FIGURE 4. The place signs for Tecoloapan (left) and Huiçillapan (right) in the Matrícula de Tributos (folios 2v and 3v).
FIGURE 5. The place sign for Huitzilapan in Cell 13 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 6. The place sign for Tecalco on folio 11v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 7. The place sign for Tochpan on folio 15v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 8. The place sign for Tetenanco on folio 11v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 9. The place sign for Quetzaltenango in Cell 77 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 10. The place sign for Ocelotepec on folio 15v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 11. The place sign for Itzquintepec in Cell 80 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 12. The place sign for Mazatlan on folio 13r of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 13. The place sign for Acatzinco on folio 11v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 14. The place sign for Teziutlan on folio 15r of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 15. El signo lugar para Atlan en folio 1v de la Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 16. The place sign for Papantla on folio 15v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 17. The place sign for Tzapotitlan in Cell 76 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
Many Nahuatl place names are formed using one of seven basic spatial descriptions. These include:
‘“apan, ‘on the water of’
‘“calco, ‘in the house of’
‘“pan, ‘on the’
‘“tenanco, ‘on the wall of’
‘“tepec, ‘on the hill of’
‘“tlan, ‘place of’
‘“tzinco, ‘on the little place of’
In pictorial documents from Central Mexico, each of these expressions is often depicted using a particular sign. Many, if not all, of these signs had standardized phonetic values as part of a phonetic writing system used throughout Central Mexico. This phonetic writing system is discussed in more detail in the ‘Mesoamerican Syllabaries’ tutorial. In the discussion which follows, we include samples of a few precise phonetic readings of place signs. To represent these phonetic values, we use a transcription system developed by Mesoamerican epigraphers in the 1980s for writing out hieroglyphic texts alphabetically. Logograms are written out in bold face and in all capital letters (WITZIL, AKA). Syllabic signs are also written out in bold face, but in lower case letters. Most syllabic signs have a CV or consonant-vowel structure (tla, te). A few, however, represent a single vowel sound (a, o).
In addition, the paragraphs that follow combine Nahuatl words spelled alphabetically in the sixteenth century (by both European and Nahua scribes) with Nahuatl words spelled alphabetically according to the rules of twenty-first-century linguistics. 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.13
To begin, place names ending in ‘“apan (‘on the water of’) are often represented with a picture of a river channel in cross-section. On folio 2v of the Matrícula de Tributos, the town Tecoloapan (‘On the Water of the Owl’) is represented by drawing an owl’s head (tecolotl in Nahuatl) within the splashing waters of a river (Figure 4). On folio 3v, the town of Huiçillapan (On the Water of the Hummingbird) is represented by drawing a hummingbird (huitzitzillin ) within a river channel (Figure 4). Another town called ‘On the Water of the Hummingbird’ is shown in Cell 13 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Figure 5). Once again, this place sign features a hummingbird. Instead of a river channel, however, the artist has drawn a splashing stream of water. This water sign was used to represent the sound a in the Central Mexican syllabary. (The word for water in Nahuatl was atl; since this water sign is not a logogram, the -tl is dropped and only the initial a is read). Following Alonso Lacadena, this water sign and hummingbird would be written out *WITZIL-a*—a very abbreviated spelling of Huiçillapan.14 This is not surprising. As we will see, texts written using the Central Mexican phonetic writing system were often very abbreviated.15
Place names ending in ‘“calco (‘in the house of) are often represented with a picture of a house, a logogram which is read KAL. Linguistically, -calco is derived from the Nahuatl calli (house) and -co (in, on). On folio 11v of the Matrícula, the town of Tecalco (‘In the Noble’s House’) is written phonetically using the syllabic sign for te (a stone—though in this case the striped ‘stony’ pattern and hard-surface-indicating bumps have been superimposed over the whole glyph) and the logogram KAL (a house)(Figure 6). This te-KAL phonetic reading is, once again, a very abbreviated representation of the word Tecalco.16
Place names ending in ‘“pan (‘on the’) are often represented with a picture of a banner (pantli in Nahuatl). In the Central Mexican phonetic writing system, the banner represented the syllable pa. Folio 15v of the Matrícula represents the tribute province of Tochpan. The first sign in the list of places in this province therefore represents this main town (Figure 7). Tochpan means ‘On the Rabbit,’ and so the place sign (unfortunately damaged) consists of a grey rabbit (looking to the left) and a white rectangular banner. Together, these are read TOCH (from tochtli, rabbit) and pa: TOCH-pa. This is a fairly complete phonetic spelling, at least as far as the Central Mexican writing system goes.
