Interview with Mizton Pixan about Nahuatl

August 24, 2009 at 1:10 am 1 comment

Recently, I contacted, Mizton Pixan, the owner of a blog that includes posts in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Mizton lives in Mexico and has learned Nahuatl as an adult. For indigenous languages to survive they need children learning them, but they also need new adult students. So, I thought it might be interesting to ask about Mizton’s  experience in learning the language. I submitted some questions, and he was kind enough to send back some very generous responses.

TT: What got you interested in Nahuatl?
M: I first learnt English, French, Japanese, German and Italian, and then I started thinking, “why not studying the language of my region too?”. I just started knowing more and more about the Aztecs and other Nahuatl speaking cultures in ancient Mexico. There are 62 national languages apart from Spanish here, and Nahuatl is the most widely spoken, with 1.5 million native speakers nowadays. Almost a year after starting to know more about this language, my grandma told me that her mom (my great-grandmother) spoke Nahuatl as her mother tongue. I was shocked, haha, why didn’t I know that before? Anyway, so to summarize, my main reasons are: cultural identity, family roots, and wanting to spread this beautiful language.

TT: How are you learning it? Do you attend classes and/or have native speakers as friends?

M: I started with an online course (in Spanish) on the Nahuatl of the state of Puebla. I didn’t get to the end though. Then I met this native Nahua girl in my city, who taught me some Nahuatl from the state of Morelos, and in exchange, I tought her a bit of the English I know. After a couple of months, she had to move to another state, and I got into a little course in my city, on Nahuatl from the state of Guerrero :P… that lasted about 2 other months, and then I moved to the capital, Mexico City. Here, I found a one year course downtown, on Central Nahuatl (Mexico City and the State of Mexico), which started last January, and I’m still studying in that school. I bought some books (novels and text books with CD’s, a dictionary…). Plus, I chat with another native friend from Puebla through MSN Messenger, to practice.

TT: The Nahuatl you use is Classical Nahuatl right? Does the modern language have a standard spoken and/or written variety?

M: I use Classical Nahuatl combined with modern Nahuatl from the central part of Mexico, which is not very far from Classical Nahuatl. The one from Puebla or Hidalgo and some parts of Morelos use pretty much the same writting, and they are quite intelligible between each other. There are other variants that are very different from the ones I just mentioned, and maybe the most widespread of them would be the variant from Guerrero, with a simplified writting and many published texts. I would say that there are mainly 2 ways of writting. And talking about the spoken language, there are more variants, but most of them, as I said, are intelligible between each other. My guess would be that in about a decade or so, we will have some kind of standard, at least for written Nahuatl.

TT: Where you live, how difficult is it to find native speakers? And what is their reaction to meeting non-native speakers of the language?

M: I live in the capital, Mexico City, and it is not that hard to find native speakers. The first option is to go to the parks downtown, where they are usually selling their handicrafts. Out of the city, there are whole towns where people speak Nahuatl in their daily life though. They usually get really surprised that you speak their language, and they say “ah, ticmati nahuatl!” (oh, you know Nahuatl!) :P. Many of them are a bit inscrutable, but when they aren’t, it’s very nice to exchange some ideas with them.

TT: What is the general attitude today among public at large toward indigenous languages?

M: There is still a lot of discrimination towards indigenous people and languages, but fortunately, that has been changing in the last decade. It seems that along with globalization, a new wish for finding our roots around the world has been emerging. Since 2008, 16 highschools in the capital have a mandatory Nahuatl subject, and the number of schools like those is expected to grow in the near future. In the country, villages, etc., it’s common to find billingual schools, where they teach Spanish and Nahuatl, or other native languages.

TT: Do you see much push to preserve indigenous languages in Mexico? Obviously, the relative health of  Nahuatl or Mayan would be the envy of any native group in the US or Canada, but is there anything being done for smaller language groups?

M: Indeed, Nahuatl and Mayan would be the envy not only of native groups in the US or Canada, but also of the other 60 living indigenous languages in Mexico. Fortunately, all those have been included as well in the new government programmes for protecting and spreading the Mexican languages, through the 2003 law: Ley General de Derechos Lingüísticos de los Pueblos Indígenas (General Law for Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples). In the last few years, a number of texts in all these languages have been published, including the basic education text books. However, some of these languages are really endagered. I wouldn’t be surprised if the only ones surviving in a few decades were Nahuatl, Mayan, Zapotec, Purepecha, Mixtec, and maybe Otomí.

TT: You have been posting Nahuatl lessons on the forums at Unilang. Have you gotten much feedback from this? How is it going?

M: It is surprising how many people from so many places around the world have written me back about it, the US, Germany, India, China, Spain, etc. I didn’t know there were so many interested in Nahuatl. Of course, there has been a very good response from other Mexican fellows as well, but that, I expected. It seems to be “in” to be into Nahuatl nowadays in certain groups of young Mexicans 😛 The live courses in this city have been receiving more and more students lately too. So I am happy about the whole response, not only to my lessons in Unilang, but in general.

TT: What do you think (or hope) the rest of the 21st Century holds for Nahuatl and other languages in Mexico?

M: As I said, I believe it is a bit hard for most of them to make it to the next decade or the next after that. But if at least 5 or 6 of them can be saved, studied, updated and used in daily life in a more open way, I would be more than happy. In my opinion, one big mistake that linguists have made, is trying to preserve the language pure and intact. That way, only those who study, who read, who are really into it, will learn something. Latin died because of that exactly, it was only for the highly educated people, for intellectuals, or religious and political leaders. Nahuatl has to become a bit “pop” if we really want to save it. People make languages evolve, not linguists. However, I have seen that many people in the last few years are understanding this idea, and I’m starting to listen to some modern music in Nahuatl (you can download some of it in the Unilang Nahuatl forum), a pilot episode for Sesame Street was made in Nahuatl about a year ago (they are looking for budget), there are some radio stations in Nahuatl, last year the play “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett was translated into Nahuatl (In Oc Ticchia In Godot), this year we had the first novel written in Mayan by a woman (“X-Teya, U Puksi’ik’al Ko’olel” by Marisol Ceh Moo), just to name a few examples of this progress. I have my own project, a very special website I plan to launch next February or March, 2010. If you like Nahuatl, you will hear about it eventually 🙂

Mizton’s blog can be found here

His Nahuatl Lessons at Unilang are here.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mizton  |  December 15, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Hey there 🙂
    Thank you for your comment, yes I’m back only in Nahuatl, and I’m working on the project I mentioned in the last answer 🙂 Take care!


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