Monday, March 11, 2013

The Aztec Writing system
Something New in Something Old

Two generations ago a great many Archaeologists / Anthropologists and Historians would have agreed that there was a lot we didn’t know about the Pre-Columbian civilizations of the New World although the amount that we did know was large.

Now we know vastly more and yet the number of questions, what we do not know has if anything expanded faster than what we know. Things that seemed settled in 1950 are now unsettled; new discoveries have if anything shown just how extensive our ignorance is of the cultures and societies of the Pre-Columbian New World.1 Thus if anything the Maya, Aztec and Inca are more mysterious and harder to understand than ever. The more we learn the less we know is apparently in this case partially true.

A striking example of how increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to greater clarity concerning the society being examined is the question of Aztec writing.

Frankly until the last 10 years it appears that we understood the nature if not all the details of the Aztec writing system.

The standard view was that the Aztec writing system imparted most of its information directly by means of pictorial symbols and pictures that conveyed meaning directly and thus could be read by anyone understanding the system, without knowledge of the Aztec language nahautl. In fact the phonetic element was minimal in the script and largely related to personal names and name places.2

Thus Aztec writing was conceived to be a sort of primitive halfway house on the way to “true” writing and not a complete writing system. Certain manuscripts that showed greater phonetic use were generally deemed to be influenced by Spanish influence and thus not authentically Mesoamerican.3

Thus the Aztec writing system was conceived to be a sort of hodgepodge writing system and not a complete one.

Perhaps the best indication of the attitudes that helped to hold back the decipherment / understanding of Aztec writing is an article written by a Philipp J. J. Valentini published in 1880. The piece acidly entitled The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication, is mainly about the Mayan writing system which the author believes is not a real writing system and that Landa’s infamous “alphabet” in his book is basically a total fabrication. Concerning the Mayan system it turns out that Valentini is so off that he is not even wrong.4 To buttress his case against the Mayan writing system Valentini has a few things to say about the Aztec writing system

First, those objects refer to a people's history and policy, with which we are very little acquainted. Secondly, they represent a large array of paraphernalia, which belonged only to them 1md are now lost. Thirdly, they are delineated in a way strange to our methods of drawing. Finally, many of these pictures are, so to speak short-hand and conventional symbols, the meaning of which no happy guess and no keenness of penetration could interpret, and which would he lost to our knowledge, if the above mentioned explanation had not been secured. This however, being fortunately preserved, in the interpretation, we cannot help coming to the conclusion th11.t the painters of those characters did not write a certain text with letters and words, nor with symbols and characters which conveyed sound or appealed to the ear, but that the office of the paintings was exclusively to impress the eye, and by this means recall to the memory of the beholder objects seen and known, or if there was a series of objects represented in a row or column, to evoke an association of ideas connected with events of their history, policy and religion. When the Spanish missionaries became aware of this infantile method of recording, those who had come to the New World as the teachers of the Indians saw themselves suddenly in the condition of pupils to those whom they had come to teach.5

Later Valentini states:

It is hardly credible if these two countries had differed in so essential a point of culture as this that the natives in the one country should still have remained in the stage of pictorial writing, while the other was so far advanced as to use phonetical writing, that the fact should have been unnoticed.6

Later Valentini argues that the examples given of native hieroglyphic phonetic writing were in fact post conquest creations designed to teach the natives certain Christian teachings like the Latin Our Father, by use of pictures of objects whose pronunciation in nahautl were similar to the Latin words.7

Of course Valentini’s essay was mainly about the Mayan writing system and it turned out to be almost totally wrong about the nature of the writing system and in that respect is a mere curiosity.8

It was ideas like the above that held back the decipherment. The notion that the Aztec writing system was incomplete and not a “full” writing system imparting a language. So notions like the above when allied with the idea that anything smacking of a full phonetic system was created under Spanish influence held back the decipherment and generated as indicated above the notion of a “incomplete” writing system.9

The idea that the Aztec writing system is “incomplete” is not, despite the attitudes of scholars like Valentini without foundation. It was noticed that codices coming from the area of the Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), and certain other areas had little phoneticism and that little was confined to reinforcing the meaning of logogramic symbols. This lead to the notion that any codices that showed greater use of phonetic symbols was the result of Spanish influence.10