Place names ending in ‘“tenanco (‘on the wall of’) are often represented with a picture of a rectangular wall topped with stepped crenellations. Linguistically
tenanco is derived from tenamitl (wall) and -co (in, on). The precise phonetic reading of this wall sign has yet to be determined. However, a clue may be found on Folio 11v of the Matrícula (Figure 8). There, the place sign Tetenanco is written using the syllabic te signs we saw above (shaped like stones) combined with a crenelated wall. Note that there are two stone te signs. This may indicate that the wall sign is a logograph, and is read TENAM phonetically (derived from the root of tenamitl), wall: _tenam )17. The first stone te sign would represent the initial Te- sound in Tetenanco. The second, however, might be what epigraphers refer to as a ‘phonetic complement.’ A phonetic complement is a redundant syllabic sign attached to a logogram. The phonetic complement shares the same sound as the first syllable of the logogram to which it is attached. Syllabic compliments exist in many writing systems that use logograms (including Egyptian hieroglyphs). Historically, phonetic complements have been important for decipherment. Although repetitive, they help readers interpret the sound value of logograms. Although logograms are usually pictures of some sort, it may not be clear exactly what they are pictures of. Syllabic phonetic complements can help identify what word a logogram represents by providing clues to its pronunciation (a word that begins with te, or which ends in tla). In sum, the place sign of Tetenanco may be read as te-(te)-TENAM. The first te sign acts phonetically, and the second te sign is silent, serving as a phonetic complement to the logogram TENAM.
Another example of a ‘“tenanco place sign is found in Cell 77 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Figure 9). There, the town of Quetzaltenango (On the Wall of the Quetzal) is represented by drawing a bunch of green quetzal feathers (quetzalli) sprouting from a rocky wall of rough-hewn stones. Rows of lobed, often cloud-like stones are used throughout the conquest scenes in the lower half of the Lienzo to represent fortified walls. In Cell 77, for example, right below the wall-and-feathers sign for Quetzaltenango are a row of warriors holding round shields. Peeking out from under the bottoms of those shields are the lobed lines of a rock wall. This indicates that the warriors are fighting from behind fortifications. Overall, then, this place sign may be composed of two logograms: KETZAL-TENAM.18
Place names ending in ‘“tepec (‘on the hill of’) are often represented with a picture of a green bell-shaped hill. Linguistically, ‘“tepec is derived from tepetl (hill) and -co (in, on). Phonetically, the hill sign is a logogram read TEPE. On folio 15v of the Matrícula, the town of Ocelotepec is represented by two logograms: a drawing of a jaguar (ocelotl) head (OSELO) and a hill sign (TEPE): OSELO-TEPE (Figure 10)19. Similarly, in Cell 80 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, the town of Itzquintepec is depicted with a dog (the itzcuintli was a special type of edible, hairless dog) sitting on the summit of a brown hill (Figure 11).
Place names ending in ‘“tlan (‘place of’) are often represented with a picture of a pair of teeth. The word for teeth in sixteenth-century Nahuatl was tlantli; the pair of teeth was one of the signs in the Nahuatl phonetic syllabary, representing the sound tla. The sign for Mazatlan on folio 13r of the Matrícula combines a deer (mazatl) head (a logogram for MASA) with the tla syllable: MASA-tla (Figure 12).20
Finally, place names ending in ‘“tzinco (‘on the little place of’) were represented with the picture of the lower half of a human body. The word for rump in sixteenth-century Nahuatl was tzintli; this picture was used through sound association to represent ‘“tzin, meaning small. As we have seen many times already, -co meant in, on. Phonetically, the rump sign was read TZIN. On folio 11v of the Matrícula, the town of Acatzinco is written out using two logograms: a picture of a reed (AKA) and the rump sign (TZIN): AKA-TZIN (Figure 13).21
The basic system for representing place names, then, was fairly straightforward. However, there are a number of complications. Most of the place signs we have looked at so far are fairly easy to read, and can be interpreted by speakers of many languages. The sign for Ocelotepec (Hill of the Jaguar) is written using a picture of a hill and a picture of a jaguar (Figure 10). Other place names, however, are not so easy to interpret visually. Some of these hard-to-read place names make extensive use of the Central Mexican phonetic writing system. For example, the place sign for Teziutlan (‘Place of Hail’) on folio 15r of the Matrícula is written using a stone (the syllable te), a strange blue curve (probably representing a shell for the syllable si), and a pair of teeth (the syllable tla)(Figure 14). The word for hail in sixteenth-century Nahuatl was teciuitl. Rather than trying to represent hail visually, the artists of the Matrícula decided to spell out this town’s name phonetically: te-si-tla. As we have seen many times already, this phonetic spelling of Teziutlan is only partial.
