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A brief Nawat grammar (by Alan R. King)


Pronunciation and spelling


The four basic vowels of Nawat are a, e, i and u. The /u/ phoneme has allophones (variant pronunciations) intermediate between cardinal [o] and [u]. There is a further vowel o with marginal phonemic status: it is found in a few native words in particular dialects (e.g. noya ‘grandmother’, kojtan ~ kujtan ‘forest’) and in Spanish loans.


Historically each vowel may be either short or long. Loss of length distinctions is apparently recent and may not yet be complete, but has progressed so far that it would probably be counterproductive to recommend that standard Nawat spelling indicate length, in view of the additional learning burden this would impose. The lack of indications in spelling, on the other hand, in no way impedes native speakers from spontaneously observing the distinctions they have in their own pronunciation.


The following diphthongs occur in Nawat pronunciation: ay, ey, (oy), aw, ew, iw. Phonemically these are best analysed as vowel-semivowel sequences. In pronunciation there are also rising diphthongs such as [yu] (in tiupan ‘church’), which in this case we suggest analysing as underlying vowel-vowel sequences.


Normally when two vowels occur in sequence in the spelling they represent distinct syllables, not a diphthong. In such cases there is a strong tendency to avoid an intervocalic hiatus in pronunciation, often resolved by the insertion of a semivowel (y or w) between the vowels, e.g. nikpi[y]a ‘I have’, ku[w]at ‘snake’. Since these intervocalic semivowels are synchronically non-distinctive, we recommend their omission from standard spelling except where they must be considered phonemic for morphological reasons (e.g. nu-wan ‘with me’, ni-yaw ‘I go’).


Nawat has the consonants p, t, k, kw, m, n, tz, ch, s, sh, l, y, w and j.


The sound of j varies between an English h and an American Spanish j; it may be palatalized following a front vowel (as in ijtik ‘inside’) and is sometimes inaudible word-finally. This Nawat phoneme nearly always occurs following a vowel: tajku ‘half’, naja ‘I, me’, and plays a special part in reduplications: ijiswat ‘leaves’, tajtamal ‘tortillas’ (from iswat and tamal).


Tz and ch are affricates corresponding to s and sh respectively. There are phonological and morphological reasons for considering tz, ch and kw single phonemes.


There is considerable documentation of a tendency to devoice or ‘whisper’ l, w and y in word-final position and when followed by a voiceless consonant. Among present-day speakers we have not been able to appreciate such a pattern which is evidently non-phonemic, although in certain particular cases it has evidently become phonologised and results in allomorphic alternation such as pej-ki ‘began’ for underlying *pew-ki (cf. pew-a ‘begins’), minash-ki ‘hid’ for *minay-ki (cf. minay-a ‘hides’), where voiceless [W] and [Y] have been rephonemicised as j and sh respectively.


There is also a tendency to pronounce k as a voiced stop or fricative (like Spanish g) except in word-final position and in contact with a voiceless consonant, where it is invariably voiceless. The tendency described is applied most fully in the Witzapan (Santo Domingo de Guzmán) dialect; in other Nawat dialects the voicing of k is more restricted.


N is alveolar at the beginning of syllables. At the end of syllables, the nasal consonant represented by n is either assimilated in position to a following consonant, or else is velar. Since this rule is general, we recommend spelling the combination [mp] np rather than *mp, e.g. senpa [sempa] ‘again, always’. Thus intervocalic n is usually alveolar, e.g. ina [i-na] ‘says’. But in some morphologically complex forms an intervocalic nasal is apparently treated as syllable-final rather than syllable-initial and is therefore velar. We recommend spelling such words with nh: kenha [keN(-)a] ‘like, as’, nemanha [nemaN(‑)a] ‘afterwards’, kinhita [k/giN(-)ita] ‘sees them’.


P, m and kw are the only Nawat phonemes that may not occur word-finally. M and kw do not occur in syllable-final position either: m is neutralised to n (see above), and kw becomes k pre-consonantally, e.g. tan-tuk for underlying *tam-tuk ‘finished’ (cf. tam-i ‘finishes’, tzaktuk for underlying *tzakw-tuk ‘closed’ (cf. ki-tzakw-a ‘closes it’).


Other consonants, such as r, b, d, g and f occur in Spanish loans; [b] and [d] occur rarely in native words, possibly as allophones of p and t. Concerning [g] for k in Nawat, see above.


Syllables in native Nawat words are restricted to the shapes (C)V(C), that is, a single vowel optionally preceded by one consonant and optionally followed by one consonant. In other words the only possible syllable shapes are V, CV, VC and CVC. Possible word shapes follow from this: two-syllable words, for example, might be VV (no examples), VCV (e.g. ina ‘says’), VVC (e.g. iat ‘tobacco’), VCVC (e.g. apan ‘river’), CVV (e.g. kia ‘yes, that’s right’), CVCV (e.g. miki ‘dies’), CVVC (e.g. kuat ‘snake’), CVCVC (e.g. tamal ‘tortilla’), VCCV (e.g. achtu ‘first’), VCCVC (e.g. iswat ‘leaf’), CVCCV (e.g. keski ‘how many’), and CVCCVC (e.g. kojtan ‘forest’). Thus there are no consonant clusters at the beginning or end of a word, and medial clusters are limited to two consonants.


With rather few exceptions, Nawat words are stressed on the penultimate syllable. Diminutives in ‑tzin or ‑chin, which are sometimes stressed on the last syllable, constitute a notable exception. We do not recommend the writing of accents to specify stress placement, since the few exceptions to the rule given vary somewhat between dialects. Native speakers will know where to stress each word; students of the language must be taught, but can rely mostly on the penultimate stress rule. However, we do use the acute accent (´) sometimes to differentiate otherwise homographic words such as ka (conjunction or preposition) from ‘who’, and ne (definite article) from ‘there’.




Some nouns have two forms, called absolute and construct. Construct forms are used with possessive prefixes, and absolute forms in the absence of a possessive prefix: siwa-t ‘woman’ (ne siwat ‘the woman’, se siwat ‘a woman’), but nu-siwa-w ‘my wife’, i-siwa-w ‘his wife’. In this example siwa- is a noun stem meaning ‘woman, wife’, -t is the absolute suffix and -w is the construct suffix. Nu- and i- are possessive prefixes.


Some nouns take the same form in the absolute and the construct: ne tamal ‘the tortilla’, ne nu-tamal ‘my tortilla’; se mistun ‘a cat’, se nu-mistun ‘a my cat’ (i.e. ‘one cat of mine’). Some nouns only have a construct form and cannot normally be used in the abolute (at least in good idiomatic Nawat): this includes names of parts of the body and names of kinship relations, e.g. (nu)-tan ‘(my) mouth’, (nu)-nan ‘(my) mother’.


