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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

Decode Mexican Place Names Like A Native

When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, they asked the indigenous locals for directions and that’s where this story begins. The Indians, you see, didn’t speak Spanish (duh) and named their cities in ways only they could pronounce. First line of defense, maybe? Who knows. But the Spaniards did their best to learn. And in the process, wound up thoroughly messing up those names. This is what happens when you try to write a word that not only doesn’t exist in your language but is also nearly impossible for you to pronounce. The mistakes, however, stuck and with time gave Mexican place names their unique tongue-twisting character.

The curious case of Jalapa vs. Xalapa

The sign says Jalapa but the locals still prefer Xalapa
The sign says Jalapa but the locals still prefer Xalapa
Photo credit: David Amsler licensed CC BY 2.0
The Aztecs, the locals who greeted the first European pioneers, spoke (and still speak) Nahuatl. Now this is not a language for the faint-hearted. Move on Klingon, Nahuatl easily trumps most living and dead tongues as one of the most unpronounceable, thanks to its phobia of vowels. It’s not uncommon to find Nahuatl words with 3 or even more consonants strung together with no vowels in between. Not that the language doesn’t have any vowels, it’s just that they are too scarce. I dare you to pronounce, say, Tenochtitlan. To add to the confusion, the Aztecs rarely wrote and if they ever did at all, they used pictures and symbols instead of letters. So when the missionaries from Spain needed to write down those Nahuatl place names, they approximated as far as possible.

Quite a few sounds in Nahuatl don’t have a Spanish equivalent which is why the Spaniards had to use the closest sounding letter to represent those. One such case was the sound of Nahuatl sh. To English ears this might sound like a no-brainer thanks to words like sugar and shape. But Spanish doesn’t have that sound. So they decided to represent that sound with an x. This wasn’t always the case but pretty much often enough. After a while, they started using a more Spanish letter ch for the Nahuatl sh because x, being absent from the Spanish alphabet, just didn’t sound too friendly. Some words also saw a simple s representing this sound. In short, the Nahuatl sh came to have 3 Spanish variants: x, ch, and s.

This, however, is not the end of the story. There are quite a few words where the switch in sound didn’t quite correspond to the switch in writing. For example, the word Tlaxcala (another indigenous language in Mexico) is originally meant to be pronounced tlash-kah-lah. The Spaniards decided to use x for the sh sound like they did with many such words. But they chose to pronounce it s, which is why the word is today pronounced tlas-kah-lah.

But what has all this got to do with Jalapa, you ask? This name has a curious history. The very original, indigenous way to pronounce it was shah-lah-pahn which is how some indigenous people still pronounce it today. But the Spaniards replaced the initial consonant with an x thus giving us Xalapa as we know it today. In another chain of events, the x in Xalapa got switched with a j, and this happened to many other words that had x as their opening letter. This gave us Jalapa. And Jalapa gave us jalapeños. Today, both Jalapa and Xalapa are considered equally standard and pronounced the same way, hah-lah-pah but the natives of the state often prefer the variant with the x. That’s one way to tell if a person is native to Jalapa or an outsider. The name, by the way, means sand on water in Nahuatl.

-tla, -tlán, and -titlán

The tl combination is the hallmark of Nahuatl and Mexico is full of places with names using it. We will dissect these one by one because one derives from the other. The mother-suffix in this trio is -tla and it means abundance. So when you have a place overrun by racoons, you name it Mapaxtla. That’s because mapache is Nahuatl (and consequently, Mexican Spanish) for racoon which lends Mapaxtla its meaning, an abundance of racoons.

From -tla comes -tlán. Think of the extra n as standing for in or near because -tlán means in or near an abundance of. This is how we get the name of Ocotlán, a city in the heart of the state of Tlaxcala. Ocotlán is rich in pine trees and pine tree is ocotl in Nahuatl. Another example is a place which is rich in canes or reeds, acatl in Nahuatl. This place is named Acatlán and now you know why. Want more? Take Juanacatlán which comes from a more Nahuatl Xonacatlán. This town is abundant in onions, xonaca in Nahuatl. Nahuatl for deer is mazatl which is how we get Mazatlán (near an abundance of deers).

