The Power of Writing, block print by NEH Summer Scholar, 2014, Lisa Albrich

The Power of Writing, block print by NEH Summer Scholar, 2014, Lisa Albrich

On this page we are assembling materials that relate to codices in that they help us understand indigenous language use and its evolution, including writing systems.  In the Nahuatl language and perhaps in others, the words relating to both writing and painting were the same.

Diego Rivera mural, National Palace, Mexico City. (Photo, S. Wood, 2003)

Pre-Columbian Writing Systems

Ceramic stamps were known in prehispanic times for marking paper, cloth, and so on. Post-Classic Mexica. Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City. (S. Wood, 2003)

NEH Summer Scholar (2010) Pearl Lau has her art students carve Maya glyphs in bars of soap. (Photo, P. Lau, 2014)

NEH Summer Scholar (2010) Pearl Lau has her art students carve Maya glyphs in bars of soap. (Photo, P. Lau, 2014)

  • P’urhépecha
  • Other Languages
    • There are a great many additional indigenous languages of Mesoamerica, not just for Mexico, but for Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Belize. We are just providing a selection here, but we encourage you to look into additional languages of your choice. The people of Oaxaca, alone, speak fifteen different indigenous languages.  Perhaps 30% of the population of the state of Oaxaca speaks an indigenous language.

Colonial Language Records

  • Introduction to the Alvarado Vocabulario” (Mixtec vocabulary from the Spanish colonial period), hosted by Mesolore.
  • The Alvarado Vocabulario,” more about the Mixtec vocabulary (in digital facsimile), hosted by Mesolore.
  • Codex Selden (Mixteca Alta) (in digital facsimile), hosted by Mesolore. Compare this one, from about 1560, with the Mixtec codex, above, from about 1519.  Note the remarkable continuity in iconography two generations after Spanish colonization (if we can trust the dating methods).
  • Ñuudzavui Geographies (a variety of colonial and modern resources relating to the Mixteca Alta and its history, free in PDF, hosted by Mesolore.
  • The Molina Vocabulario” of colonial Nahuatl (in digital facsimile), hosted by Mesolore.
Note the name of this lord, written in glyphs, and provided in a gloss, clarifying the meaning: Tzincuitlahuehue (Poop Elder). Courtesy of Matthew McDavitt.

Note the name of this lord, written with a glyph, and provided in a gloss, clarifying the meaning: Tzincuitlahuehue (Butt-Dirt-Elder or Poop Elder?). Courtesy of Matthew McDavitt.

Writing in symbols, as exemplified in this catechism educational tool (below), was also something that arose in the Spanish colonial setting. Some (such as Elizabeth Hill Boone) believe it was a sixteenth-century expression, and some (such as Juan José Batalla) see it as late-colonial. Were priests writing Christian messages with symbols as a way of teaching indigenous people to “read,” given that they were either familiar with pictography (if this was in the sixteenth century) or supposing that they might respond better to picture-writing in their progress toward the written word (if this was the eighteenth century).

Hieroglyphic catechism book attributed to Fray Pedro de Gante, 1525–28, but this copy is late-colonial. On display in the Franz Mayer Museum, borrowed from the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. (S. Wood, 2009)

