Phonetic Writing in Late Postclassic and Colonial Central Mexico

FIGURE 15. The place sign of Iztepec in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 15. The place sign of Iztepec in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 16. The place sign of Xiuhuacan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 9v).

FIGURE 16. The place sign of Xiuhuacan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 9v).

FIGURE 17. The place sign of Itzquintepec in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Cell 79).

FIGURE 17. The place sign of Itzquintepec in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Cell 79).

FIGURE 18. The place sign of Cihuatlan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 9v).

FIGURE 18. The place sign of Cihuatlan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 9v).

FIGURE 19. The place sign of Ayotochco in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 19. The place sign of Ayotochco in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 20. The place sign of Apancalecan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 8v).

FIGURE 20. The place sign of Apancalecan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 8v).

FIGURE 21. The place sign of Petlatlan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 9v).

FIGURE 21. The place sign of Petlatlan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 9v).

FIGURE 22. The name Citlalpopoca in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Cell 27).

FIGURE 22. The name Citlalpopoca in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Cell 27).

FIGURE 24. The place sign of Atenco in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 24. The place sign of Atenco in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 25. The place sign of Teziuitla in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 25. The place sign of Teziuitla in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 15r).

FIGURE 26. The name Maxicatzin in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Cell 28).

FIGURE 26. The name Maxicatzin in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Cell 28).

In the Maya examples above, we focused on 3 images from the Codex Dresden. To discuss Central Mexican writing, we focus on two folios from the Matrícula de Tributos (9v, showing the tribute province of Cihuatlan, and 15r, showing the tribute province of Tlatlauhquitepec) as well as a number of cells from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. In spelling out Nahuatl words, we will use orthographies from both the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. This can be confusing at first, but is easily understood after some practice. For example, the word for “reed” was usually written acatl in the sixteenth century, with a and c. According to contemporary linguistic spelling, however, it is written akatl, with a and k. Similarly, the word for woman was written cihuatl in the sixteenth century, but is written siwatl using current orthography.28

As in Maya writing, the Central Mexican script uses a number of logograms. A very simple one appears as the place sign for Xiuhuacan, “Place that Has Turquoise” (Figure 15). This name is represented by a single blue glyph for turquoise (xiuhtl), read XIW.29 Transliterated, this sign is read Xiw[wakan]. As you can see, only the very first part of the name Xiuhuacan is represented glyphically. This is something we will see again and again in Central Mexican writing: in contrast to Maya script, words are only partially spelled out.

The town of Iztepec, “Hill of Obsidian,” is represented with two logograms: a curved black rectangle, representing an obsidian blade (itztli) and a green bell-shaped hill (tepetl). Together, these signs are read ITZ-TEPE (Figure 16) This is a more complete phonetic rendering than we saw above for Xiuhuacan, but the final -c sound is still not represented.30

A third example, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, shows the town of Itzquintepec, “Hill of the Itzquintli” (a type of hairless dog). Together, these two signs read ITZKwIN-TEPE. Like the place name for Iztepec, the final -c sound is not represented (Figure 17).

As in Maya writing, Central Mexican logograms were sometimes accompanied by phonetic complements, redundant syllabic signs that helped the reader. The town of Cihuatlan, “Place of Women,” is depicted with a drawing of a woman’s head (cihuatl)(Figure 18). This is read SIWA. Her cheek, you will notice, is painted with a black bar. This was the syllabic sign for wa. Together, these signs are transcribed as SIWA-wa, with the wa serving only to confirm for the reader that the woman’s head represents a logogram ending with the sound wa. The woman’s head could, for example, have been used to represent the word for head (tzontecomatl) instead of the word for woman (cihuatl). The final wa syllable makes this reading clear. This place sign is therefore transliterated as Siwa[tlan]. Once again, note the curious spelling. The scribe has overspelled the first part of the name of Cihuatlan—*SIWA-wa*—but has not represented the final -tlan sound.

A second example of the use of syllabic signs as phonetic complements is found in the place name for Ayotochco, “On the Armadillo” (Figure 19). A logographic sign for an armadillo (ayatochtli), read AYATOCH, is prefixed with a blue water (atl) glyph, which is the syllabic sign for a: a-AYATOCH. Perhaps this water sign was added so that the armadillo was not confused with a rabbit (especially because this armadillo drawing has very rabbity ears and long teeth). As with the example of Cihuatlan, the first part of this place name is overspelled, but the final -co is not indicated visually.

