If it weren’t for Nahuatl, what would we be eating?
As we saw in a recent post on amnesty and coyote, the latter word originates in Nahuatl. Still spoken by about 1.5 million people and a member of the extensive Uto-Aztecan language family native to the Southwest US and Mexico, Nahuatl actually comprises a large variety of dialects. The one spoken in Tenochtitlan served as a prestige dialect for the Aztec Empire. Spanish, of course, displaced much of Nahuatl, but borrowed words from it which later made their way into English.
“Borrowed,” “displaced”–that’s a nice way of putting it, huh? But if it weren’t for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521, we may not be saying tomato, avocado, and chocolate, among others. (Sarcasm intended; the Mashed Radish does not endorse colonialism.)
And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2012 worldwide, we produced over 160,000,000 tons of tomatoes, 4,000,000 tons of avocados, and 5,000,000 tons of cocoa beans. For English speakers, that’s a whole of lot of tomatoes, avocados, and chocolate.
Tomato, Avocado, & Chocolate
Tomato ultimately derives from the Nahuatl tomatl. (I can’t link directly to it, but if you clink the link and search for tomatl, click the audio symbol to hear a pronunciation. I recommend this for the following words, too.) The Spanish picked up it up as tomate, later fashioned to tomato, where the word (and fruit, though not without controversy) spread throughout Europe and later to the United States. Um, back to regions in the United States.
Avocado is originally from the Nahuatl ahuacatl. Spanish made some aguacate out of it, whose resemblance to abogado, as in “lawyer,” helped shape its modern form. Ahuacatl can also mean “testicle.” Think about it.
And chocolate comes from chocolatl, referring to food made from cacao, which, as the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes, Europeans may have confused with cacaua-atl, a drink made from cacao beans, which cacao (and its corrupted form, cocoa) derives from the Nahautl cacahuatl. Indeed, a chocolate was originally a kind of drink. Hot chocolate retains this sense.
Approximately 8 million indigenous peoples died (largely due to disease contracted from the Europeans) during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, but now there are more than 1,500 Chipotles around the world. Chipotle–another loanword from Nahuatl, whose phoneme /tl/ gives so many of us trouble.
For /tl/ has no equivalent in English (and in many other languages). Technically, it is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative, and to the English-speaking ear, this subtle /tl/ sort of sounds like you are saying a /t/ but with your tongue in the position of saying an /l/. (I’ll leave you to wiping the spit off your screen.) Your ear may want to approximate it as the –tch sound in watch, but that is a very gross approximation indeed, as the sounds are produced quite differently in the mouth.
In many dialects, I should note, the /tl/ is reduced either to a /t/ or /l/–and, for all intents and purposes, non-native speakers will treat the sound like the second syllable of the English little.
In Nahuatl, chipotle may be a compound of chili–yes, we get that from Nahuatl, too–and poctli, “to smoke,” explaining this smoke-dried jalapeño chili pepper. And with your Chipotle burrito you may like guacamole, from the Nahuatl ahuacamolli, joining ahuacatl (“avocado”) and molli, “sauce,” literally “something ground up.” Oh yeah: mole is a Spanish derivative.
Other Nahuatl derivatives include tamale, peyote (from a word for “caterpillar”), mescal, jicama, and ocelot.
Empires on Your Plate
Cultural contact, whether through the bargain of trade or, too often, the brawn of war, is a major vehicle of language change, particularly on the lexical level. When people encounter new people, they encounter new ideas, goods, and objects, especially food and technology–phenomena and concepts a language previously did not a have a word for, and therefore was heretofore not lexicalized, as we say, in the tongue. And so it was for Spanish and Nahuatl, and so it is for languages in contact, in conflict.
Empires rise. Empires meet. Empires fall. Empires fade. Spanish and Nahuatl alike. But it’s amazing to me to think of some of these great historic cultures live on in the most everyday–humble, invisible in their taken-for-grantedness–of ways: a can of tomato sauce, a chocolate bar, a side of guacamole.