UCLA historian brings language of the Aztecs from ancient to contemporary times

The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, is undergoing a renaissance in Los Angeles, thanks in part to the efforts of a genial UCLA historian.

Once the lingua franca of Mexico, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat] was eventually overtaken by Spanish. Today, the indigenous language is spoken only by 1.5 million people in Mexico, many of whom live in the state of Veracruz on the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

But a modern version of Nahuatl resounds in L.A. At UCLA, students can enroll in beginning and intermediate classes of the language, with an advanced class slated to launch next year.

A few miles north of the Westwood campus, historians and art experts at the Getty Center are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in classical Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. Only one copy exists. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico.

Last fall, an entire scene of a popular television show was shot with actors speaking Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had been heard on an American broadcast.

And this September, a charter middle school in Lynwood will begin offering modern Nahuatl classes taught by a UCLA graduate student.

Read more: UCLA Newsroom

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