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Review of  An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl

Reviewer: Dibella Wdzenczny
Book Title: An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl
Book Author: Michel Launey
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Nahuatl, Classical
Issue Number: 23.3948

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AUTHOR: Launey, Michel
TITLE: An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2011

Dibella Wdzenczny, Department of Linguistics, University of California at Santa


''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an introductory language-learning
textbook for students of Classical Nahuatl. The original volume was written in
French by Michel Launey in 1979. It has since been translated and adapted into
English by Christopher Mackay. This is the first textbook of its kind for
teaching Classical Nahuatl.

The text includes thirty-six lessons, four appendices, a two-way Nahuatl-English
dictionary, and an index of grammatical constructions, morphemes, and linguistic
terms. Examples in the text and exercises consist of both constructed examples
and sentences and phrases taken from Classical Nahuatl texts. In “How to Use
this Book,” Launey states that the goal of the text is to provide readers with
enough lexical and grammatical knowledge that they “should be in a good position
to make the transition to attempting to read Nahuatl texts as they are spelled
in the traditional orthography” (p. xix). The book begins with a preliminary
lesson on Phonetics and Writing, which provides a discussion of APA (Americanist
Phonetic Alphabet and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols as well as a
thorough explanation of traditional Spanish orthography and spelling conventions
for Nahuatl, including those used for the glottal stop (the author, Mackay,
marks vowel length where it is known.)

Part One of the textbook contains the most basic lessons on Nahuatl grammar.
Lesson One presents intransitive verbs, basic word order, and the absolutive
suffix (in scholarship on Classical Nahuatl, ‘absolutive’ denotes the full
independent form of the noun, as opposed to the noun stem alone; it does not
indicate grammatical alignment). Lesson Two discusses nominal features and
morphology, such as plurals, questions, negation, nominal predicates, and focus
constructions. Lesson Three presents transitive verbs, with a focus on the
various object agreement prefixes. The different forms of pronouns --
emphatic, interrogative, demonstrative, and negative -- are presented in
Lesson Four. Irregular verbs such as ‘go’, ‘come’, and ‘be’, as well as locative
constructions are discussed in Lesson Five. Lesson Six deals with reflexives and
directional prefixes. Lessons Seven and Eight discuss quantifiers and the
formation of the preterite tense. Lesson Nine presents the future, optative,
imperfective, and vocative verb forms. Possession and nominal “adjective-like”
suffixes are taught in Lessons Eleven and Twelve. Locative suffixes are
discussed in Lesson Thirteen, and Lesson Fourteen presents adverbial
constructions as well as coordination strategies. Lesson Fifteen concludes Part
One of the textbook by discussing impersonal and passive verb forms.

For example, in Lesson Three on transitive verbs, the lesson proceeds as such:
the first thing to be introduced are the object agreement prefixes, followed by
several paradigmatic examples using simple transitive verbs (I see you, I see
him, he sees you, etc.) (pg. 26). This is followed by explanations of
orthographic irregularities or ‘allophones’ (the change of ‘c’ to ‘qu’ before
‘i’ and ‘e’), and a discussion of epenthetic vowels that the reader may
encounter when dealing with verbs with multiple prefixes. Next, Launey describes
the Nahuatl sentence with a full NP object and its construction.and syntactic
order. Also included are discussions about indefinite prefixes, variations in
the transitive verb stem, and object focus constructions.

Part Two begins with Lessons Sixteen and Seventeen, which examine the details of
nominal morphology, agentive suffixes, and compound nouns, as well as noun
incorporation in verbs. Lessons Eighteen through Twenty discuss various
valency-manipulation strategies, such as bi/ambitransitive verbs, causatives,
and applicatives. Lesson Twenty-One deals with honorifics and deprecatory verbs.
More finely nuanced verb forms, such as the counterfactual and vetitive, are
presented in Lesson Twenty-Two, as well as the pluperfect and the directional.
Lessons Twenty-Three through Twenty-Six go into greater detail regarding
material already learned. These include morphological peculiarities of nouns and
verbs (Lesson 23), more on locatives (Lesson 24), more on quantifiers (Lesson
25), and details about number and person, indefinite pronouns, and adverbs
(Lesson 26). Lessons Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight describe additional verbal
morphology, such as compound verbs and reduplication. Derivation of verbs and
nouns are discussed in Lessons Twenty-Nine and Thirty, respectively. Lesson
Thirty-One presents more details about noun classes beyond nominal morphology.
Lessons Thirty-Two through Thirty-Five describes the different types of clauses:
attributive, relative, copular verbs, auxiliaries, comparisons, clauses of
result, purpose and cause, conditionals, temporals, connectives, and interjections.

Lesson Twenty on applicative verbs is a thorough laundry list of
valency-increasing affixes and their meaning, constructions, and functions as
well as its interactions with other affixes. Suffixes indicating a beneficiary
are explained first, along with their respective allomorphs. Adding a
beneficiary to a causative verb is discussed next, along with resulting
ambiguity as in the example ‘nimitzco:huili:z nacatl’, ‘I’ll buy meat for
you/from you’ (pg. 205). The benefactive applicative is also described for its
interactions with the reflexive, passive, with noun incorporation, and other
unique ‘semi-applicative’ (pg. 209) verbs. In the final exercises, students are
asked to add the appropriate beneficiary affix to verbs in phrases and apply all
allomorphy rules, as well as translate the phrase into its new meaning.