The reading of place signs is made even more complicated because Central Mexican writing was not entirely consistent (at least as we understand it now). In some place names the pictures described above are used in different ways. For example, on folio 1v of the Matrícula is a place name which shows a pair of teeth drawn inside a river channel (Figure 15). You might think that this sign was meant to represent a place called Tlanapan, ‘On the Water of the Teeth.’ Instead, however, it represents a place called Atlan, ‘Place of Water.’ The teeth do indeed represent the sound tla, but the river channel is used to indicate the sign for water, a simple a.
Another complicating example comes from the use of the banner. As we saw above, this is a syllabic sign for pa and is often used to indicate ‘“pan, ‘on the.’ Folio 15v of the Matrícula shows the tribute province of Tochpan (‘On the Rabbit,’ whose sign we studied above). The fourth place sign on this page is composed of a rectangular white banner and some long black featherlike strips tied up in a white knot (Figure 16). This place sign represents the town of Papantla. No teeth are used to indicate the tla, and the pa banner is not used to indicate ‘“pan. Instead, the pa sign is acting as a phonetic complement for the main featherlike sign. These are not feathers, however. As it turns out, they represent papatli, the long dreadlocks worn by prehispanic priests. They represent a logogram read PAPA. Together, the banner (acting as phonetic complement) and the dreadlocks (acting as a logogram) are read *pa-PAPA*—yet another abbreviated spelling.22
Place signs in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala present additional difficulties. Most place signs are drawn on top of a rounded brown hill sign. However, very few of those places are ‘“tepec place names. Instead, in the style of writing used in the Lienzo, emphasis is placed on representing the first part of a place name.23 For example, Cell 76 (the Cell right next to Cell 77, whose Quetzaltenango place sign we discussed above) represents the place name for Tzapotitlan, ‘Place of the Zapote Tree’ or ‘Place of Zapote Trees.’ This town is represented by a zapote tree drawn on top of a hill (Figure 17). Thus the Tzapot- part of this place name is indicated, but no teeth are drawn to indicate the ‘“tlan part of the name.
As you can see, the interpretation of Central Mexican place signs is complicated. Much still needs to be understood. The system looks confusing and irregular now, but perhaps this is because we don’t fully understand the art of composition that ancient scribes were using.
Tlaltecuhtli in the Altepetl >
13 Lacadena 2008a, 6.
14 Sixteenth-century spelling was very flexible, the ç and z and tz sounds could all be written using the same characters. The town name spelling Huiçillapan in one document might be spelled Huitzillapan in another. For more information, see the User’s Guide to the Additional Documents section of Mesolore’s archive, as well as the introductory tutorials to ‘The Alvarado Vocabulario ‘ and ‘The Molina Vocabulario.’
15 Why Nahuatl writing used such extensive abbreviation is unclear. Lacadena (2008, 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.
16 Lacadena 2008a, 9.
17 On the standard phonetic structure of logograms, see Lacadena 2008a, 6: ‘the reading value of a logogram is that of the word which it represents in composition’—and he continues in footnote 10 on the same page—‘For example, SIWA, ‘woman,’ not * SIWATL; AKA, ‘reed,’ not * AKATL; SITLAL ‘star,’ not * SITLALIN.’ For good introductory dictionaries of Nahuatl that includes vowel lengths and indicates the stems of nouns, see Karttunen 1992 and Lockhart 2001, 210-243. The entry for tenam-itl), wall, is found on Lockhart 2001, 233.
18 Lacadena 2008b, 40.
19 Lacadena 2008a, 7.
20 Lacadena 2008a, 11.
21 Lacadena 2008a, 6.
22 Lacadena 2008a, 6. On the dreadlocks worn by indigenous priests, see Motolinía 1951 [1538-1541]: 99, n. 3, and 120.
23 This generic use of hill signs, in which they indicate a place in general and not a hill-place specifically, is discussed by Elizabeth Hill Boone: ‘The hill element is by far the most common. It can actually refer to a hill, but it often simply serves as the foundation on which identifying elements are put’ (Boone 2000, 49).