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Type Pictographic and Heiroglyphic
Spoken languages Nahuatl
Time period Most extant manuscripts from the 16th century.
Sister systems Mixtec
Unicode range U+15C00 to U+15FFF (tentative)[1]
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.

Aztec or Nahuatl writing is a pictographic and ideographic pre-Columbian writing system used in central Mexico by the Nahua peoples. The conquistadors burned the majority of the Aztec codices when they conquered Mesoamerica; remaining Aztec codices such as Codex Mendoza, Codex Borbonicus, and Codex Osuna were written on deer hide and plant fiber.

Aztec writing, however, is not considered to be a true writing system. Because there were no set of characters that represented specific words, but rather ideas, many look at the Aztec writing system as a preliminary writing system.



The Aztec writing system is adopted from writing systems used in Central Mexico, such as Zapotec writing. Mixtec writing is also thought to descend from the Zapotec. The first Oaxacan inscriptions are thought to encode Zapotec, partially because numerical suffixes characteristic of the Zapotec languages.[1]

Structure and use

Aztec was pictographic and ideographic proto-writing, augmented by phonetic rebuses. There was no alphabet, but puns also contributed to recording sounds of the Aztec language. Unlike the Maya Script, Aztec is not considered a true writing system because there was no set corpus of signs or set rules on how they were used. Instead, Aztec scribes created individual compositions, with each scribe deciding how to represent the ideas he wished to convey.[2] The only conventionalized signs that were for a few plants, animals, parts of the human body, natural phenomena, some cultural artifacts, and the names of the first 20 days of the calendar. And in native manuscripts, the sequence of historical events are indicted by a line of footprints leading from one place or scene to another. Names of towns were often represented by pictures of typical vegetation of that region. These logographic glyphs were used by other peoples of Central Mexico who spoke different languages.[2]

The ideographic nature of the script 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 mouth of the person who is talking. The concepts of motion and walking were indicated by a trail of footprints.[3]

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.[4] For example, the glyph for Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was represented by combining two pictograms: stone (te-tl) and cactus (nochtli).

Aztec writing was not read in any particular order, and the glyphs were not written linearly, but arranged to ideographically represent a scene. At the bottom of the picture would be the ground, at the top the sky, and in between the actors and scenes of the narrative.[3]

Since the Aztecs had not discovered the rules of perspective, distance is shown by placing the furthest figures at the top of the page and the nearest at the bottom. Relative importance is indicated by size: a victorious king, for example, may be drawn larger than his defeated enemy. Color is also important. The signs for grass, canes, and rushes look very much the same in black and white, but in color there could be no mistake: in the Codex Mendoza grass is yellow, canes are blue, rushes green. A ruler could be recognized at once from the shape of his diadem and from its color, turquoise, which was reserved for royal use[5]


The Aztec numerical system was vigesimal. They indicated quantities up to twenty by the requisite number of dots. A flat 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 a bag, which referred to the almost innumerable contents of a sack of cacao beans[6]


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 reading 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. [7]

See also


  1. ^ Justeson (1986, p.449)
  2. ^ a b Carmack, Robert M., Gasco, Janine L., Gossen, Gary H. (2007). "The Legacy of Mesoamerica". pp. 426. 
  3. ^ a b Bray, Warwick (1968). "Everyday Life of The Aztecs". pp. 93–96. 
  4. ^ Spinden, Herbert J. (1928). "Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America". pp. 223–229. 
  5. ^ Soustelle, Jacques (1955). "The Daily Life of the Aztecs". pp. 32–75. 
  6. ^ Vaillant, George C. (1941). "Aztecs of Mexico". pp. 206–209. 
  7. ^ Boone, Elizabeth H. (1996). "Aztecs Imperial Strategies". pp. 181–206. 


Lacadena, Alfonso (2008). "A Nahuatl Syllabary". PARI journal VIII (4). 
Justeson, John S. (February 1986). "The Origin of Writing Systems: Preclassic Mesoamerica" (online facsimile). World Archaeology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) 17 (3): pp.437–458. ISSN 0043-8243. OCLC 2243103. 
Prem, Hanns J. (1992). "Aztec Writing". in Victoria R. Bricker (volume ed.), with Patricia A. Andrews. Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 5: Epigraphy. Victoria Reifler Bricker (general editor). Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 53–69. ISBN 0-292-77650-0. OCLC 23693597. 
Soustelle, Jacques (1961). Daily Life of the Aztecs: On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Patrick O’Brian (trans.). London: Phoenix. ISBN 1-84212-508-7. OCLC 50217224. 
Zender, Marc (2008). "One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment". PARI journal VIII (4). 
Nuttall, Zelia (2008). "On the Complementary Signs of the Mexican Graphic System". PARI journal VIII (4). 

Further reading

  • Lawrence Lo. "Aztec". Ancient Scripts. 
  • Nicholson, H. B. (1974). "Phoneticism in the Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexican Writing System". in E. P. Bensen. Mesoamerica Writing Systems. pp. 1–46. 
  • Thouvenot, Marc (2002). "Nahuatl Script". in Anne-Marie Christin. A History of Writing: From Hieroglyph to Multimedia. Flammarion. 

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