The book also contains four appendices. The first provides a detailed discussion
of traditional (Spanish) orthography for the student reading Classical Nahuatl
texts, including allophonic transcription convention variations, as well as
vowel-length marking strategies. Nearly any peculiarity a student may encounter
in a text pertaining to orthography is described (and explained) here. For
example, notes on the difference in transcription of certain sounds depending on
their placement in the Nahuatl syllable is discussed here - /w/ is written as
‘hu’ in an onset and as ‘uh’ in a coda, and never between the vowels ‘o’ and ‘a’
(pg. 381-3). The simplification of difficult consonant clusters in Spanish
orthography is also listed here – clusters such as ‘tzch’, ‘chch’, and ‘chtz’
are simplified to ‘ch’ (pg. 383). These are important notes for a student
relying on orthographic clues for understanding Nahuatl morphology. The second
contains lists of paradigms for quick reference, ordered similarly to the
lessons presented in the rest of the textbook. The third contains cultural
information pertaining to the Aztec calendar. The fourth provides a key to
exercises at the ends of each lesson.


''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an excellent language-learning
textbook. Launey has written many articles about Classical Nahuatl (Launey
2002a, Launey 2002b) as well as grammars other languages (Launey 2003) his
expertise is evident in the details in each lesson. The textbook is very
thorough in detailing Classical Nahuatl grammar, and the examples and exercises
are well-suited to reinforce concepts introduced in each lesson. The book is
remarkably up to date; it quite clearly benefits from recent linguistic
literature. The grammar lessons slowly build in difficulty, while reinforcing
previous lessons and introducing new vocabulary at a challenging-yet-manageable
rate. Specialized linguistic terminology is explained well as it is introduced,
with illustrations based on the closest possible examples in English (as seen,
for instance, in the lessons on applicatives and reduplication- pgs. 202-210 and
285-292, respectively). This feature makes the book accessible to those without
a linguistics background. At times, comparisons between grammatical features or
constructions are required; the textbook simplifies this task by
cross-referencing examples in other chapters within the lessons themselves.
Because Classical Nahuatl is polysynthetic, the longer verbs are often listed
with their original stems to help the reader recognize morphological boundaries
easier. This form of presentation greatly helps the reader to understand and
analyze each structure. Moreover, the appendices benefit the student even beyond
containing the answers to the exercises, and the dictionary contains more
verbal stems than just those presented in the lesson. Other bits of cultural
information involved in the study of the language (e.g. Classical Nahuatl’s
vigesimal number system) are peppered throughout the lessons as relevant.

A few other qualities of the book are worth mentioning: at only $40, it is
extremely affordable (a significant concern for students, especially given the
high cost of most foreign language textbooks), and it is handy in size and light
in weight. This makes the textbook extremely portable, an especially important
quality for students. This volume would make a great textbook for a Classical
Nahuatl course as part of a Latin American history or anthropological program.

The book has few weaknesses, but they are worth mentioning for both linguists
and students in other disciplines. First, the textbook misrepresents the
differences between APA and IPA orthography. In the pronunciation guide, APA
transcription is listed in slashes, and IPA transcription is listed in brackets.
Neither column has a heading; later in the Preliminary Lesson, only the IPA
symbols are named as such, while the APA symbols are simply referred to as
“phonetic symbols.”(pg. 11). In addition, the exercises in this chapter ask
students to produce “phonetic transcription” (pg. 11) of certain words without
specifying the system to be used; in the answer key, APA is listed. It would
seem that for students, (especially those not trained in linguistics) it would
be preferable to use one system or make the distinction between the two
orthographies clearer.

Second, it is not clear which examples come from Nahuatl texts. Examples such as
‘As for Peter, all of his turkeys have died’ (pg. 95) are clearly constructed,
as is necessary with any textbook teaching a form of a language that is no
longer spoken. Additionally, the longer passages in lessons, which are likely
from codices, do not cite any origin even though this information would be
culturally and contextually educational for students to know.

Ultimately, ''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an excellent textbook for
both linguists and non-linguists. For linguists, it can easily function as a
basic reference grammar of Classical Nahuatl, although due to the lack of
references, the examples are of limited value. It will be especially useful as a
point of comparison for linguistics students who are studying modern Nahuatl
languages and dialects; it could even lend assistance in identifying
constructions or morphemes to a linguist conducting fieldwork on a modern
Nahuatl language. For non-linguists, especially those whose ultimate goal is to
read codices or texts, the textbook is invaluable. It is completely
self-contained and easy to work through, whether in a classroom or
independently, and gives the reader an excellent base for working through actual
Nahuatl texts.


Launey, Michel. 2002a. Compound nouns vs. incorporation in Classical Nahuatl.
Problems of Polysynthesis, ed. by Nicholas Evans and Hans-Jürgen Sasse. Berlin:
Akademie Verlag.
--- 2002b. On some causative doublets in Classical Nahuatl. The Grammar of
Causation and Interpersonal Manipulation, ed. by Masayoshi Shibatani, 301–318.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
--- 2003. Awna parikwaki: introduction à la langue palikur de Guyane et de
l’Amapá (Awna parikwaki : introduction to the Palikur language of Guiana and to
Amapa). Paris: IRD éditions.


Dibella Wdzenczny is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. Her primary interests include historical linguistics,
case systems, and the indigenous languages of Siberia and the Americas. She is
also interested in pedagogy in linguistics for both university students and
indigenous communities.
Dibella Wdzenczny is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her primary interests include historical linguistics, case systems, and the indigenous languages of Siberia and the Americas. She is also interested in pedagogy in linguistics for both university students and indigenous communities.

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