Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs: A Guide to Nahuatl Writing

A leading handbook of scripts and writing that runs to almost a thousand pages, The World’s Writing Systems (1996), edited by Peter Daniels and William Bright, contains scarcely any reference to the Aztec writing system of Mesoamerica. Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Aztec writing’ is brief and refers to no book-length study. So there is undoubtedly a need for this first book on the subject, Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs, which aims to appeal to both scholars and the general reader, copiously and colourfully illustrated with Aztec glyphs that are visually compelling but intellectually challenging. Its author, philologist Gordon Whittaker, has written extensively on Aztec writing, the Aztec language Nahuatl, and Aztec civilisation. Indeed, his book has been half a century in the making, with the long-time encouragement of his former doctoral advisor Michael D Coe, an eminent Maya scholar and historian of Mexico who died in 2019.

As Whittaker observes, ‘While the Maya script has now begun to find a place in handbooks on writing systems, Aztec writing has to date not fared anywhere near as well. If it is mentioned at all, it is quickly dismissed as a mere forerunner of writing – something along the lines of Plains Indian “pictography”. But…this is far from an accurate or adequate assessment of this long-overlooked Central Mexican phenomenon.’ Indeed, he stresses controversially – disagreeing with fellow Aztec scholar Alfonso Lacadena – ‘it is especially in the area of phoneticism that Aztec writing shines brilliantly.’

The Aztec script is, of course, far younger than the Maya script, which originated in the 3rd century BC. The Aztecs flourished from about 1300, became an empire in 1431, and were defeated by the Spanish invaders of Mexico in 1521. Their writing system therefore lasted for only a few centuries. It survived the Spanish conquest – the famous Aztec Codex Mendoza (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) was created around 1541 with an explanation in Spanish – but disappeared from use in the fourth quarter of the 16th century as the last Aztec scribes passed away. Although its precise origins are lost in time, according to Whittaker, the Aztecs themselves traced their roots as far back as Teotihuacan, a city of global proportions in the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. This was located not far from the marshy islands that in 1325 became the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, now the historic centre of Mexico City.

With remarkably few exceptions, in the Maya system, complex as it is, a sign is either a logogram (representing a word) or a syllabogram (representing a syllable). In this respect, Mayan resembles Mycenaean Linear B, the earliest script for writing Greek. If a Maya sign has a logographic value, it generally has no syllabic value, and vice versa. But in the Aztec system, by contrast, ‘signs frequently have multiple logographic values, and these generate multiple phonetic values’. In this respect, the Aztec script resembles Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, and is even more complex.

Many Aztec signs have both a phonetic and a logographic value, and sometimes more than this. For example, the Aztec drawing of a human leg (below left) has one phonetic value and the logographic values ‘leg’, ‘thigh’, ‘heel’, ‘calf’, ‘foot’, ‘stand’, ‘arrive’, ‘stamp’, and ‘run’. The determination of the correct value for many Aztec glyphs is therefore dependent on context and often far from definitive.

Image: © 2021 Gordon Whittaker.

After the Spanish conquest, Aztec scribes were influenced by the Spanish alphabet and somewhat increased the phoneticism in their script. But how to translate the Spanish surname ‘Díaz’, which has no transparent meaning in Spanish, into Nahuatl? ‘The scribe, in a stroke of genius (or perhaps just acting on an innocent assumption), interpreted the name as if it were the Spanish numeral diez, “ten”, equivalent to Nahuatl màtlactli, and applied the appropriate glyph to it – ten small circles in two sets of five’, writes Whittaker in the final chapter of his pioneering book. No wonder scholars have long struggled with deciphering Aztec script!

Review by Andrew Robinson.
Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs: A Guide to Nahuatl Writing, Gordon Whittaker, Thames & Hudson, £25, Hardback, ISBN 978-0500518724.