Absolutive suffixes are -t (after a vowel: siwa-t ‘woman, wife’, tutu-t ‘bird’) and -ti (after a consonant: kwach-ti ‘cloth’). Construct suffixes are -w (after a vowel: -siwa-w) or ‘zero’ (after a consonant or -u: -kwach, -tutu). An alternative construct suffix is -yu as in ‑naka-yu ‘meat, flesh’, es-yu ‘blood’. This is sometimes called a marker of inalienable possession and may contrast with a -w/zero construct: -nakayu ‘flesh/meat (of)’ contrasts with -nakaw ‘meat (of, to be eaten by)’; both correspond to the absolutive noun naka-t ‘flesh, meat’.


Most nouns have plurals formed from the singular by reduplication. This consists of a repetition of the initial vowel or consonant-vowel sequence with the insertion of a j between the repeated segments, e.g. from iswat ‘leaf’, i-j-iswat ‘leaves’; from tamal ‘tortilla’, ta-j-tamal ‘tortillas’. A few nouns, mostly designating humans, have a different kind of plural formed by adding a suffix (-met or -(t)ket) to the noun’s stem: taka-t ‘man (absolute)’, taka-met ‘men’; siwa-t ‘woman’, siwa-tket ‘women’. Sometimes these are redundantly reduplicated, e.g. tajtakamet, sijsiwatket. These suffixes mark absolute plural.


There is also a construct plural suffix -(a)wan but it is restricted to kinship terms: nu-ika-w ‘my brother’, nu-ika-wan ‘my brothers’, nu-kunpa ‘my friend’, nu-kunpa-wan ‘my friends’. Other construct plurals are formed by reduplication either of the construct noun (nu-taj-tamal ‘my tortillas’, nu-kwaj-kwach ‘my clothes’) or of the possessive prefix (nu-ish ‘my eye’, nuj-nu-ish ‘my eyes’).


Determiners, adjectives and pronouns


The definite article ne is invariable for number (like ‘the’ in English) and compatible with both absolute and construct nouns: ne tamal ‘the tortilla’, ne nutamal ‘my tortilla’, ne tajtamal ‘the tortillas’, ne nutajtamal ‘my tortillas’. The numeral ‘one’, se, serves as indefinite article, and is likewise compatible with both absolutes and constructs: se tamal ‘a tortilla’, se nutamal ‘a tortilla of mine’. Sejse, the plural of se, may be used to mean ‘some, a few’: sejse tamal ‘some tortillas’, but is better thought of as a quantifier.


The basic demonstratives, ini ‘this’ and uni ‘that’, are used as both determiners and pronouns, and are generally invariable for number too: ini tamal ‘this tortilla’, uni tamal ‘that tortilla’, ini tajtamal ‘these tortillas’ etc.; Ini se tamal ‘This is a tortilla’, Ini tajtamal ‘These are tortillas’. (Notice the lack of a verb ‘to be’.)


Attributive adjectives generally precede the noun they qualify, but may also follow: se ajwiak tamal (o se tamal ajwiak) ‘a tasty tortilla’. The adjective in a plural noun phrase takes a plural form, obtained reduplication just as in nouns: ajajwiak tamal ‘tasty tortillas’. This seems to be the standard construction, in which the adjective is reduplicated and the following noun is not. If, however, the order were reversed, we would probably find tajtamal ajwiak. The generalisation is that the first pluralisable element (adjective or noun) is pluralised; it is sufficient for one element of the phrase to be marked for number (as in English, generally), thus the qualified noun need not be reduplicated. However, we do find exceptions to this rule.


Predicative adjectives also pluralise; they are used without a verb: Ini tamal ajwiak ‘This tortilla is tasty’, Ini tajtamal ajajwiak ‘These tortillas are tasty’.


There are six personal pronouns, three singular and three plural:


naja ‘I’, taja ‘you’, yaja ‘he, she’

tejemet ‘we’, anmejemet ‘you (pl.)’, yejemet ‘they’.


(There are no gender distinctions in Nawat.) Personal pronouns are mainly used for emphasis or for other discourse reasons, since person and number of subjects, objects, possessors and complements are indexed by prefixes or suffixes in verbs and other predicates, construct nouns and prepositions: Naja nikwa tamal or just Nikwa tamal ‘I eat tortillas’; Tinechishmati ‘You know me’ (better than Taja tinechishmati naja); isiwaw ‘his wife’ (rather than isiwaw yaja); tuwan ‘with us’ (instead of tuwan tejemet).




Quantifiers, like determiners and adjectives, precede the noun they modify: sé kunet ‘one child’, sejse kunet ‘some children’, chupi kunet ‘few children, a few children’, miak kunet ‘plenty of children, many children’, etc. Note that the noun needn’t be pluralised when modified by a plural quantifier. Muchi ‘all’ also precedes the noun and is commonly followed by the definite article: muchi ne kujkunet ‘all the children’, muchi ne at ‘all the water’. All these quantifiers may be used pronominally: Muchi kinekit wan maya chupi kipiat ‘All want (it) but only a few have (it).’ The same is true of the numerals: ume kunet ‘two children’, majtakti dolar ‘ten dollars’. Nikpia ume ‘I have two.’


The higher numbers are in disuse in present-day Nawat, but a reconstruction of the full system is possible and supported by our knowledge of Classical Nahuatl. It is a vigesimal system, with the numbers below twenty organised in increments of five, thus reducing finally to the four basic numerals ‘one’, ume ‘two’, yey ‘three’, nawi ‘four’. An older form of sen  is found in componds such as sen-pa ‘again’ (originally ‘one time’), sen-talia ‘put together’, etc., while ume, yey, nawi have the prefix forms un-, yesh-, naw-.


The ‘fives’ below twenty have specific names: makwil ‘five’, majtakti ‘ten’, kashtul ‘fifteen’. Majtakti and kashtul combine with the numerals from one to four, e.g. majtakti sé ‘eleven’ (ten-one), kashtul yey ‘eighteen’ (fifteen-three). Makwil does not, but rather a distinct form, chikw-, combines with one to four to provide the numbers six to nine: chikwasen ‘six’, chikume ‘seven’, chikwey ‘eight’, chiknawi ‘nine’.


