LINGUIST List 23.3948

Mon Sep 24 2012

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; Semantics; Syntax; Nahuatl, Classical: Launey (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 24-Sep-2012
From: Dibella Wdzenczny <>
Subject: An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl
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AUTHOR: Launey, MichelTITLE: An Introduction to Classical NahuatlPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2011

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


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

The text includes thirty-six lessons, four appendices, a two-way Nahuatl-Englishdictionary, and an index of grammatical constructions, morphemes, and linguisticterms. Examples in the text and exercises consist of both constructed examplesand sentences and phrases taken from Classical Nahuatl texts. In “How to Usethis Book,” Launey states that the goal of the text is to provide readers withenough lexical and grammatical knowledge that they “should be in a good positionto make the transition to attempting to read Nahuatl texts as they are spelledin the traditional orthography” (p. xix). The book begins with a preliminarylesson on Phonetics and Writing, which provides a discussion of APA (AmericanistPhonetic Alphabet and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols as well as athorough explanation of traditional Spanish orthography and spelling conventionsfor 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 absolutivesuffix (in scholarship on Classical Nahuatl, ‘absolutive’ denotes the fullindependent form of the noun, as opposed to the noun stem alone; it does notindicate grammatical alignment). Lesson Two discusses nominal features andmorphology, such as plurals, questions, negation, nominal predicates, and focusconstructions. Lesson Three presents transitive verbs, with a focus on thevarious object agreement prefixes. The different forms of pronouns --emphatic, interrogative, demonstrative, and negative -- are presented inLesson Four. Irregular verbs such as ‘go’, ‘come’, and ‘be’, as well as locativeconstructions are discussed in Lesson Five. Lesson Six deals with reflexives anddirectional prefixes. Lessons Seven and Eight discuss quantifiers and theformation 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 arediscussed in Lesson Thirteen, and Lesson Fourteen presents adverbialconstructions as well as coordination strategies. Lesson Fifteen concludes PartOne 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 byseveral paradigmatic examples using simple transitive verbs (I see you, I seehim, he sees you, etc.) (pg. 26). This is followed by explanations oforthographic irregularities or ‘allophones’ (the change of ‘c’ to ‘qu’ before‘i’ and ‘e’), and a discussion of epenthetic vowels that the reader mayencounter when dealing with verbs with multiple prefixes. Next, Launey describesthe Nahuatl sentence with a full NP object and its construction.and syntacticorder. Also included are discussions about indefinite prefixes, variations inthe transitive verb stem, and object focus constructions.

Part Two begins with Lessons Sixteen and Seventeen, which examine the details ofnominal morphology, agentive suffixes, and compound nouns, as well as nounincorporation in verbs. Lessons Eighteen through Twenty discuss variousvalency-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, arepresented in Lesson Twenty-Two, as well as the pluperfect and the directional.Lessons Twenty-Three through Twenty-Six go into greater detail regardingmaterial already learned. These include morphological peculiarities of nouns andverbs (Lesson 23), more on locatives (Lesson 24), more on quantifiers (Lesson25), and details about number and person, indefinite pronouns, and adverbs(Lesson 26). Lessons Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight describe additional verbalmorphology, such as compound verbs and reduplication. Derivation of verbs andnouns are discussed in Lessons Twenty-Nine and Thirty, respectively. LessonThirty-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 ofresult, purpose and cause, conditionals, temporals, connectives, and interjections.

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

The book also contains four appendices. The first provides a detailed discussionof traditional (Spanish) orthography for the student reading Classical Nahuatltexts, including allophonic transcription convention variations, as well asvowel-length marking strategies. Nearly any peculiarity a student may encounterin a text pertaining to orthography is described (and explained) here. Forexample, notes on the difference in transcription of certain sounds depending ontheir 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 Spanishorthography is also listed here – clusters such as ‘tzch’, ‘chch’, and ‘chtz’are simplified to ‘ch’ (pg. 383). These are important notes for a studentrelying on orthographic clues for understanding Nahuatl morphology. The secondcontains lists of paradigms for quick reference, ordered similarly to thelessons presented in the rest of the textbook. The third contains culturalinformation pertaining to the Aztec calendar. The fourth provides a key toexercises at the ends of each lesson.


''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an excellent language-learningtextbook. Launey has written many articles about Classical Nahuatl (Launey2002a, Launey 2002b) as well as grammars other languages (Launey 2003) hisexpertise is evident in the details in each lesson. The textbook is verythorough in detailing Classical Nahuatl grammar, and the examples and exercisesare well-suited to reinforce concepts introduced in each lesson. The book isremarkably up to date; it quite clearly benefits from recent linguisticliterature. The grammar lessons slowly build in difficulty, while reinforcingprevious lessons and introducing new vocabulary at a challenging-yet-manageablerate. 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 and285-292, respectively). This feature makes the book accessible to those withouta linguistics background. At times, comparisons between grammatical features orconstructions are required; the textbook simplifies this task bycross-referencing examples in other chapters within the lessons themselves.Because Classical Nahuatl is polysynthetic, the longer verbs are often listedwith their original stems to help the reader recognize morphological boundarieseasier. This form of presentation greatly helps the reader to understand andanalyze each structure. Moreover, the appendices benefit the student even beyondcontaining the answers to the exercises, and the dictionary contains moreverbal stems than just those presented in the lesson. Other bits of culturalinformation involved in the study of the language (e.g. Classical Nahuatl’svigesimal number system) are peppered throughout the lessons as relevant.

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

The book has few weaknesses, but they are worth mentioning for both linguistsand students in other disciplines. First, the textbook misrepresents thedifferences between APA and IPA orthography. In the pronunciation guide, APAtranscription is listed in slashes, and IPA transcription is listed in brackets.Neither column has a heading; later in the Preliminary Lesson, only the IPAsymbols are named as such, while the APA symbols are simply referred to as“phonetic symbols.”(pg. 11). In addition, the exercises in this chapter askstudents to produce “phonetic transcription” (pg. 11) of certain words withoutspecifying the system to be used; in the answer key, APA is listed. It wouldseem that for students, (especially those not trained in linguistics) it wouldbe preferable to use one system or make the distinction between the twoorthographies 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 nolonger spoken. Additionally, the longer passages in lessons, which are likelyfrom codices, do not cite any origin even though this information would beculturally and contextually educational for students to know.

Ultimately, ''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an excellent textbook forboth linguists and non-linguists. For linguists, it can easily function as abasic reference grammar of Classical Nahuatl, although due to the lack ofreferences, the examples are of limited value. It will be especially useful as apoint of comparison for linguistics students who are studying modern Nahuatllanguages and dialects; it could even lend assistance in identifyingconstructions or morphemes to a linguist conducting fieldwork on a modernNahuatl language. For non-linguists, especially those whose ultimate goal is toread codices or texts, the textbook is invaluable. It is completelyself-contained and easy to work through, whether in a classroom orindependently, and gives the reader an excellent base for working through actualNahuatl 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 ofCausation and Interpersonal Manipulation, ed. by Masayoshi Shibatani, 301–318.Amsterdam: John Benjamins.--- 2003. Awna parikwaki: introduction à la langue palikur de Guyane et del’Amapá (Awna parikwaki : introduction to the Palikur language of Guiana and toAmapa). Paris: IRD éditions.


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

Page Updated: 24-Sep-2012