The third of this trio is -titlán, meaning near. This suffix can be found in names like Oxtotitlán, the site of a natural cave system and other archaeological remnants in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Oxto derives from the Nahuatl word for shelter which explains the significance of the ancient cave systems in the region.

-tepec and -tépetl

The lung of Mexico sits on a hill and is names after one
The lung of Mexico, Chapultepec, sits on a hill and is names after one
Photo credit: vladimix licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
These are hills and mountains in Nahuatl, respectively. Together, -tepec and -tépetl are perhaps the most common place-name suffixes in Mexico and around. An active volcano overlooking the Valley of Mexico in the states of Puebla and Morelos is named this way. It’s called Popocatépetl. Popōca is Nahuatl for it smokes and in the context of Popocatépetl, alludes to its active nature (the mountain that smokes). Mexicans often call it El Popo or Don Goyo. Popocatépetl is the second highest mountain in Mexico.

The Chapultepec Park, better known as Bosque de Chapultepec, in Mexico City is one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere and is centered atop a rock formation called Chapultepec Hill. The name translates into the hill of grasshoppers and derives from chapulín, Spanish for grasshopper. Chapulín, however, is only used in Central America, Colombia, and Mexico; elsewhere, the word for grasshopper is saltamontes. That’s because chapulín itself is of indigenous origins, deriving from Nahuatl chapolin.

Snakes were particularly sacred to the Aztecs which is why they figure prominently in almost all Aztec artifacts. One of the most sacred places of the Aztecs is the Serpent Mountain situated in the state of Veracruz. Well, that’s not what they called it of course. Instead, they (and the rest of Mexico) refer to it as Coatepec, deriving from coatl, Nahuatl for serpent. Similarly, the state of Oaxaca has a Tehuantepec, literally hill of the jaguar. The city is the center of Zapotec culture and is known for its matriarchal way of life. Want more? Try Jocotepec in the state of Jalisco. This one corrupted from Nahuatl Xuxutepeque meaning hill of guavas.

-ro, -cán, -huacán, and -oacán

Both -ro and -cán are remnants of Nahuatl and translate into place. Thus, we have names like Copándaro (place of avocados), Querétaro (place of great people), and Coyoacán (place of coyotes). Interestingly, Querétaro was voted the “most beautiful word” in the Spanish language in a survey and admitted so by none other than Instituto Cervantes!

Further deriving from -cán, are -huacán and -oacán. Both suffixes translate into place where they have and feature in names like Michoacán (place where they have fish), Teotihuacán (place where gods live). The latter used to be the capital of the Aztec empire and used to sit where Mexico City does today. It was the largest city of its time and is still known for its funky Aztec pyramids.

-pan and -apan

These suffixes differ only ever so slightly in meaning. While -pan translates into in or on, -apan translates into in or near water. That’s how we get names like Uruapan (place on flowers or place where flowers bloom) and Chahuapan. Sometimes, -pan can also lose its -n and exist simply as -pa as in Jalapa.

Other common suffixes

Nahuatl has given more than its fair share of names to Mexican cities and although the ones discussed above are the most prolific, there are plenty others equally significant if not more. If you have ever been to Mexico, none of these would sound unfamiliar:

-cingo and -tzingo (settlement): Chilpancingo (a settlement of wasps)

-co (place): Acapulco (place of reeds), Jalisco (place of sand), Mexico (place of maguey)

-calco (in the house of): Nopalcalco (in the house of nopals)

These are all the suffixes that make up a vast majority of Indigenous place names in Mexico. Although there are a whole lot more, these should ensure you understand most of the places you’ll ever visit or hear of. If you’re in the mood for loads of examples, more than I could ever cover here, check out this page that’s clearly done by someone with a passion for Nahuatl. You don’t have to learn Nahuatl but an understanding of its vocabulary in the context of place names is mighty important when you’re dealing with the Spanish of the New World. Feel free to share with us any trivia you have on Mexican place names; we’re always eager to learn and explore!

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