The twenties are formed with the word pual, a noun formed from the verb pua ‘to count’, similar to ‘score’ in English. Thus: senpual (se pual) ‘twenty’ (one-score), unpual (ume pual) ‘forty’ (two-score), yeshpual (yey pual) ‘sixty’ (three-score), nawpual (nawi pual) ‘eighty’ (four-score). These terms are combined with the numbers below twenty, e.g. yeshpual kashtul ume ‘seventy-seven’ (three-score fifteen two). This system can be extended up to 380 – kashtul nawi pual (nineteen score) – followed introducing a term for the second power of twenty, 400; this term is tzunti. However, tzunti has also been proposed as a modern term for ‘hundred’, which may be convenient for introduction in schools since the old vigesimal counting system is unknown to modern Pipils and modern notation is decimal. ‘One hundred’ is thus sentzunti (or se tzunti).


Genitive and prepositional constructions


Personal possessors are expressed by possessive prefixes attached to a construct noun (see above): nu-siwaw ‘my wife’, mu-siwaw ‘your wife’, i-siwaw ‘his wife’. There is a possessive prefix corresponding to each pesonal pronoun:




naja ‘I’

nu- ‘my’

taja ‘you’

mu- ‘your’

yaja ‘he/she’

i- ‘his/her’

tejemet ‘we’

tu- ‘our’

anmejemet ‘you (pl.)’

anmu- ‘your (pl.)’

yejemet ‘they’



There are two basic constructions for the expression of genitive relations in which the possessor is represented by a noun. In the analytic or prepositional genitive, the relation is expressed by the preposition i-pal ‘of, for’ with the possessed item preceding: ne tamal ipal Juan ‘John’s tortilla’.  In the synthetic or construct genitive, there is no preposition and the possessor follows the possessed directly, but the possessed noun is in the construct and takes the third-person possessive prefix: ne i-siwaw Juan ‘Juan’s wife’.


Most Nawat prepositions are of a compound type, based on a word with some noun-like features and deriving historically from a locative noun, called a relational noun. The relational noun stands in a construct relationship to the preposition’s complement, which plays the syntactic function of underlying possessor of the relational-noun-cum-preposition: i-jpak ne mesaj ‘on the table’, i-tech ne apan ‘by the river’, i-wan ne siwat ‘with the woman’, i-pal ne techan ‘of/for the village’. These prepositions thus take the possessive prefix i- although sometimes this is omitted, especially when the relational noun itself begins with an i: ishpan ne tiupan ‘in front of the church’, ipan ne kal ‘behind the house’, wan ne siwat ‘with the woman’, pal ne techan ‘of/for the village’.


When these prepositional are not followed by a noun, the third-person i- prefix results in the implication of a third-person complement i-tech ‘by/next to him/her/it’, i-wan ‘with him/her/it’, i-ishpan ‘in front of him/her/it’, etc. Other pronominal complements are expressed by substituting the appropriate possessive prefix: nu-jpak ‘on me’, mu-wan ‘with you’, tu-pal ‘of/for us’, intech ‘by/next to them’.


A few prepositions have common short forms that lack a possessive prefix and can only be used with nominal complements. We have already seen wan and pal used in this way. Ijtik ‘inside, in’ has the short form tik, and ijpak ‘on’ has the short form pak: ijtik ne techan or tik ne techan ‘in the village’, ijpak ne mesaj or pak ne mesaj ‘on the table’.


The preposition with the full form ika, now little used, and the commoner short form ka, is invariable and does not take personal complements; it also cannot take noun phrase complements introduced by the definite article ne. The preposition (i)ka sometimes has a locative meaning of ‘at’ or ‘to’: ka tiupan ‘at church’ or ‘to (the) church’, ka apan ‘at/to the river’, ka Witzapan ‘to Witzapan’, ka nikan ‘here’, ka né ‘there’. It also has a range of other meanings, including ‘for’ in the senses ‘in exchange for’ or ‘on account of’. In time expressions ka means ‘at (a time)’: ka tayua ‘at night’, ka peyna ‘early’, ka makwil ora ‘at five o’clock’. Finally, ka may precede some prepositional phrases, particularly when the complement is pronominal, e.g. ka nuchan ‘to/at my house, chez moi’, ka nuishpan ‘in front of me’, ka nuitan ‘beneath me’, and when there is no specified complement (i.e. they are used adverbially), e.g. ka ishpan ‘in front’, ka ijtik ‘inside’, ka itan ‘below’. In certain of these uses, ka may optionally be omitted: Naja niyaw (ka) Witzapan ‘I’m going to Witzapan’, Nemi (ka) nikan ‘He/She is here’, Muketza (ka) makwil ora ‘He/She gets up at five o’clock’, Niyaw (ka) nuchan ‘I’m going home’.


In all the locative expressions the prepositional phrase does not signify explicitly whether the expression means a ‘to’-relation (allative) or an ‘at’-relation (adessive); for example, whether (ka) ijtik means ‘into’ or ‘inside’ depends on the context, not the form of the phrase: Wetzki ijtik (or tik) ne at ‘He/She fell into the water’, Nemi ijtik/tik ne at ‘He/She is (or lives) in the water’. There is no specific word for ‘from’ in Nawat; the ‘from’-relation (ablative) is also just read into the locative expressions according to context: Kiski tik ne at ‘He/She came out of the water’. Compare also Yawi ka Witzapan ‘He/She is going to Witapan’, Witz ka Witzapan ‘He/She is coming from Witzapan’.


Subjects and objects


Apart from the prepositional constructions, Nawat nouns, pronouns and noun phrases do not take markers of case or syntactic function. The same form (e.g. ne kunet ‘the child’, Luisa ‘Luisa’, yaja ‘him, her’, ne isiwaw Juan ‘John’s wife’), according to the context, may function as subject, object, possessor or prepositional complement. Nawat is a head-marking language, meaning that rather than marking function on dependents, it indexes for dependents on heads. In Latin, which is mainly a dependent-marking language, subjects are indicated by the combination of a head-marking strategy and a dependent-marking technique: the former is the use of the nominative case to mark the function of the subject, and the latter is the marking of verbs for the person and number of the subject. Consider the verb to be the head of this construction and the subject to be the dependent, we can analyse as follows the Latin sentence Ego dormio ‘I am sleeping’:





‘I’ + nominative case





‘sleep’ + first-person-singular subject index



Nawat differs in having only head marking, and no dependent marking. Thus there is no indication of nominative case, only indexing of the subject on the verb, in Naja nikuchi ‘I sleep’:










first-person-singular subject index  + ‘sleep’



The object relation is also indicated through head-marking in Nawat: there is again no case marker to attach to the object, only a further index attached to the verb that indicates the person and number of the object. Thus ‘I see you’ is (Naja) nimetzita (taja):










1 sg. subj. + 2 sg. obj.  + ‘see’








Remember that naja and taja are redundant words here, since the single verb form nimetzita establishes the subject and object. Thus ‘I see you’ would normally be just Nimetzita.