For there were surviving codices, the so-called Tepetlaoztoc and Tetzcocan groups, that did show greater use of phonetic symbols and during the mid-19th century a French scholar Joseph Aubin examining those documents proposed reading for large number of the symbols many of them phonetic. His work was largely ignored has based on Spanish influenced manuscripts.11

The Argument that the system was modified post conquest does not deal with the fact that the Spanish generally had little knowledge of the system. So just who would be the targets for increased use of phonetic symbols? Further the documents prepared after the conquest for use by the Spanish show very little attempt to increase phonetic use over those that are for local use. Such manuscripts has the Mendoza Codex are as resolutely poor in phoneticisms as pre-conquest documents from the same area, i.e., Tenochtitlan.

What we have is in fact different pre-conquest scribal traditions of the same writing system one of which used very little phoneticism and the other that used much more.12

The way that words were written out was syllabically by means of what is called rebus writing. Basically a symbol that was a pictorial representation of a word that was one syllable long would be written for the first syllable of a two syllable word and a representation of something that was the one word syllable that represented the last syllable of a two syllable word. Thus for example:


The above is a drawing of a heart and a drawing of a man. Thus Heart + Man equals the name Heartmann. 

In the Aztec writing system something similar was done with symbols. For Example:

Which means Wexo-Tzin and is a place name, (Modern day Huexotzinco.). It is a combination of tzin which means bottom / anus and wexo that means willow. It is linked to a man’s head.13

Another example is the following:

This is the glyph for Mapachtepec or in English  "at Raccoon hill". Instead of just drawing a picture of a Raccoon and a hill the scribe drew a hand, which is Ma-it in nahautl, holding a bunch of moss or pach-tli in nahautl, on a hill or tepec in nahautl. Scribal conventions would hold that in this context only the first syllable of the object represented would be ‘read”, in the first two symbols, the last symbol would be in context a logogram to be “read” fully. Thus it would be read Ma + pach + tepec = Mapachtepec.14

The system had phonetic signs linked to logograms, which represented things, places directly and other times as phonetic reinforcements to signs.

Further it appears that has mentioned above the system was variable geographically with different “schools” varying in how much phoneticism was used in writing.

The argument that the more phonetic versions of the system are the results of Spanish influence are unlikely for several reasons one of them being is that in the system the signs representing sounds continued to be the sounds of syllables not the alphabetic sounds of an alphabet like the one used by the Spanish. Further the syllables used were used in a manner consistent with the native writing system not the Spanish Alphabet.15

Thus the use of only one particular writing tradition to discuss the nature of the writing system is in fact wrong. To quote:

However, as we have seen throughout this work, the documents of the Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco tradition are not uniquely representative of the Nahautl writing system. They are not even the most representative, if this term implies the minimization or underestimation of the other equally important scribal traditions of Central Mexico. In spite of their undeniable importance, the isolated use that has been made of the written testimonies of the Mexica and specifically the Codex Mendoza in the exemplification of the functioning of Nahuatl writing has come to present a mutilated and distorted image of the system, in that at times certain phenomena and scribal resources have been underestimated, while others, on the contrary, have been overinflated, contributing to the misunderstandings which are still maintained in this field regarding the character and function of the signs, the scribal resources, the orthographic conventions, and even the very categorization of the system and its situation within the general typology of writing.16

It is possible that the development of Aztec writing was influenced by the highly phonetic writing of the Maya.17

None of this means that the Aztec system of writing was used in completely phonetic way the way the Mayan system was used. In fact it appears that the Aztec system was highly logographic with, in at least some places the phonetic element was not very large.

However it does seem to be the case that despite regional variations in the script there was in fact a fairly complete syllabary in existence and the following is a tentative listing of the various characters in it. It is of course only tentative and hardly complete the remaining gaps will be filled in in the future.