Indigenous Language Use and Evolution

  • Justice: Mixtec Language (2009; video, 5 minutes, on YouTube) — in Spanish and Mixtec but with English subtitles, this brief dramatization shows acts of discrimination but ends with a message about cultural pride
  • Interview in Spanish with linguist Michael Swanton, “El Coloquio de Lenguas Otomangues en Oaxaca,” (video, 8 minutes); discussing a meeting in 2010 in support of indigenous languages and their collaborative study (indigenous/non-indigenous), with particular attention to the Otomanguean language family, which is so diverse, and references to the recent activity studying long-neglected indigenous-language manuscripts from the colonial period, especially in Nahuatl; regarding modern indigenous language promotion and which orthography to promote, Swanton argues that those who are most productive and most widely-read will be the ones who set the standards today for writing their languages; he also urges creative production in indigenous-language film, poetry, music, and hopes many indigenous philologists will step up to study older manuscripts
  • Interview in Spanish with historian/scholar Bas van Doesburg, “Textos del periodo colonial escritos en lengua indígena” (video, 8 minutes)
  • Interview in Spanish with historian/scholar Michel Oudijk, “El valor de los textos escritos en lenguas indígenas” (video, 10 minutes)
  • Interview in Spanish with art historian Marina Garone Gravier, “Las publicaciones en lenguas indígenas del periodo colonial“) (video, 9 minutes)
  • La lengua zapoteca hoy,” lecture in Spanish by Javier Castellanos Martínez, prize-winning author of modern Zapotec literature (YouTube video, 15 minutes)
  • “Isthmus Zapotec: Language, Memory, and Identity” — part of the larger ESRI map interactives about endangered languages
  • “Lengua y cultura zapoteca,” lecture in Spanish by Hugo Miranda Segura about the challenges in modern educational settings for indigenous children (YouTube video, 15 minutes)
  • Mexicolore’s “Aztec Voices across the Centuries” (Frances Karttunen) examines the evolution of the writing system before and after contact with Europeans, along with changes in pronunciation
  • Mexicolore’s “Aztec Placenames then and Now” (Frances Berdan) explores place glyphs but also the elements that make up placenames, a reflection of what was important to Nahuas as they named their communities and landscapes
  • Náhuatl Borrowings from Spanish (Frances Karttunen) — through contact with Spanish, indigenous languages took in loans, often modified in spelling and pronunciation.  These examples are found in Nahuatl.
  • Early Nahuatl Library (Stephanie Wood and contributors)– this is a digital collection of alphabetic manuscripts in Nahuatl.  Thousands of manuscripts remain from about the 1540s through the 1820s whereby indigenous writers kept records about daily life (testaments, bills of sale, petitions, etc.).
  • Free online Nahuatl Dictionary — this resource, built by Wired Humanities Projects at the University of Oregon, as a collaboration between scholars in the U.S. and Mexico (especially John Sullivan and team at IDIEZ), includes translations to English and Spanish of Nahuatl words from colonial times to the present. The language has evolved much as English is no longer just like Shakespearean English, and yet we can understand the older forms.  Loanwords from Spanish are also included in this dictionary, as are examples of sentences pulled from colonial manuscripts written in Nahuatl.
  • Many new resources have just come on line, hosted by partners in Nahuatl language, culture, research, and education in Poland!
  • Here’s a very moving ten-minute speech by a Nahuatl-speaking girl whose family moved from Veracruz to Nuevo Léon, encouraging pride in indigenous heritage and Mexico’s multiplicity of ethnicities.

Spanish Language Writing and Literacy

Indigenous writings show the gradual absorption of Spanish loanwords into their own languages. Many were also gradually becoming bilingual, and they were increasingly influenced by the Spanish language and Spanish documentary genres.  Symbols brought from Europe were also embraced (even when reinterpreted). Notice the coat of arms on the front page of this book (below).  Indigenous elite families would begin to develop coats of arms for themselves and to represent their communities, working them into their land titles and maps.

This is a book from 1587 in Spanish that is owned by an elite Oaxacan family. Note the Habsburg two-headed eagle/coat of arms. (Photo, R. Haskett, 2010)

Graffiti Calligraphy Today

A number of street artists in Mexico (and elsewhere in the world) have followed in the footsteps of Chaz Bojórquez, a Mexican-American of East Los Angeles, who developed a kind of calligraphy in graffiti. The background of his web page shows an examples of his writing. One practically would need a course in paleography in order to decipher such calligraphy.  Perhaps some of it is not meant to be “read” literally.

A Swoon & Retna piece in Oaxaca. They covered the entire face of a building with this unique type of calligraphy. (Photo, Itandehui F. Orozco, 2013.)

See also this academic study of “calligraffiti,” including the incorporation of Arabic calligraphy. It is reminiscent of some of the examples from Oaxaca, above.


Jessica Klonsky – 11th Grade Latino and Latin American Literature unit, “Pre-colonial Mesoamerican Writing” (2011)

See also the various curricular units under the heading Codices.