There are distinct subject and object markers corresponding to each of the Nawat personal pronouns:






ni- ‘I’

nech- ‘me’


ti- ‘you (subject)’

metz- ‘you’ (object)


Ø ‘he/she’

ki- ‘him/her’


ti- ‘we’

tech- ‘us’


an- ‘you (pl.) (subject)’

metzin- ‘you (pl.) (object)’


Ø ‘they’



Examples: nikuchi ‘I sleep’, tikuchi ‘you sleep’, kuchi ‘he/she sleeps’, nechita ‘he/she sees me’, metzita ‘he/she sees you’, nimetzita ‘I see you’, tinechita ‘you see me’.


The third-person-singular object index ki- is the most common in transitive verbs, often taking the shorter form k-: kipia ‘he/she has him/her/it’, kita ‘he/she sees him/her/it’, nikpia ‘I have it’, nikita ‘I see it’, tikpia ‘you have it’, tikita ‘you see it’. When the index ‑k- precedes a verb stem beginning with k or kw it disappears completely: nikaki ‘I hear it’ (for *nik-kaki), nikwa ‘I eat it’ (for *nik-kwa).


Verbs with a plural subject take a plural suffix, the form of which varies according to the tense and mood of the verb: kuchit ‘they sleep’, kuchket ‘they slept’, kuchtiwit ‘they have slept’, kuchisket ‘they will sleep’, kuchiskiat ‘they would sleep’, ma kuchikan ‘let them sleep’, etc. In the first and second person plural, the appropriate subject prefix is also required, e.g. tikuchit ‘we sleep’, ankuchit ‘you (pl.) sleep’, etc.


In the subjunctive and imperative, the subject prefix for the second person singular and plural is shi-: shikuchi! ‘sleep!’, shikuchikan! ‘sleep! (pl.)’.


The object indexed in a Nawat transitive verb sometimes corresponds to an indirect object in European languages. We will refer to whichever object is marked on the Nawat verb as the nuclear object. In Nimetzmaka at ‘I give you water’, the object marker, underlined, indexes ‘you’, not ‘water’; ‘you’ is the nuclear object of this verb in Nawat. At ‘water’ may also be considered a kind of object or complement, yet it is cannot be indexed since a Nawat a verb can only have a maximum of one object index, which in this case is already occupied. We may refer to at in this sentence as an oblique complement.


Not only verbs take subject indexes in Nawat. Other words used as predicates can also take them. In such cases the verb ‘to be’ usually occurs in the English equivalent: (Naja) ni-siwat ‘I am a woman’, (Taja) ti Luisa ‘You are Luisa’. Even in a sentence like Yaja siwat ‘She is a woman’ or Luisa siwat ‘Luisa is a woman’, we may consider the predicate siwat to have the third-person subject index, ‘zero’.




The following paradigm illustrates the Nawat tenses:


kuch-i (‘sleep’)




 ‘I sleep’







ma ni-kuch-i

 ‘I should sleep’

(ma) shi-kuch-i

ma kuch-i

(ma) ti-kuch-i-kan

(ma) shi-kuch-i-kan

ma kuch-i-kan



 ‘I slept’








 ‘I have slept’









 ‘I will sleep’








 ‘I would sleep’








 ‘I had slept’






Conditional perfect


 ‘I would have slept’







The vowel at the end of the present singular may be i, a or (less frequently) u. In some verbs this stem vowel disappears in the preterite and perfect (kuch-i ‘sleep’, kuch-ki, kuch-tuk; kis-a ‘go out’, kis-ki, kis-tuk), while in others it remains throughout the paradigm (ajsi ‘arrive’, ajsi-k, ajsi-tuk; panu ‘pass’, panu-k, panu-tuk).


Notice that in verbs that retain the stem vowel, the preterite singular ends in -k rather than ‑ki: compare kuch-ki ‘slept’, kis-ki ‘went out’ but ajsi-k ‘arrived’, panu-k ‘passed’. Some verbs that lose the stem vowel have a preterite without the -ki suffix, e.g. elkaw-a ‘forget’, pret. elkaw; tajtan-i ‘ask’, pret. tajtan.


In verbs whose present ends in -ia or -ua, a is the stem vowel and the preceding i or u is part of the stem. These verbs divide into two groups. A few, generally those with short stems, lose the stem vowel in the preterite and perfect and add -ki, -tuk regularly, but insert sh or j between the stem and the ending in these tenses: pi-a ‘have’, pish-ki, pish-tuk; ku-a ‘buy’, kuj-ki, kuj-tuk. Otherwise these verbs are regular.


The majority of verbs in -ia or -ua do not take -ki in the preterite but add j to the stem in the preterite and perfect: mutali-a ‘sit’, mutalij, mutalij-tuk; mikti-a ‘kill’, miktij, miktij-tuk; mutalu-a ‘run’, mutaluj, mutaluj-tuk; pashalu-a ‘go for a walk’, pashaluj, pashaluj-tuk. Verbs belonging to this group also lose the stem vowel a in the subjunctive, future and conditional, e.g. mutali-a ‘sit’, ma mutali ‘should sit’, mutali-s ‘will sit’, mutali-skia ‘would sit’.


The verbs yawi ‘go’ and witz ‘come’ are irregular:


yaw-i (‘go’)



ni-yaw or n(i)u

ti-yaw or tiu

yaw-i or yu

ti-yaw-i-t or tiu(t)


yaw-i-t or yu(t)
















witz (‘come’)























The shorter forms of the present of yawi are unstressed; they are particularly common when used as a future auxiliary (see below).


The imperative is expressed by subjunctive forms (without ma): shikuchi! ‘sleep!’ shipanu! ‘pass!’, shikua! ‘buy (it)!’ shimutali! ‘sit down!’ (shu! ‘go!’ and shiwi! ‘come!’ are irregular); shikuchikan! ‘sleep! (pl.)’, shimutalikan! ‘sit down! (pl.)’; tikuchikan! ‘let’s sleep!’.




Although it is often the case that verbs with the stem vowel a are transitive, and that those with the stem vowels i and u are generally intransitive, there are plenty of exceptions. There are a number of verb-deriving suffixes, usually producing verbs with a different transitivity from the base verb, including the causative suffix -tia and the applicative suffix -lia. The causative meaning is that of causing something to happen, or someone to do something: compare mik-i ‘die’, mik-tia ‘kill’ (‘cause to die’). The meaning of the applicative is doing something to or for someone: compare ku-a ‘buy’, ku-ilia ‘buy for (someone)’.