The Aztec Syllabary
(Tentative and Incomplete)

Thus rather than a being a “incomplete” script for recording the nahautl language it is likely that it could do so. Just why in their surviving documents the native scribes choose to not fully use this capacity is worth further study. Also perhaps we should consider the possibility that perhaps some of the time it was used to record speech, poetry etc., write letters and that no examples have survived for various reasons. As it is solving one problem has raised new mysteries.

So that it appears that despite attitudes like that shown by Valentini that “truth” so to speak wins in the end even if it takes a long time. It is sad to see how the attitudes that held back Mayan decipherment also operated in relation to the script used by the Aztecs and related peoples.

My Personal opinion is that it is possible that certain phonetic features of even manuscripts like the Mendoza Codex are even now being overlooked and perhaps a fresh look should be made on such manuscripts to see if some phoneticism has gone unnoticed.19

Thus does one more door open and we find even more doors waiting to be opened in the case of figuring out the Pre-Columbian civilizations of the New World. 

Section of a page of the Mapa Tlotzin Codex.

1. See Mann, Charles C., 1491, Knopf, New York, 2005.

2. Smith, Michael, E., The Aztecs, Second Edition, Blackwell Pub, Oxford, 2003, pp. 242-246, Valliant G. C., Aztecs of Mexico, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1962, pp. 106-108.

3. Lacadena, Alfonso, Regional Scribal Traditions: Methodological Implications for the Decipherment of Nahuatl WritingThe PARI Journal, v. 8, no. 4, Spring 2008, pp. 1-23, at pp. 1-2.

4. Valentini, Philipp J.J., The Landa Alphabet; A Spanish Fabrication, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, April 28, 1880, pp. 59-91, Coe, Michael D., Breaking the Maya Code, Third Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2012.

5. Valentini, p. 64.

6. IBID, p. 66.

7. IBID, pp. 72-73.

8. Coe, pp. 119-120.

9. Zender, Marc, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment, The PARI Journal, v. 8, no. 4, Spring 2008, pp. 24-37, Townsend, Richard F., The Aztecs, Third Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, pp. 209.

10. Smith, pp. 242-246, Vaillant, pp. 106-108, Lacadena p. 2.

11. See Aubin, Joseph Marius Alexis, Mémoires sur la peinture didactique et l’écriture figurative des anciens Mexicains. In  Mission Scientifique au Mexique et dans l’Amerique Centrale, Recherches Historiques et Archéologiques, Premiére Partie: Histoire, edited by M. E. T. Hamy, pp. 1-106. Paris: Impremerie Nationale, 1849.

12. Lacadena, pp. 3-4, Townsend, pp. 206-212.

13. IBID, pp. 6-7.

14. Coe, p. 119.

15. Lacadena, pp. 13-17.

16. IBID. p. 17.

17. IBID, p. 18, Townsend, p. 210.

18. IBID, p. 23.

19. See Townsend, pp. 206-212. For more on the Mendoza Codex see Berdan, Frances, and Anawalt, Patricia Rieff, The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1997, Robertson, Janice Lynn, Aztec Picture Writing: A Critical Study based on the Codex Mendoza’s Place Name Signs, Phd Thesis, Columbia University NY USA, 2005.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. Please consider Gordon Whittaker, "The Principles of Nahuatl Writing" (2009), a rebuttal of the key arguments made in the Lacadena article you cite. My article is available, along with others on Aztec writing, at Note also that Robertson's monograph on "Aztec Picture Writing" is a largely derivative work that fundamentally misunderstands how Aztec writing, not "picture writing", operates. See instead Hanns Jürgen Prem's excellent article "Aztec Writing" in Supplement 5 "Epigraphy" of the "Handbook of Middle American Indians".
    G. Whittaker

  2. Thank you for your comment and reading suggestions. I agree that I was a far to eager to accept Lacadena's work in this area. I did read your piece and frankly I thought there was just a little bit too much of Valentini in it. Be that has it may thank you for indicating that my enthusiasm was / is premature and likely not warranted. As for Robertson well the piece did get a Phd for the author. Were the prof's are her evaluation committee equally clueless about the Aztec writing system? Well that would not surprise me having seen the sort of shoddy pieces that sometimes get awarded Phd's in the past.

    Again thank you.