An introduction to Classical Nahuatl

An introduction to Classical Nahuatl. By Michel Launey. Ed. and Trans. by Christopher Mackay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xx, 453. ISBN 9780521732291. $39.99.

Reviewed by Peter Freeouf, Chiang Mai University

Finally, there is available an introductory textbook in English for learning Classical Nahuatl that is at the same time quite extensive in its coverage of the grammar of the language. This is a translation of the author’s original French edition. There has also been in recent years a Spanish translation.

Nahuatl has been described in numerous grammars over the centuries, beginning shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Classical Nahuatl refers to the language of texts written down in the Roman alphabet in the years following the conquest. The grammars of this period attempted with varying degrees of success to describe this language in its full complexity. Before the publication of this textbook, there have been a number of good descriptions of Classical Nahuatl available in English, but for various reasons these works have not been adequate for beginning students of the language. These other works, and in particular J. Richard Andrew’s massive grammar of the language (Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, revised edition, 2003), are invaluable for more advanced study and reference.

This text begins with a short preface and notes on how to use the book. The ‘Preliminary lesson’ and the subsequent thirty-five lessons are grouped into two parts. Part 1 (3–156) contains the preliminary lesson, ‘Phonetics and writing’, and Lessons 1–15. These first fifteen lessons present the basic nominal, pronominal, and verbal morphology as well as basic syntax. There are exercises for each lesson. With the exception of the preliminary lesson, the exercises in each lesson, preceded by a list of new vocabulary, consist of sentences to be translated from and into Nahuatl. At the end of Part 1 there are review exercises (151–56).

Part 2 (159–379) consists of Lessons 16–35. This part covers the extensive derivational processes and treats the syntax in a much more detailed fashion than in the first part. There are four appendices (379–428). Appendix 1, ‘Traditional orthography’, summarizes the conventions used in the older documents, as these differ from the normalized orthography used in the textbook. Appendix 2 (by the translator, Christopher Mackay) summarizes the inflectional patterns of the language. Appendix 3 discusses the Aztec calendar, and the final appendix is a key to the exercises. Also included are Nahuatl–English and English–Nahuatl vocabularies and a detailed index. The orthography used in the book attempts to adhere closely to the traditional Spanish-based orthography but at the same time indicate consistently vowel length and glottal stops, something which the older texts and grammar often fail to do.

This is an excellent textbook for learning Classical Nahuatl, either in a classroom setting or by individuals studying on their own. The only linguistics knowledge required is a familiarity with basic grammatical terminology. This text is certain to become and remain the standard pedagogical manual for Classical Nahuatl in English for many years.