Transitive verbs must have an object index (see above), unless they take one of the prefixes mu- or ta-, which turn them into surface intransitives, though in two different ways. Mu- is called the reflexive prefix and indicates the lack of an agent, an unspecified agent, or the identity of agent and patient (the range of uses is similar to that of Spanish reflexive verbs): compare ki-talia ‘puts it, places it’, mu-talia ‘sits, places himself’; ki-machtia ‘teaches him/her’, mu-machtia ‘studies, learns’. Ta-, the indefinite-object prefix, is used when no direct object is specified: compare ki-kua ‘buys (it)’, ta-kua ‘buys, shops’; ki-machtia ‘teaches him/her’, ta-machtia ‘teaches, educates’.


The simple sentence


Nawat clauses consist of a predicate (or nucleus) and any number of expressed arguments or adjuncts. In the following examples there are no expressed arguments or adjuncts (the nucleus is in capitals, and prefix indices for subjects and objects are separated by hyphens):


SHI-WI! ‘Come!’

NI-MAJMAWI. ‘I am afraid.’

NI-K-ITA. ‘I see it.’

SHI-NECH-MAKA! ‘Give it to me!’

MIKIK. ‘He/She died.’

NECH-KUKUA. ‘It hurts me.’

YEK. ‘It is good.’


When the subject argument is expressed, the noun phrase may occur either before the nucleus or after it Placing either item first in the clause probably serves to foreground it (arguments or adjuncts are underlined):


Nutatanoy TEKITI. ‘My grandfather works.’

Ne mistun MAJMAWI. ‘The cat is afraid.’

CHUKA ne kunet. ‘The child is crying.’

NECH-KUKUA nutzuntekun. ‘I have a headache.’ (lit. ‘My head hurts me.’)

NEMI se tamal. ‘There is a tortilla.’ (lit. ‘A tortilla is.’)


Nominal predicates are preceded by their subjects:


Ne pula AJWIAK. ‘The plantain is tasty.’

Alejandro TAMACHTIANI. ‘Alejandro is a teacher.’


When the subject of the clause is expressed by a personal pronoun, this usually precedes the predicate (perhaps because it is nominally the sentence topic):


Yaja WITZ. ‘He/She is coming.’

Naja NI-K-ITA. ‘I see it.’

Taja TI LUISA. ‘You are Luisa.’


Object noun phrases (whether nuclear or oblique) normally come after the verb:


NI-K-ITA ne mistun. ‘I see the cat.’

NI-K-PIA se mistun. ‘I have a cat.’

Naja NI-K-PIA se mistun. ‘I have a cat.’

Ne mijmistun K-ITZKIAT kijkimichin. ‘Cats catch mice.’

Yaja NECH-MAKAK se pula. ‘He/She gave me a plantain.’

Nutatanoy NECH-ILWIJ ini. ‘My grandfather told me this.’


But word order may often be changed for emphasis and as required by the flow of discourse, e.g.


Ini NECH-ILWIJ nutatanoy. ‘My grandfather told me this’ or ‘This is what my grandfather told me.’


Adverbial adjuncts may occur in different positions in the clause:


KUCHI ka tayua. ‘He/She sleeps at night.’

Ka tayua KUCHI. ‘At night he/she sleeps.’

Kunij yaja KI-NUTZKI. ‘Then he/she called (him/her).’

NI-K-ITAK se siwat ka né. ‘I saw a woman there.’

Nikan NI-NEMI. ‘Here I am.’

An TI-YAWIT ka nuchan. ‘Now we’re going to my house.’


The negative particle inte (often reduced to te; in some dialects obligatorily, and with variant form tesu) always precedes the predicate, verbal or otherwise:


Inte/Te/Tesu NI-K-NEKI. ‘I don’t want it.’

Inte/Te/Tesu TI-TAMACHTIANI. ‘You are not a teacher.’

Inte/Te/Tesu WALAJ. ‘He/She didn’t come.’


Besides the simple form (in)te, the negative particle also has two ‘phasal’ forms, through combination with the phasal suffixes ‑(y)a ‘already, any more’:


(In)te-ya NI-MAJMAWI. ‘I’m not afraid any more.’

Ne siwapil (in)te-ya NEMITUYA. ‘The girl was no longer (there).’

Naja (in)te-ya NI-TACHIA wejka, (in)te-ya YEK nujnuish. ‘I don’t see far any more, my eyes are no longer good.’


and ‑(y)uk ‘still, yet’:


(In)te-yuk WALAJTUK. ‘He/She hasn’t come yet.’

(In)te-yuk WETZKI at. ‘It hasn’t rained yet.’ (lit. ‘Water didn’t fall yet.’)


These phasal suffixes may also be attached to a predicate in non-negative contexts:


Tejemet TI-YAWIT-a. ‘We’re going now.’

Yaja NEMI-a kalijtik. ‘He/She is already inside.’

Ne tutuchin WELI-a PATANI. ‘The baby bird can already fly.’

PEJKI-a ne shupan. ‘The rainy season began already.’

NI-K-MIKTIJ-a. ‘I killed him/her/it already.’

Yaja MIKTUK-a. ‘He/She’s has already died.’

TI-TAKWAJTUK-a? ‘Have you already eaten?’

WAKTUK-a ne mil. ‘The cornfield is dry now.’ (lit. ‘...already dry’)

SESEK-a ne at. ‘The water is already cold.’

Yejemet TAJTAKAMET-a. ‘They are already men.’

PEYNA-yuk. ‘It’s still early.’

KI-NEKI-uk . ‘There’s still one to go.’ (lit. ‘It still wants one.’)


The force of ‑(y)a seems to be merely intensive or idiomatic in some uses, e.g.


YEK-a. ‘Okay.’ (lit. ‘good already’)

NEMI-a. ‘That’s that,’ ‘Ya está.(lit. ‘it is already’)

KIUNIJ-a. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ (lit. ‘just like that’)

NIYAW-a! ‘Goodbye!’ (lit. ‘I’m going already.’)

SHIYAW-a! or SHAW-a! ‘Goodbye!’ (lit. ‘Go already!’)


These morphemes also combine with certain other elements in lexical formations, e.g. kenha-ya ‘(just) like, identical’, se-yuk or (uk-se) ‘another, other’ (‘still one’), etc.


