Today’s Wall Street Journal features a story on Jonathan Amith, an American anthropologist who is recording, and attempting to preserve, Nahuatl, the language of the pre-Colombian Aztec Empire.
Word by word, Mr. Amith is creating an extensive archive of Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs at the time of the 16th century Spanish conquest and now the first language of 1.5 million Mexican Indians. He records fables and personal histories, collects plants and insects, and keeps up a nonstop patter with locals, searching for information to add to a Web site he is building that is part dictionary, part encyclopedia and part storybook.
His goal is both daring and quixotic: to preserve Nahuatl so that native speakers don’t discard their language as they turn to Spanish, which they need to compete in contemporary Mexico…
..Nahuatl strings together prefixes, word roots and suffixes, sometimes into very long words. One 18-syllable Nahuatl word used in towns near Cuernavaca is translated “you honorable people might have come along banging your noses so as to make them bleed, but in fact you didn’t,” according to SIL International, a religiously oriented linguistics group that is translating the Old Testament into Nahuatl. Others are simpler: the Nahuatl words chicolatl and tomatl gave English “chocolate” and “tomato.”
Mr. Amith recruited computational linguists to devise software to separate Nahuatl words into their component parts, which is vital for looking them up on his Web site.
The web-site is password protected. The Journal supplies: USERNAME: oapan — PASSWORD: nahuatl