Classical languages of the Americas

articles History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

“Classical” is one of those terms often bandied about with little or no comprehension of its original meaning. As a graduate of two Classics departments, the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, and the University of Toronto, Canada, there is no doubt in my mind that the term refers primarily to Greek and Latin language and literature, although I would have no difficulty in applying the term to other forms of literature. If I were asked to define “classics” in English literature I would not hesitate to begin with Shakespeare. However, what constitutes a “classic” to my way of thinking may be thought worthless or unimportant from someone else’s point of view.

It’s a matter of definition. For example, in a more or less homogeneous non-literate society, such as a North American Indian tribe, there is, or was, a general consensus on what constituted the “best” art of story-telling. All the people recognized the content and style, even the language, as something apart from ordinary speech. But in a complex heterogeneous society like ours, there is little agreement on what is the “best” literature or even the correct standard level of speech. Nevertheless, in its wider ramifications, the meaning of the term “classical” is of some importance. For example, is there some special relationship between the structure of a “classical” language and the level of culture or civilization of its speakers? To begin to answer the question, let us look at the evidence of “classical” languages in the Americas.

The Maya have been popularly described as the Greeks of the New World, the Aztecs the Romans. But what are the criteria for defining American Indian languages as “classical” in the sense that this term is applied to Greek and Latin language and literature? Both Nahuatl, a Mexican language, and Guarani, a South American language, are described in the literature as classical languages; and yet there is no comparison between them either in the number or type of texts available or in the period in which they were written. One criterion requires that the texts be relatively free of European influence. Immediately this gives rise to more questions than it answers. For example, how would this definition apply to the Yucatecan Books of Chilam Balam, which are full of Christian and foreign references, including corrupt Latin?

Certain indigenous languages share common characteristics that justify their description as classical languages. The criteria would include, for example, a large body of texts, the use of language as a literary medium, a special form of the language characteristic of the upper levels of society, relative freedom from Spanish or Portuguese borrowing, and association with a particular location. On this basis, the most obvious languages which, at present, qualify as “classical” are Nahuatl, Yucatec and Quiche. The Quechua language spoken in Cuzco, Peru, would qualify as a classical language because of its cultural and historical importance in this location, although we have no extensive indigenous literature from the early period of Inca history. Likewise, the Guarani language of Paraguay would qualify, at least with regard to the texts dating from the early missionary period, as opposed to later forms of the language spoken elsewhere.


By far the largest body of written literature we have is in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1521. The history of Aztec or Nahuatl literature really begins in 1492, when Antonio de Nebrija wrote a detailed grammar of Spanish, the first such treatment of any European vernacular. Previously only Greek, Latin, and Hebrew had been considered worthy of attention by grammarians. Naturally Nebrija based his grammar on the Latin model, for it was thought necessary to establish the value of the vernacular by comparing it with Classical Latin grammar. The other, more ominous reason – at least for the Aztecs – was the Spanish conviction that all subject peoples must learn Spanish. This fitted in well with the self-appointed mission of the Catholic Church. The early Spanish missionaries wrote grammars and collected vocabularies not to preserve native languages and culture, but rather to enable them to convert the Indians more easily by understanding their language and ways of thought and action.

Fray Andres de Olmos (1547) wrote the first grammar of Nahuatl only twenty six years after the Conquest. Many others followed. The missionaries also discerned that some Aztecs spoke “better” Nahuatl than others. Therefore they sought to establish a standard of Nahuatl based on upper-class speech. Today, most professional linguists do not recognize any absolute standards in spoken languages. From the purely linguistic point of view, a native creole would be of equal importance with the standard form of speech, a view which I find somewhat debatable.

Nahuatl belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family of languages under the subheading Aztec(an)/Nahuatlan. This includes not only the present day Nahua dialects of Mexico but also such northerly languages as Hopi, Northern Paiute, and Shoshone. The stylistic features of Classical Nahuatl, especially metaphors, are clearly marked. For example, in atl, in tepetl (“water” + “hill”) signifies “city.” Complementary, sometimes synonymous, sentences produce a fullness of expression that contribute to the elevated style, as in in poctli ehuatoc, ayahuitl onmantoc (“the smoke rises, the mist spreads outwards”). Repetition, often in the form of formulary language, is a characteristic feature of epic poetry and saga around the world. In Classical Nahuatl, too, it serves as a literary embellishment and an aid to memory, as in Cuix nel timotlatiz? Cuix timinayaz? Cuix canapa tonyaz? Cuix teixpampa tehuaz? (“In truth, shall you hide? Shall you conceal yourself? Shall you go off? Shall you flee?”). Although we are here dealing with written literary texts, such as the Florentine Codex, the extant texts are undoubtedly based on an underlying oral tradition in which the composer or reciter would rely on such stylistic devices in the course of composition or transmission.


Classical Yucatec belongs to the larger Mayan family of languages. This is further broken down into Mamean, or Mamean-Ixilian, which includes Yucatec or Maya proper, Lacandon, and other Mayan dialects. It was spoken by the inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula from about the middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century. Classical Yucatec comes from this period and is the literary medium for the culture of the ancient Maya. While there are some dialectal differences between the classical language and the modern language, the latter differs only minimally from the language of the classical period.