‘Nobody’, ‘nothing’, ‘never’ etc. are expressed by using (in)te with an indefinite pronoun: (in)te aka (or akaj) ‘nobody’, (in)te tatka [(d)atka] ‘nothing’, (in)te kanaj ‘nowhere’ or ‘there is none’, or with an interrogative: (in)te keman ‘never’ (keman ‘when?’):


Te aka KI-MATI. ‘Nobody knows.’

Te WALAJ aka. ‘Nobody came.’

Nikan te NEMI tatka. ‘There is nothing here.’

Inte tatka KI-CHIWKI. ‘He/She didn’t do anything.’

Te KANAJ tamal. or Tamal te KANAJ. ‘There are no tortillas.’

Taja te keman TI-WITZ. ‘You never come.’

Yaja te keman MUSEWIA. ‘He/She never rests.’


One other negative particle exists in Nawat, maka (frequently reduced to , which is restricted to imperatives:


Ma(ka) SHI-K-CHIWA! ‘Don’t do it!’

Ma(ka) SHI-K-ELKAWA! ‘Don’t forget (it)!’

Ma(ka) SH-ISHTUNA! ‘Don’t be late!’


Care must be taken to avoid confusion with the subjunctive particle ma; probably the latter is always unstressed, and negative stressed, which together with contextual clues would make confusion unlikely in speech but possible in writing if both were spelt ma.


Yes-no questions take the same form as corresponding statements:


Tikpia se pelu? ‘Do you have a dog?’

Taja titamachtiani? ‘Are you a teacher?’


‘Yes’ is e, ej or eje; also kia (lit. ‘[it is] so’) in the dialect of Witzapan. Affirmative answers are also expressed by use of the appropriate verb form:


Tikneki at? – Nikneki. ‘Do you want water? – I want.’

Ne tamachtiani walaj yalua? – Walaj. ‘Did the teacher come yesterday? – He/She came.’


‘No’ is inte, te or tesu. Sentences may me modalised by anka ‘perhaps’:


Anka kipia tamal. ‘Maybe he/she has tortillas.’


The common question words are ká (kaj) ‘who?’, tay (tey, ta) ‘what?’, kan ‘where?’, ken ‘how?’, keman ‘when?’, keski ‘how much? how many?’, taika ‘why?’. These precede the predicate:


Tay tikneki? ‘What do you want?’

Kan nemi ne tisat? ‘Where is the pen?’




Nawat verbs have nothing resembling an infinitive, and the language lacks nominalisation constructions. Consequently there are no infinitives available for citing verbs in linguistic metalanguage, and verbs are conventionally cited by their present stem without personal indices. For intransitive verbs the citation form thus coincides with a third-person-singular present tense form with a zero subject index: miki ‘(he/she/it) dies’, and conventionally metalinguistically ‘to die’. For transitive verbs, the citation form is one that has no use textually, since an obligatory object index is missing: e.g. miktia ‘to kill’ (in a Nawat text *miktia is an ungrammatical form).


All Nawat clauses, whether independent or subordinate, can contain only finite verbs. This is compensated for by the frequent use of a grammatical strategy called serialisation, which allows one finite verb to be ‘subordinated’ to another by simple juxtaposition. While there are different kinds of serial construction in Nawat, in a particularly common type the second (‘subordinate’) verb is usually in the present tense regardless of time reference, which is only indicated in the first verb. Most often both verbs have a common subject, which must be indexed repetitively on each verb, since Nawat verbs cannot lack a subject index (although this is ‘zero’ in the third person). For example:


Naja nikneki nikwa et. ‘I want to eat beans.’ (lit. ‘I want I eat beans’)

Naja niknekik nikwa et. ‘I wanted to eat beans.’ (lit. ‘I wanted I eat beans’)

Naja niknekiskia nikwa et. ‘I would like to eat beans.’ (lit. ‘I would want I eat beans’)

Yaja kineki kikwa et. ‘He/She wants to eat beans.’ (lit. ‘He/She wants eats beans’)

Yejemet kinekit kikwat et. ‘They want to eat beans.’ (lit. ‘They want they eat beans’)

Tay tikneki tikchiwa ashan? ‘What do you want to do now?’ (lit. ‘What you want you do now?’)


Objects are marked independently on each verb:


Nikneki nimetzmaka et. ‘I want to give you beans.’ (lit. ‘I want I give you beans’)


This construction is found with modal expressions:


Ne tutut weli patani. ‘The bird can fly.’

Naja niweli nipatani. ‘I can fly.’

Tejemet tiwelit tipatanit. ‘We can fly.’


as well as some aspectual expressions, e.g.


Ne tutut pewa patani. ‘The bird starts to fly.’

Ne tutut pewki (pejki) patani. ‘The bird started to fly.’

Ne kunet pejki chuka. ‘The child started to cry.’

Naja nipejki nichuka. ‘I started to cry.’


Verbs are also serialised to express a sequence of actions:


Nunoya kiski pashalua. ‘My grandmother went out for a walk.’ (lit. ‘My grandmother went out she walks’)

Ne kujkunet nakat mumachtiat. ‘The children stay and study.’ (lit. ‘The children stay they study’)

Ne nunan yajki kikua takwal. ‘My mother went to buy food.’ (lit. ‘...went she buys...’)


When the present tense of yawi ‘go’ precedes another verb it often expresses future time; this construction is much more common in present-day Nawat than the simple future tense:


Niyaw or Niu nikua tamal. ‘I’m going to buy tortillas.’ (lit. ‘I go I buy...’)

Tay tiyaw (or tiu) tikchiwa? ‘What are you going to do?’

Niyaw ninaka ka nikan. ‘I’m going to stay here.’


When an English infinitive expresses purpose, as in ‘I work (in order) to eat’, the purpose clause in Nawat may be introduced by pal (related to the preposition (i)pal ‘for’):


Nitekiti pal nitakwa. ‘I work to eat.’ (lit. ‘I work for I eat’)


This resembles a serial construction somewhat since the verb following pal usually has the same subject as the one preceding it and is conjugated in the present tense.


When the verbs lack co-referential arguments, the second may be a subjunctive introduced by ma:


Nikneki ma shitakwa. ‘I want you to eat.’

Shikilwi ma wiki. ‘Tell him/her to come.’


When the second clause is temporally autonomous from the first, as in reported statements, each verb is conjugated independently and the subordinate clause is most often introduced by the conjunction ka:


Ina nutatanoy ka yawi wetzi at. ‘My grandfather says that it’s going to rain.’


