The nawat language

The Nawat language

Nawat is the heritage language of the Pipils who live in the western part of El Salvador. Nawat is the native name and it is so spelt in the present (IRIN) orthography; it is also the proposed English spelling. In Spanish, and in older Spanish-based Nawat spelling, the same word is spelt náhuat. The language is frequently called Pipil in the English-language academic literature.

Prodigal Son excerpt in NawatNawat closely resembles the modern dialects of Nahuatl (of the Uto-Aztecan language family) spoken in parts of southern Mexico, and has sometimes been considered merely one more dialect of Nahuatl. But despite the similarities and partial mutual intelligibility (comparable in degree to that found between some modern Romance languages), the Pipils have been isolated from their linguistic cousins for many centuries and their language may be said to have acquired an identity of its own. For practical purposes, therefore, Nawat is a separate language.

The Pipils are descended from people who migrated south from southern Mexico in several waves, perhaps roughly a thousand years ago. The historical details are unclear and still debated. They originally settled in numerous localities all over Central America and either dominated or lived side-by-side with earlier indigenous populations of different stocks within the highly complex ethnic patchwork of peoples and languages in Central America. None of these linguistic neighbours were genetically related to Nawat. This pattern of Pipil settlement was already established before contact with the Spanish. In the upheaval and persecutions that followed European conquest, Pipil communities in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua disappeared or lost their identity, leaving the important Pipil nucleus in western El Salvador as the only remaining stronghold of the Nawat language.

Nahuatl in Mexico had become the language of the Aztec Empire that the Spanish encountered upon their arrival in the so-called New World. Given the similarity between Nahuatl and the language of the Pipils, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that the Pipils’ ancestors were Aztecs. But this is a historical anachronism since “Aztec” refers to an empire that came into being in present-day Mexico when the Pipils were already settled in Central America. The Spanish colonists initially adopted and attempted to spread an elaborate literary form of what is now called Classical Nahuatl as the lingua franca of their new territories, before abandoning this policy and imposing Spanish instead.

Even though most of the native languages of Central America bore absolutely no relationship at all to Nahuatl, after destroying the Aztec Empire the Spanish enlisted Nahuatl speakers (“Mexicans”) to accompany them as “interpreters” as they proceeded southwards to expand their domains. Thus some of the representatives of local ethnic groups learnt the language of the Aztecs in order to communicate with their invaders and new overlords, and Nahuatl terminology, placenames and so on were introduced over an area far beyond the borders of the Aztec imperial domain.

Yet when these Mexican interpreters came into contact with Pipils they found that they understood each other’s language so easily that the interpreters informed their Spanish masters that the Pipils spoke mexicano corrupto, a “corrupted form of Mexican”. They may have considered the Pipils’ form of speech somewhat comical, for they described it as childish. This conception of the Pipils may possibly explain the name Pipil, which probably meant “boy, youngster” in the interpreters’ dialect as it still does today in Nawat. This explanations seems likelier than the alternative (more romantic?) theory often heard, according to which pipil meant “prince” (i.e. a BOY-king) and the epithet referred to the members of the pre-colonial Pipil aristocracy. Either way, as an ethnonym (name of a people), Pipil would be an exonym (name given by another ethnic group, not an original self-designation of the people in question), and this may help to explain why this term is not often used by the Pipils themselves, who appear not to have any traditional term specifying their identity as a people.

In pre-Hispanic times the Pipils of present-day El Salvador were surrounded by neighbours who spoke Mayan languages (to the north and west), while further east were the Lencas (who spoke Lenca) and also a people who spoke a language belonging to the Misumalpan language family (which includes Miskito) known as Cacaopera. All these languages are now extinct in El Salvador; the last speakers of Lenca and Cacaopera were documented in the mid-twentieth century.

If nothing is done to oppose this trend, the last speakers of Nawat may also disappear in the early twenty-first century. The clock is ticking and time is against us. Hence the urgency of Nawat language recovery if the language is to survive. It will be necessary to fight against many obstacles. Nobody is sure how many speakers are left (and the slippery definition of “speaker” makes it still harder to say): many think there are only a few dozen left, at best, and many live isolated from each other in remote rural areas. But there are other obstacles too. In the twentieth century political persecution and war led to large-scale massacres and decimated the indigenous and Nawat-speaking population; the Pipils still recoil from the historical memory of suffering and fear, which tinges their feelings about their language and ethnic identity for which they have suffered persecution. In El Salvador today, a very poor country with enormous social problems exacerbated by the dominance of a reactionary ruling class, there is very little social awareness of the existence of indigenous peoples or recognition of their distinct identity. Despite token nods to a historical indigenous component of their “national identity” (difficult to ignore since the overwhelming majority of the population, except for the ruling class, is racially predominantly indigenous and most placenames are of native origin), the society at large and the official national discourse are in constant denial on the indigenous issue as part of the country’s present, and indigenous rights are in practice as good as non-existent. In this climate, there is hardly any effective official or social support for the cause of indigenous identity and language in El Salvador, which are regarded as fringe issues, and the future this promises for survival and recovery of the only remaining heritage language is a bleak one.

If you would like to support the Nawat language recovery movement, please contact IRIN – Te Miki Tay Tupal, the Nawat language recovery initiative.

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