Nahuatl, Nauatl, or Nawatl? How DO You spell it?

[ Kurly Tlapoyawa ]

A while back I came across a blog post written by my friend and colleague Dr. Magnus Pharao Hansen concerning the Nawatl language and how it should be written. As a student of Nawatl (my heritage language, my family descends from Nawas of the Puebla-Tlaxcala region), I find this topic fascinating. The question Magnus addresses is one I come across quite often: How DO you spell words in Nawatl?

As any student of the Nawatl language can tell you, there are a variety of ways that you can write the Nawatl language. You see, when Spanish priests began transcribing Nawatl into a written form using Latin characters, the concept of a standardized orthography (style of spelling) did not exist. Each priest simply wrote what he was hearing to the best of his ability. This means that if you study the Nawatl language, you will doubtlessly see it spelled in a variety of ways: Nahuatl, Nauatl, and even Nawatl if you are studying a modern variant. So which one is correct? Well, they all are. What is important is that the method of spelling allows for accurate pronunciation.


A mural in a modern Nawa community reads “Don’t be ashamed of your roots.”

Personally, I have adopted an orthography inspired by the Aztec Congress of 1940, which took place in Milpa Alta (Boone and Cummins 1998:439). This orthography adopted the use of the K and W as a way to consciously reject a Spanish style of writing and was used in the Nawatl language newspapers Mexihkayotl and Mexihkatl Itonalama, which were published in the 1950s. The reason for rejecting the “Spanish” style was grounded in resistance and self-determination. Or as Miguel Barrios Espinoza put it:

“Inin totlahtol okse: tleka tikihkwiloskeh kemen Kaxtillan?”

 “This language of ours is different, why write it as if it were Spanish?”
– Miguel Barrios Espinoza, Mexihkatl Itonalama

1946 Mexihcayotl - Rojas (1).JPG

Cover of a 1946 edition of the Nawatl language Newspaper “Mexihkayotl”

I would have to agree with Mr. Espinoza on this. Personally, I feel that this orthography helps facilitate proper pronunciation, especially for English speakers. Of course, the fact that actual native Nawatl speakers have adopted this style of spelling has not stopped self-appointed “defenders of the Nawatl language” from complaining whenever they see the K or W appear.  Interestingly enough, the people who complain the loudest about this modern orthography tend to be folks who have never actually studied the language, let alone spent time with native speakers. Perhaps they can go to Mexico and inform the Nawa communities there that they are mistaken in how they spell words in their own language.

I’m sure they would love it.

*NOTE: Nawatl language linguist Dr. Magnus Pharao Hansen has written an interesting analysis of the variety of ways that Nawatl can be spelled. You can read it here.

Interested in Mesoamerican history? Check out my book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.

Click image to order

Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name. Kurly lives in New Mexico.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

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About Kurly Tlapoyawa (1010 Articles)

2 Comments on Nahuatl, Nauatl, or Nawatl? How DO You spell it?

  1. The modern community? Yeah, I agree. It basically translates as “Do not forget your culture/traditions.”

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