Mexican X Part I: Why Is México Pronounced Méjico?

Over the years, I’ve come across the same question again and again, always some variation on the following:

“Why is Mexico spelled ‘México’ in Spanish, especially if in Nahuatl Mēxihco was pronounced [meshiko]? What’s up with that ‘x’?”

The answers given are usually partially right or totally wrong.

Guess what? I’m going to explain it to you.

Quick note on representing sounds. If I put something in brackets [like this], it’s because I’m representing a sound with a modified Roman letter. If there’s a letter or funny symbol between two backslashes /like this/, that means I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Got it? Okay, let’s go.
A text in Medieval Spanish

For starters, Spanish (and other Romance languages) evolved not from Classical Latin (the erudite, literary language) but from the more streamlined and working-class Vulgar Latin (“vulgar” as in “of the vulgus” or common folk … not “nasty”). In Iberia, various languages arose this way, including Medieval Spanish.

Differently from modern Spanish, Medieval Spanish had sounds like [ž] or /ʒ/ (English “vision” or “azure”) and [š] or /ʃ/ (English “ship”), among many others. The name “Jimena,” for example, was pronounced [žimena], and “xabón” (soap, modern “jabón”) was [šabon].

The evolution from various Vulgar Latin sounds to [š] is fascinating. Here are examples showing Vulgar Latin -> Medieval Spanish -> Modern Spanish.

The “x” in the middle column represents [š] or /ʃ/ (“sh”). The “j” in the last column (for those who don’t know Spanish) represents /x/, a strongly aspirated sound kind of like “h” (but more like the German “ch”).

sucu -> xugo -> jugo
syringa -> xeringa -> jeringa
bassu -> baxo -> bajo
russeu -> roxo -> rojo
laxius -> lexos -> lejos

You’ll notice the pattern, I hope.

Now, by the 15th century, the way Spanish speakers made these sounds started shifting backward in the throat. Gradually [ž] became [š], so that Vulgar Latin “jurat” (“s/he swears,” pronounced [yurat]) became first Medieval Latin [žurat] and then 15th-century [šura] (spelled “jura”).

By the time of the Conquest, all those “sh” sounds had begun to retreat in the throat, morphing into the aspirated sound modern Spanish represents with “j” or “g” (before i/e) and sometimes “x.” You can see how this happened if you pronounce “sh” over and over, alternating it with “h.” Not hard to see how one could become the other.

That’s why a Vulgar Latin word like “juvene” [yuvene] could become “joven,” first pronounced [žoven], then /ʃoβen/, and finally /xoβen/ (where that /x/ is the modern aspirated sound).

Still with me? Okay, now let’s talk about Nahuatl, the language of the Nāhuah or “Aztecs,” as we now (unfortunately) call them. In Nahuatl, one of the most common sounds is [š] or /ʃ/ (“sh”). But the Nahua peoples of Central Mexico don’t have a writing system per se, so during and after the Conquest, their language was represented using Roman letters and Spanish phonetic rules.

However, at the time of the Conquest, the evolution of /ʃ/ to /x/ was still going on. Older people were still saying “shabon” for “jabón,” etc. As a result, when the Mexica (the ruling Nahua nation in the Triple Alliance or “Aztec Empire) said the name of their city-state (Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan), the Spaniards wrote “México.” But they pronounced it “ME shi ko.”

That’s very close to the Nahuatl: /me: ʃiʔ ko/

Within a few decades, though, the retreat of the “sh” sound was complete in Spanish, and despite the spelling, the word became “México” as pronounced today (“Méjico,” as you may see it from time to time).

Other nations saw the spelling, though, and assumed the “x” meant /ks/. In English, that gaves us Mexico. In French you say “Mexique.”

Still, it should be Meshiko.

This transformation of sounds, by the way, is also why you shouldn’t call Latinos named Xavier “eks AY vee er.” It’s /xaβjer/, just like “Javier” is. Once upon a time, though, it was “Shavier.” It still is in Catalan and Galician, among other Romance languages.

A bunch of Vulgar Latin words with an “x” in them underwent this transformation, by the way.

[ks] — [js] — [jš] — [š] — [x].

exemplu [eksemplu] -> exemplo [ešemplo] -> ejemplo 
maxilla [maksilla] -> mexilla [mešilla] -> mejilla

And so on. So there you have it: the reason for that odd spelling.

This process also explains why “Oaxaca” is pronounced the way it is. The name comes from Nahuatl “Huāxyacac” (place of the huāxin … Spanish “guaje,” English “leadtree”). It’s pronounced more or less “wash YA kak,” roughly the way Spanish “Oaxaca” would have been pronounced 500 years ago.

I also trust you now understand the reason for the counter-intuitive use of “j” to represent that same aspirated sound (/x/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet). It was first [y], then [ž], then [š], then [x]. In other Romance languages (like French), those sounds didn’t retreat in the mouth.

Now, if you’re wondering about the MEANING of “Mexico,” I’ll point you at my article about precisely that: (…)

I recommend the following book if you want to study the evolution of Medieval Spanish from Vulgar Latin. It was the text Professor Lino García used in the graduate course I took with him 20 years ago when I was doing my Masters in English with a minor in Spanish.

It was originally published in English as THE EVOLUTION OF SPANISH: AN INTRODUCTORY HISTORICAL GRAMMAR. At least, that’s what the inside of my book claims. I’ve only read it in Spanish.