In other cases, syllabic signs are not silent when combined with logographic signs. These syllabic signs function as actual syllables in the word being represented. The town of Apancalecan, “Place of House Canals,” is represented using the watery syllabic sign for a that we just studied, as well as the house-shaped logogram for CAL (Figure 20). This creates a fractured spelling. Less than half of this name is represented phonetically: A[pan]cal[ecan]. A much more complete spelling is found in the name of Petlatlan, “Place of Mats” (Figure 21) This is represented by the logogram for woven mat, PETLA, and the syllabic sign for tla (shaped like a pair of teeth, tlantli). Since the logogram PETLA ends with the sound -tla, it is possible that the pair of teeth are functioning as a phonetic complement. However, since the place name in question includes two -tla sounds (Petlatlan), it is more likely that the teeth are meant to represent the second syllable of this place name: Petla-tla[n].

The combination of logograms and syllabic signs also appears in personal names from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. In Cell 27, the name of the Tlaxcalan leader Citlalpopoca (“Smoking Star”) is written using the logogram for star (citlalin), read SITLAL, and the multiple curls of smoke which form the sign po (Figure 22).31 That is, Sitlal-po[poca]. In Cell 48, the name of a Mexica noblewoman (and wife of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor) is written using the syllabic sign te, the flowerlike logogram ICHCA (from the word cotton, ichcatl), and finally the syllabic sign po. Together, the signs te-ICH-po are meant to spell the name Tecuhichpo, “Lord’s Maiden” (from tecuhtli, lord, and ichpochtli, maiden).32 The use of the cotton-shaped logogram ICHCA is quite interesting. In the examples we have looked at so far, the sound of a logogram was meant to indicate the word of the thing that logogram depicted. The star-shaped logogram SITLAL was pronounced sitlal and was meant to refer to the word for star (citlalin), because it was used to indicate a name that meant “Smoking Star.” In contrast, the name Tecuhichpo has nothing to do with cotton. In this example, the cotton logogram is being used only for its abstract phonetic sound, and not for its association with cotton. Technically, the cotton-shaped logogram should be read ICHCA. In the transcription case, however, since the final C and A are not part of the sounds in the name Tecuhichpo, those letters have been put in parentheses: ICH. The same strategy was used for redundant sounds in Maya hieroglyphs.33

Finally, and again like Maya writing, some words were written using only syllabic signs. But even in these cases they are underspelled. The town Atenco, “On the Shore,” is represented using the water syllable a and a stone sign for the syllable te: a-te (Figure 24). The town Teziuitla, “Place of Hail,” is spelled with the stone for te, a blue shell for si, and the pair of teeth for tla: te-si-tla (Figure 25). In Cell 28 of the Lienzo, the name of the Tlaxcalan lord Maxicatzin is written using a hand for the syllable ma and an image of water gushing out of a disk for the syllable ka: ma-ka (Figure 26). And in Cell 11 the palace of Moctezuma I is labeled with a drawing of a man (apparently a full-figured drawing of the old man’s head that represents the syllable we), a stone sign for te, a ceramic jar for ko, a lobed clump of clay for tzo, and a hand for ma (Cell 27).34 Together, these signs are transcribed as we te-ko-tzo-ma, transliterated as we[we] [mo]tecotzoma, and translated as “Old Moctezuma.” (Huehueyotl was the sixteenth-century Nahuatl word for old).35

Writing Borrowed Words: Links between Postclassic Yucatan and Central Mexico >
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28 Lacadena 2008a, 6.

29 Lacadena 2008a, 21.

30 Exactly why Nahuatl writing used abbreviation is unclear. Lacadena (2008a, 14) includes this as one of the three features that distinguish the Nahuatl writing system from other logosyllabic systems such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Linear B, and Egyptian and Maya hieroglyphs.

31 This analysis is based on an original suggestion by Chavero 1892, 52.

32 This analysis is based on an original suggestion by Chavero 1892, 78.

33 See Lacadena 2008a, 13-14, for the example of PAIN. A logogram of footsteps is read PAIN, based on the term paina, to run fast (Lockhart 2001, 229). This logogram is often used to represent the locative -pan (in, on), and so in transcription the effectively silent I is placed in parentheses: PA(I)N. For this convention in Maya epigraphy, see Coe and Van Stone 2005, 19.

34 This reading is based on suggestions made by Alfredo Chavero in 1892 (Chavero 1892, 30). He, following Aubin, assumed these signs were based on a use of rebus principles. Recent work by Alonso Lacadena, however, has shown that all of these signs were part of a standardized syllabic system (Lacadena 2008). Significantly, the syllabic value of the lobed “lump of clay” sign as tzo- (from zoquitl, clay or mud) is not included in Lacadena’s 2008 syllabary chart (see Karttunen 1992, 349). This value was suggested by Chavero in 1892, and is confirmed by the use of the clay sign as tzo- in the place sign for Tzoquitzinco in the Matrícula (f. 7r) and Codex Mendoza (f. 33r). See Berdan and Anawalt 1992, 186.

35 Karttunen 1992, 84.