It should be noted that Nawat has distinct verbs corresponding to English ‘say’ (no interlocutor specified) and ‘tell’ (with an interlocutor): ina and ilwia (or ilia). Ina is grammatically intransitive: yaja ina ‘he/she says’, naja ninak ‘I said’ etc. Ilwia is transitive and its object represents the interlocutor: yaja kilwia ‘he/she tells (him/her)’, yaja nechilwij ‘he/she told me’, etc. Ilwia can be considered the lexical applicative of ina.


Other subordinate and coordinate clauses


Ways of introducing relative clauses vary, including no connector (juxtaposition), introduction by ne (identical to the definite article), ka (like the complementizer), or one of the interrogative pronouns. In all cases the relative clause follows its head:


Nutatanoy kishmatki se siwat (-/ne/ka) kimiktij ne ishulejyu. ‘My grandfather knew a woman who murdered her husband.’


Conditions are introduced by asu ‘if’ (usually reduced to su):


Shiwi musta (a)su tikneki. ‘Come tomorrow if you want.’


This conjunction also introduces reported questions:


Tiyawit tikitat su witz u te. ‘We’ll see if he/she comes or not.’


Some other common subordinating conjunctions are kwak ‘when’, ken ‘as’, ika (usually reduced to ka) ‘because’. The interrogative adverbs keman ‘when’ and kan ‘where’ are sometimes used in place of kwak. Examples:


Kwak tiwitz, tiyawit timumachtiat. ‘When you come, we’ll study.’

Te niweli nitaketza ken taja (titaketza). ‘I cannot speak like you (speak).’

Taika mutalua ne mistun? – Ika (or Ka) majmawi. ‘Why does the cat run? – Because it is afraid.’


The most common coordinate conjunction is wan ‘and’, related to the preposition (i)wan’with’:


Tay inaket muteku wan munan? ‘What did your father and your mother say?’

Yaja yajki ka ichan wan mukwepki. ‘He went home and returned.’

Ken tinemi? – Naja ninemi yek, wan taja? ‘How are you? – I am well, and you?’


There is no universal word in Nawat corresponding to ‘but’; often the Spanish conjunction pero is employed:


Tesu nikitak se siwapil, kilwij ne takat, pero nikajsik se chumpipi. ‘I didn’t see a girl, said the man, but I found a turkey.’


There is also disagreement on a word for ‘or’; some use u. Two negative clauses may be joined by nan, similar to English ‘nor’:


Te nikneki, nan niweli nikchiwa uni. ‘I don’t want to, nor can I do that.’


‘Also, too’ is nusan:


Ken tinemi? – Naja ninemi yek, wan taja? – Nusan yek. ‘How are you? – I am well, and you? – [I am] also well.’

Nechkukua nutzuntekun. Nusan nechkukua nuijti. ‘My head aches. My stomach hurts too.’

Naja nusan niyaw nimumachtia. ‘I am going to study too.’

Naja nikpia se chiltik tutut. – Naja nikneki nikpia nusan. ‘I have a red bird. – I want to have [one] too.’


Word formation and expressive resources


Unlike its close relative, Classical Aztec Nahuatl, there is no documented use of Pipil Nawat as a medium of ‘high culture’ with a specialised literary register. Nawat therefore generally lacks terms for abstract concepts or the artifacts of an elaborate social structure with advanced technology, which have lain outside the cultural experience of traditional Pipil society.


Nawat’s basic linguistic resources are of the same kind as those of Classical Nahuatl, including mechanisms for lexical derivation and composition that are observable, sometimes in fossilised forms, within the traditional vocabulary. However, these means have been exploited far less than in Classical Nahuatl, and are rather less productive today. Knowledge of such lexical devices in Nawat is useful for the study of the lexicon and for linguistic analysis, and is also a necessary requisite for the proposal of correct neologisms which will certainly be needed in the process of modern language recovery. But ordinary present-day native speakers must not be expected to recognise, and certainly not to use productively, all the mechanisms attested in the inherited vocabulary or available through restruction based on historical and comparative analysis.


Nawat has a number of suffixes that derive nouns, chiefly from verbal stems, including the following:


-         -ni is fairly productive and derives agent nouns from the present stem of transitive verbs bearing the indefinite object prefix ta-: machtia ‘teach’, ta-machtia-ni ‘teacher’; pajtia ‘cure’, ta-pajtia-ni ‘curer, doctor’, etc. It can also form nouns designating the agent or undergoer of intransitive verbs, e.g. takwika ‘sing’, takwika-ni ‘singer’; miki ‘die’, miki-ni ‘corpse’.

-         -l added to transitive stems, again bearing the prefix ta-, forms nouns designating the product or object of the action, e.g. kwa ‘eat’, ta-kwa-l ‘food’; uya ‘separate the grain’, tawial (from *ta-uya-l) ‘(corn) grain’.

-         -lis forms mostly abstract nouns from verb stems, e.g. taketza ‘speak’, taketza-lis ‘language’; takwika ‘sing’, takwika-lis ‘song’.

-         -yan or -luyan added to verb stems forms nouns designating the place where the action habitually occurs, e.g. tamachti-a ‘teach’, tamachti-luyan ‘school’; a-t ‘water’, puni ‘spring forth’, a-puni-(y)an ‘spring, source’.

-         -ka added mainly to verb stems forms nouns designating objects or phenomena related to the action, e.g. tzakw-a ‘cover, shut’, tzaj-ka ‘lid, cover’; ilpi-a ‘tie’, ilpi-ka ‘belt’; tachi-a ‘look’, tachish-ka ‘appearance, colour’; mulin-i ‘bud forth’, mulin-ka ‘bud’.

-         ‘zero’-derivation, i.e. the conversion of a verb stem to a nominal form without the addition of a suffix: ulin-i ‘tremble’, tal-ulin ‘earthquake, tremor’ (tal ‘earth’).


Another group of  suffixes derive adjectives from various types of stem, e.g. chil ‘pepper’, chil-tik ‘red’; ista-t ‘salt’, ista-k ‘white’; mish-ti ‘cloud’, mish-naj ‘cloudy’. The participial suffix -tuk also forms adjectives, e.g. tzakw-a ‘cover, close’, tzak-tuk ‘covered, closed’; mik-i ‘die’, mik-tuk ‘dead’.


The verb-forming suffixes -tia (causative) and -lia (applicative) have already been mentioned. There are other verb-deriving suffixes (though fewer than in Classical Nahuatl), e.g. patawa-k ‘broad’, patawa-ya ‘broaden’; petznaj ‘naked’, petznaj-kisa ‘get naked, undress’.


