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Script type
Pictographic and logosyllabic
Time period
Most extant manuscripts from the 16th century
Related scripts
Sister systems
U+15C00 to U+15FFF (tentative)[1]
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

The Aztec or Nahuatl script is a pre-Columbian writing system that combines ideographic writing with Nahuatl specific phonetic logograms and syllabic signs[1] which was used in central Mexico by the Nahua people in the Epiclassic and Post-classic periods.[2] It was originally thought that its use was reserved for elites, however, the topographical codices and early colonial catechisms, recently deciphered, were used by tlacuilos (scribes),[3] macehuallis (peasants), and pochtecas (merchants).[4]


The Aztec writing system derives from writing systems used in Central Mexico, such as Zapotec script. Mixtec writing is also thought to descend from Zapotec. The first Oaxacan inscriptions are thought to encode Zapotec, partially because of numerical suffixes characteristic of the Zapotec languages.[5]

Aztec syllabary (according to Lacadena and Wichmann, 2004)

Structure and use

Aztec was pictographic and ideographic proto-writing, augmented by phonetic rebuses. It also contained syllabic signs and logograms. There was no alphabet, but puns also contributed to recording sounds of the Aztec language. While some scholars have understood the system not to be considered a complete writing system, this is disputed by others. The existence of logograms and syllabic signs is being documented and a phonetic aspect of the writing system has emerged,[1] even though many of the syllabic characters have been documented since at least 1888 by Nuttall.[6] There are conventional signs for syllables and logograms which act as word signs or for their rebus content.[6] Logosyllabic writing appears on both painted and carved artifacts, such as the Tizoc Stone.[7] However, instances of phonetic characters often appear within a significant artistic and pictorial context. In native manuscripts, the sequence of historical events is indicated by a line of footprints leading from one place or scene to another.

The ideographic nature of the writing is apparent in abstract concepts, such as death, represented by a corpse wrapped for burial; night, drawn as a black sky and a closed eye; war, by a shield and a club; and speech, illustrated as a little scroll issuing from the mouth of the person who is talking. The concepts of motion and walking were indicated by a trail of footprints.[8]

A glyph could be used as a rebus to represent a different word with the same sound or similar pronunciation. This is especially evident in the glyphs of town names.[9] For example, the glyph for Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was represented by combining two pictograms: stone (te-tl) and cactus (noch-tli).

Aztec Glyphs do not have a set reading order, unlike Maya hieroglyphs. As such, they may be read in any direction which forms the correct sound values in the context of the glyph. However, there is an internal reading order in that any sign will be followed by the next sign for the following sound in the word being written. They do not jumble up the sounds in a word.


The Aztec numerical system was vigesimal. They indicated quantities up to twenty by the requisite number of dots. A flag was used to indicate twenty, repeating it for quantities up to four hundred, while a sign like a fir tree, meaning numerous as hairs, signified four hundred. The next unit, eight thousand, was indicated by an incense bag, which referred to the almost innumerable contents of a sack of cacao beans.[10]


Aztecs embraced the widespread manner of presenting history cartographically. A cartographic map would hold an elaborately detailed history recording events. The maps were painted to be read in sequence, so that time is established by the movement of the narrative through the map and by the succession of individual maps.

Aztecs also used continuous year-count annals to record anything that would occur during that year. All the years are painted in a sequence and most of the years are generally in a single straight line that reads continually from left to right. Events, such as solar eclipses, floods, droughts, or famines, are painted around the years, often linked to the years by a line or just painted adjacent to them. Specific individuals were not mentioned often, but unnamed humans were often painted in order to represent actions or events.[11] When individuals are named, they form the majority of the corpus of logosyllabic examples.


Aztec script fell out of use due to colonial ecclesiastical and governmental authorities, with the help of the local inhabitants who were indoctrinated in Spanish culture. The evangelizers classified Aztec script as a creation of the devil and considered syllabic ideographic symbols as intangible characters. The Old Library of Texcoco, which according to various contemporary sources, contained a larger literary, technical and historical collection than the Old Library of Tenochtitlan, was destroyed by the colonial government under the orders of the religious Juan de Zumárraga, who collected the Aztec documents to be incinerated.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Lacadena, Alfonso. "Regional Scribal Traditions: Methodological Implications for the Decipherment of Nahuatl Writing" (PDF).
  2. ^ Escamilla, Marlon V.; Fowler, William R. "Paisajes rituales nahua-pipiles del postclásico en la Costa del Bálsamo, El Salvador". Entorno (in Spanish) (53): 67–75.
  3. ^ Corral, Aurelio López (2011). "Los glifos de suelo en códices acolhua de la Colonia temprana: un reanálisis de su significado". Desacatos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales (in Spanish) (37): 145–162. doi:10.29340/37.293. ISSN 2448-5144.
  4. ^ "Tribute Roll". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2024-06-05.
  5. ^ Justeson (1986, p.449)
  6. ^ a b Zender, Marc. "One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment" (PDF). The PARI Journal.
  7. ^ VanEssendelft, Willem (May 2011). The word made stone: deciphering and mapping the glyphs of the Tizoc stone (PDF). Harvard Special Collection: DingoFence. p. 86. Archived from the original (PDF) on Feb 2, 2014. Retrieved 2012-10-15.
  8. ^ Bray, Warwick (1968). Everyday Life of The Aztecs. Dorset Press. pp. 93–96. ISBN 9780880291439.
  9. ^ Spinden, Herbert J. (1928). Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. New York. pp. 223–229.
  10. ^ Vaillant, George C. (1941). Aztecs of Mexico. pp. 206–209.
  11. ^ Boone, Elizabeth H. (1996). Aztecs Imperial Strategies. pp. 181–206.
  12. ^ Arbagi, Michael. "The Catholic Church and the Preservation of Mesoamerican Archives: An Assessment" (PDF). minds.wisconsin.edu. Retrieved March 7, 2024.


Further reading