Mexican X Part XI: Rise of a New X

Many of the entries in my Mexican X series have dealt with how indigenous “sh” sounds (represented by the letter “x”) either survived or didn’t in Mexican Spanish.

But today I want to flip the script and talk about what Spanish sounds did to Nahuatl. Along the way, we’ll see how the disappearance of one sort of “x” was balanced by the birth of a whole new set of them.

It’s fascinating what you can confirm about 16th-century Spanish through loanwords in Colonial Nahuatl.

For example, Spaniards were called “Caxtiltēcah” or “inhabitants of Caxtillān.”

Nahua warriors face off against Caxtiltēcah.

Does that word seem familiar? It’s derived from “Castilla.” In Nahuatl, some place names end with the suffix -tlān (“place of”) or its variant -lān (which you find after roots ending in -l).

Examples abound: Tōllān, Cōātlān, Cocollān, Huīpīllān, etc.

To the Nahua ear, “Castilla” sounded like a -lan place name, just clumsily pronounced by weird, stinky foreigners.

So why “Caxtillān” and not “Caztillān”? (Keep in mind that “z” represents /s/ in Mexican Spanish and Nahuatl.)

Maybe because 16th-century Spanish “s” was apical (pronounced with tip of the tongue). If you’ve heard people from Spain speak, you’ll know that some dialects have an “s” that almost sounds like a “sh.” That’s the apical variety (/s̺/) as opposed to the more wide-spread laminal variety (pronounced with the part of the tongue right behind the tip).

The apical “s” to Nahuatl “sh” can be seen in other loan words as well:

  • camisa → camixahtli (shirt)
  • sombrero → xompeloh (hat)
  • vacas → huacax (cow, singular in Nahuatl though plural in Spanish)
  • asno → axnoh (donkey)
  • sábado → xāpatoh (Saturday)
  • patos → patox (duck, singular in Nahuatl)
  • higos → hīcox (fig, singular in Nahuatl)
  • manteles → mantēlex (tablecloth, singular in Nahuatl)
  • Dios → Tiox (God)

“Caxtillān” also makes it clear that the “ll” of “Castilla” was definitely a palatal lateral approximant (a palatalarized “l” — one pronounced with the tongue pressing up against the palate — represented in IPA by the symbol /ʎ/). At least that was how those first Conquistadores pronounced it.

To the Nahua ear, it just sounded like a weird “l,” I bet.

As confirmation, you should note that the Spanish word for horse (“caballo”) was adopted as “cahuāllo.”

But there’s a wrinkle. We also know that an alternate form for “caballo” existed in Colonial Nahuatl: “cahuāyoh.”

Their co-existence means that either /ʎ/ sometimes sounded like a /y/ to Nahua ears, or the influx of “yeístas” (people who pronounced “ll” as /y/) happened pretty immediately after that first contact.

It did, and the present Mexican accent is due in large part to that demographic shift.

Still, the detritus of the Conquest remains, even in modern Nahuan tongues.