Spanish in Mexico and the 68 indigenous voices

Discover the vocabulary inherited by Spain from the indigenous languages of Mexico.

Leaves 4 to 7 from a facsimile of the Dresden Codex, a Maya screenfold book. Am2006,Drg.224British Museum

Prehispanic Mexico

From ca. 1600 CE until the arrival of the Spanish and the conquest in 1521, around 13 cultures with different traditions, languages, and histories lived together in what is now Mexico and part of the territory of the United States.

Mexican codex map (1550/1599)British Museum

The 68 indigenous voices

We now know that there are 68 language groups or families, called branches. Some of the branches are unique languages, such as Purépecha. Other branches are more complex, like the Zapotec group, which includes many languages.

Cantares mexicanos, in Nahuatl language (s. XIX) by José Fernando RamírezFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Out of them all, Nahuatl was by far the lingua franca of the region. However, still speaking of the same language, there were many variants across the area. A similar thing occurred with the language brought in by the Spaniards. There was no single Spanish spoken.

Hernán Cortés (1855-1864) by Bernardo Blanco PérezFundación Antonio de Nebrija

The conquest of Mexico

In 1521, a small group of Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés, with the support of a broad coalition of indigenous peoples, conquered Tenochtitlan, the large capital of the Aztecs.

General history of the things of New Spain (1540)Fundación Antonio de Nebrija

Spanish versus the indigenous languages

Part of the process of a conquest is to appropriate their world, learn about it, and name things. The first thing the Spanish did was name things specifically, partly because they had to describe them in the chronicles they sent to the king of Spain.

Aztequism Dictionary (1915) by Cecilio A. RobeloFundación Antonio de Nebrija

They had different strategies. One strategy was to name things based on how they sounded. They started to add many indigenous terms to Spanish. The proof that they did not always hear the same things lies in the fact that some words have up to nine representations. This was also a sign there were variations in the indigenous languages.

Aztequism Dictionary (1915) by Cecilio A. RobeloFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Another way to name things is to use words from your own language. American objects were renamed to Latin words because they did not know what to call them. For example, chili (from chilli, a Nahuatl word), was called pimiento (from the Latin pigmentum).

Aztequism Dictionary (1915) by Cecilio A. RobeloFundación Antonio de Nebrija

What is certain is that at first, mainly in the 16th century, words from indigenous languages were directly adopted into Spanish with some very early adaptations. For example, an e was added to the end of tomate (tomatl), or tomato in English, adapting the indigenous spelling to the Spanish language.

View of the Plaza de México (1797) by José Joaquín FabregatOriginal Source: National Library of Spain

The language of power

In the 16th century, three lingua francas coexisted: Spanish, the language of the conquistadors; Latin, the language of science; and Nahuatl, the everyday language spoken by a large part of the population.

Emperor Charles V (1605) by Juan Pantoja de la CruzOriginal Source: Prado Museum

In the beginning, with the House of Austria in the Spanish monarchy, they established a policy of separation between the Native American and Spanish peoples. However, this separation created huge respect for traditions and customs, regulations, and indigenous ways of life.

Charles III (1765) by Anton Rafael MengsOriginal Source: Prado Museum

After the end of the House of Austria and the arrival of the House of Bourbon in the Spanish monarchy, their rule was fully centralized. Native American and Spanish peoples were no longer separated and a single rule, which imposed the Spanish language, began.

Vistas Mexicanas. Mexico. The Cathedral. (1860s–1880s) by Abel BriquetThe J. Paul Getty Museum

After Mexico became independent in 1821, the country underwent a development that, little by little, abandoned the indigenous languages. These languages were not prohibited, but they stopped being used in official documents.

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija

Mestizo Spanish

Modern Spanish, Mexican Spanish, and the Spanish of part of Central America is profoundly mestizo, or mixed. There are phrases originating and constructed from a mixture of Spanish and indigenous languages. There is also a very clear process of replacing the Latin lexicon with indigenous languages.

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija

The linguistic and cultural wealth of the indigenous languages has helped enrich the Spanish language spoken in Mexico. It has words that reflect the identity of the original peoples of the country. Let's look at a few of them.

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija


The word cacao is derived from the Nahuatl word cacahoatl or cacahuatl, which means sour juice or chocolate. In turn, this word comes from the Mayan word chocol, which is hot and water, respectively.

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija


Tomato in English, this word originates from Nahuatl, where tomal or tomahuac means thickness and atl que means water, i.e., thick water. However, tomate is the short form of jitomate (Mexican Spanish).

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija


Avocado in English, the name of this fruit originating in Mesoamerica, comes from the Nahuatl ahuacatl, which means testicle.

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija


From the Nahuatl coyotl, from adive, golden jackal, a mammal that looks like a wolf but is smaller.

Illustration of Indigenous (2019) by 68 VocesFundación Antonio de Nebrija


Apapacho, from the Nahuatl patzoa, is translated as to squeeze or to compress something. It is considered one of the most beautiful inherited words in Spanish. Though the Real Academia Española Spanish institute defines it as an affectionate pat or hug, in Mexico it has an even bigger meaning: to caress with the soul.

Credits: Story

Article composed with the help of information obtained from an interview with Concepción Company Company, a Spanish-born Mexican linguist, philosopher, researcher, and academic. It includes content from the project 68 voces: 68 corazones (68 voices: 68 hearts).

Curator: Rodrigo Díaz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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