Most of our knowledge of Classical Yucatec comes from the Yucatecan Books of Chilam Balam. As in Classical Nahuatl, repetition is common, often in the form of semantic couplets in which the second half of the phrase repeats or echoes the first half. From the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, we have what I would call an example of the prophetic style: Emom caanil ual, Emom caanil tz’ulub, Caanil utz’ub. Some of the difficulties of translation and interpretation may be illustrated from this reference to what appears to be the paraphernalia carried by the High Priest. M. Edmonson translates: “Descended was the high fan, descended were the high branch and the celestial incense.” R. Roy’s version is similar but the choice of words leaves some doubt as to the precise meaning: “The heavenly fan, the heavenly wreath and the heavenly bouquet shall descend.” I prefer the second translation because it more closely echoes the rhythm of the original with the repetition of caanil (“celestial”). However, another difficulty is that the early grammars and vocabularies of Nahuatl were written in 16th century Spanish. Consequently some Spanish words in the early colonial records may be rare or obsolete today, another challenge for the translator/interpreter of these often obscure esoteric texts.

Classical Quiche belongs to the Quichean family of languages, which includes, among others, Cakchiquel, another possible classical language. It was spoken in highland Guatemala, around Totonicapan, El Quiche and other areas in the centuries before and after the Spanish Conquest. Classical Quiche was a fairly homogeneous language whose speakers were unified from about the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. Modern Quiche, which is spoken in the most important state in the highlands, differs mainly in the addition of Nahuatl and Spanish elements. As for other indigenous languages, missionaries early on trained the Indians to write their own language in Roman transcription. As a result we have the Popol Vuh, one of the most outstanding native documents to survive the Spanish war machine. In his edition of the Popol Vuh, M. Edmonson rearranged the original text into semantic couplets. While this is certainly one of the main stylistic features of the Popol Vuh, he went too far in attempting to force every line into a semantic couplet, even when there is no real justification for so doing. However, there is no doubt about the highly polished elegant Quiche style; for example, the human body is described as “the dust, the earth, the flesh” ( ka pokolahil, k’uleual, ka tiohil = pokolah + uleu + tioh).

Cakchiquel, another Mayan language related to Quiche, is not generally classified as a classical Indian language. However, the Annals of the Cakchiquels is an important historical document written in a language that some linguists consider the most advanced of the Mayan languages. One early translator, D. Brinton, thought that the linguistic structure of Cakchiquel reflected “remarkable native powers of mind.” While I certainly agree with his assessment of the intelligence of the writer of the Annals, it is not clear what relationship, if any, there is between the grammatical complexity of a language and the level of culture or civilization of the people who speak that language. However, the Theory of Linguistic Relativity is beyond the scope of this article.

Among other Indian language of the Americas which may be described as “classical” are Quechua and Tupi-Guarani. Although we do not have any written texts from the classical period of Inca civilization, the Quechua language spoken in the Inca capital of Cuzco is nevertheless described as “classical.” Unfortunately the knotted quipu was severely limited as a source of information because it depended too much on the interpretation of the user. The Inca drama Ollantay is evidence that the Incas cultivated the literary arts long before the arrival of the Spaniards but very little genuine native literature survived Spanish oppression.

Tupi-Guarani, a native language of Paraguay, is also spoken in Bolivia and Brazil. With well over a million speakers, it is classified under the language family of Tupi, which includes Old and Modern Tupi, and Old and Modern Guarani. Guarani is considered a classical language, although most of the textual material is in the form of grammars and vocabularies written by Spanish missionaries whose basic purpose was, as always, to convert the natives to Catholicism. All other textual material is of Catholic content. The Spaniards were not interested in preserving native culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that studies in Tupi-Guarani are slanted towards linguistic analysis rather than literature. This is in stark contrast with Nahuatl and Maya texts, which are of interest for their cultural content as well as their linguistic value. If Quechua and Tupi-Guarani can be classified as classical languages on these criteria, I would add, among others, the Iroquois Book of Rites, which has a history not unlike that of the aforementioned languages.

Comparison with the Greek and Latin classics reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of the studies done so far on classical languages in the Americas. While we do have more or less serviceable translations in English of such texts as the Popol Vuh and the Annals of the Cakchiquels, they lack the detailed linguistic analysis and the commentaries that we find in the critical editions of Greek and Latin texts. Consequently we are at the mercy of the translator/interpreter because we cannot adequately check the accuracy of the translation or the interpretation. One obvious result is the very different readings one finds, especially in the more esoteric religious and mythological texts in Nahuatl and Maya. For example, we have several different editions of the Cantares Mexicanos, a collection of Nahuatl poems. The German scholar Schultze Jena appended an analytical word list to his edition of the Popol Vuh that gives the forms as they appear in the original Quiche text along with a detailed linguistic analysis of each form. By comparison, A. Garibay’s edition, while a major achievement for its time, lacks such critical analysis. Translations of the same passages by Jena and Garibay are so different that the casual reader might think they came from different sources.

Classical Nahuatl is one of the best-documented Indian languages we have but even here there are serious gaps in our knowledge. From the standpoint of modern linguistics, the early Nahuatl grammars were deficient in phonological analysis, presumably because the early Spanish grammarians were in contact with living Aztecs with whom they could converse and could thus pick up the sounds of the language. Fortunately, the sound system of Nahuatl is relatively “simple and transparent.” Even so, there is a pressing need for critical editions of all these texts.

The study of the classical languages of the Americas has come a long way since the cultural devastation wrought by the Spanish invasion. However, if we take the Greek and Latin classics as a standard, there is still a long way to go. We cannot all be Nahuatl and Maya scholars, but I am appalled at the careless, non-critical way in which some popular writers use the available material. They give no references and sometimes simply paraphrase an English translation, which they then pass off as original research. The classical languages of the Americas and their users deserve better.

Published or Updated on: October 1, 2007 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2007
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