Query: Diacritics in pre-Columbian names

Patrick Hajovsky's picture

What are the current standards for placing diacritics on Nahuatl and Mayan words? Are there rules in place, and are these rules different in contexts of English or Spanish? I remember that the penultimate syllable of Nahuatl words is commonly stressed, so it would be redundant to place an accent there. But there are other terms in which I sometimes find an accent on the final syllable, sometimes not. Some examples are Teotihuacán, Tenochtitlán, Copán, Chichén Itzá, Uaxactún, Kabáh, and Yaxchilán.

Your comments will help me create a standard to use by Oxford University Press.


In the case of Tenochtitlan, the Nahuatl pronunciation was "Tenōchtítlān", stressed on the "i", but because the last vowel is long, Spanish-speakers hearing it rendered it as "Tenochtitlán", because standard Spanish does not have long vowels.


The samples you mention, Some examples are Teotihuacán, Tenochtitlán, Copán, Chichén Itzá, Uaxactún, Kabáh, and Yaxchilán.

are accented for Spanish. Nahuatl speakers would say Teotíhuacan, tenochtítlah (the "n" is nasalized and hardly, if at all heard) etc..... I do not know about the Mayan words.

If your press wants to give readers a version of the original indigenous spoken word, I would argue for the samples I have shared.

If you are wanting to show how they are said in modern Spanish, then there would be no need to change the orthography.

As others have noted, the use of the accents reflects the need to place accents based on current Spanish speakers' pronunciation. The rules of Nahuatl dictate something different. In many place names ending with -tlan or -tan, modern pronunciation places the stress on the last syllable, thus needing an accent in the rules of Spanish. But this is not the case in traditional Nahuatl pronunciation where the accent was ALWAYS on the next to last syllable (yes, except for vocatives and a very few other instances). So, in general I do not use accents on Nahuatl words. At least two of the journals (The Americas and Ethnohistory) do not either. I would argue strongly against adding them for Nahuatl. I cannot comment on Maya.

J. F. Schwaller

Dear Mario,

Thank you for your reply. I'm looking for not only English spellings, but British, if that can even be applied.

I suppose at some point other languages adopt their own versions of names, so I don't know if this issue has come out formally among the Nahuatl-speaking community. Presses seem to have rules, but they vary.

Thanks again,