The diminutive suffix -tzin (also -chin) does not change the grammatical category; it is usually found on nouns, but also occurs with some adjectives and adverbs: taka-t ‘man’, taka-tzin ‘little man’; kulu-tzin ‘penis’ (kulu-t ‘scorpion’); sital-tzin ‘little star’ (sital ‘star’); a-chin ‘water (affectionately), stream’ (a-t ‘water, river’), yek-tzin ‘pretty’ (yek ‘good, beautiful’); sesek-chin ‘cool’ (sesek ‘cold’); chupi-chin ‘a little bit’ (chupi ‘little, few’).


Notice in these examples that many derivative suffixes are added not to a complete word but to its stem, obtained by removing some other suffix from the apparent source word. Put another way: words are formed by adding suffixes to lexical stems (much as in Indo-European languages). To recognise the stems themselves, one needs to identify the suffixes present, such as (in noun forms) -t, -ti, -yu etc. and (in verb forms) the stem vowels -i, -a. In some cases, rather than deriving one word from another, it is more accurate to say that two or more words form a family built from a common lexical stem:


-         stem *ista: ista-t ‘salt’, ista-k ‘white’, ista-ya ‘turn white’;

-         stem *mik: mik-i ‘die’, mik-tuk ‘dead’, mik-tia ‘kill’, mik-tan ‘deep, hell’;

-         stem *mish: mish-ti ‘cloud’, mish-naj ‘cloudy’, mish-tentuk ‘misty’ (tentuk ‘full’);



A good deal of work remains to be done before we can achieve a fully systematic index of Nawat lexical stems.


Of the various kinds of lexical compounds, incorporating verbs are a characteristic type of formation in Nahuatl that is also attested in Nawat. In these constructions, the stem of a noun or other word, generally interpretable as an argument of the verb, precedes the latter to produce a compound verb, e.g. taketza ‘speak’ + Nawa-t ‘Nawat’ -> nawa-taketza ‘speak Nawat’; mati ‘know’ + ish ‘eye, face’ -> ish-mati ‘be familiar with’; paka ‘wash’ + a-t ‘water’ -> a-paka ‘wash with water’; chiwa ‘make’ + (y)ek ‘good’ -> ek-chiwa ‘get ready, prepare’; maka ‘give’ + ti-t ‘fire’ -> ti-maka ‘set on fire, light’, etc.


Particularly characteristic of Nawat are incorporating verbs in which the incorporated element is a noun stem designating a part of the human anatomy, in some of which the literal meaning applies and in others a metaphorically derived notion, sometimes quite vague or even redundant. Ishmati in the previous list is an example; others include mu-ish-paka ‘wash one’s face’ (ish ‘eye, face’, paka ‘wash’), ish-mutia ‘frighten’ (ish ‘eye, face’, mutia ‘frighten’), ma-pelua ‘open one’s hands, crawl’ (mey, ma- ‘hand’, pelua ‘open’), ku-mima ‘throw’ (*ku ‘head’, mima ‘throw’), mu-tzin-talia ‘sit, seat oneself’ (*tzun ‘rump’, talia ‘put, place’), and many more. Some of these anatomical prefixes are well attested but have no autonomous use: *ku ‘head’ and *tzin ‘rump’, for example, probably represent obsolete names of body parts. Others have morphologically specialised prefix forms, e.g. ma- for mey ‘hand’, also found in ma-pipil ‘finger’ (cf. pipil ‘son’, or -pil, archaic diminutive suffix), ma-kwi-l ‘five’ (kwi ‘take’, -l ‘nominal suffix’, so literally ‘hand-grasp’), among numerous compounds.


There exists a much smaller group of verb-verb compounds, e.g. kuch-teka ‘put to bed’ (kuch-i ‘sleep’, teka ‘lay down’).


There are also nominal compounds, chiefly of the modifier-head type, though there are some exceptions; the modifying element can be another noun, an adjective or a verb: siwa-masat ‘female deer’ (siwa-t ‘woman’, masat ‘deer’); Nawa-taketzalis ‘the Nawat language’ (nawa-t ‘Nawat’, taketzalis ‘language’); chil-tutut ‘chiltota, a kind of bird’ (chil ‘pepper’, and in compounds, ‘red’; tutut ‘bird’); a-tata ‘liquor, alcohol’ (a-t ‘water’, tata ‘burn’); a-tutun ‘hot water’ (a-t ‘water’, tutun-ik ‘hot’).


Not only does Nawat have few abstract nouns and names for the artifacts of higher civilisation; it is also rather lacking in common nouns to denote tangible, man-made objects, because the Pipils simply have not been surrounded by a great variety of such objects in their traditional lifestyle. For example, there are not a great many household objects that can be named specifically in Nawat, since a typical Pipil household contains rather few objects of different kinds. This produces the impression that Nawat is a language with few nouns, although it is not lacking in terms for the elements and accidents of the natural or work environment, such as bird and plant species, concepts relating to the cultivation and treatment of maize, weather phenomena, etc. On the other hand, Nawat displays a comparatively rich repertory of verbs, sometimes observing distinctions that are lost on translation.


Be that as it may, any attempt to translate even a fairly ‘simple’ text in a European language into Nawat runs into complications due to a lack of much of the vocabulary needed. Perhaps it would be better to say that European languages are on the whole extremely ‘nouny’, a characteristic probably to be traced to their classical heritage. The Jewish and Christian Bibles, for example, have been translated into virtually every European language via Greek and Latin, producing prose models and influences often many centuries old and inevitably transmitting, albeit indirecty, elements of classical style in thought and expression that were further reinforced in in each modern country’s Renaissance or period of national and linguistic consolidation. There is no Nawat translation of the Bible or any other literature of European origin for that matter, and the patterns of so-called ‘Western’ thought and expression are still very alien to the Pipil speech pattern and mindset.


Perhaps as a counterpart to this, Nawat speakers display an extremely impressive capacity of paraphrase. For example, this is how Genaro Ramírez has put one of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into ‘Nawat’, retranslated more or less literally into English for the present purpose (though it is an imperfect translation because the standard English language doesn’t permit an elegant rendering of such Nawat prose):


We all have a way we can say that they should say that he hasn’t done it if it is not known if he/she has done it the way the law says and it is said what they have declared to be needed so that they cannot shut him/her away.


Nobody can be told that he/she has done it if he/she hasn’t done it because he/she hasn’t done anything according to the law of our land or other people’s land. Neither can he/she be told that he/she should pay for what he/she has not done.


From: Munextia Muchi Ipal Ne Tehtechan Tay Tupal (United Nations, 1997)


This text © 2004 Alan R. King; may be reproduced with permission if source is acknowledged.



© 2004 Alan R. King, Monica Ward and IRIN.