Sahagún titled his work ‘The Universal History of the Things of New Spain’, it is more commonly known today as the Florentine Codex due to it currently being located in Florence, Italy. These surviving codices display the Aztec artistic representation of different aspects of their life, such as: cultural traditions, religious traditions, gods, ceremonies, historical events and more.