Classical Nahuatl was the language of the Aztec empire and was used as a lingua franca in much of Mesoamerica from the 7th c. AD until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The modern dialects of Nahuatl spoken in the Valley of Mexico are closest to Classical Nahuatl.
Nahuatl was originally written with a pictographic script. This was not a full writing system, but instead served as a mnemonic to remind readers of texts they had learnt orally. The script appeared in inscriptions carved in stone and in picture books, many of which the Spanish destroyed.
The Spanish introduced the Latin alphabet to write Nahuatl, and a large amount of prose and poetry was subsequently written. Ever since there has been considerable debate about how to spell Nahuatl.
- In the classical Nahuatl orthograpy, [k] is written c before a and o, and qu elsewhere; [j] is written y, [s] is written c before e and i, and z elsewhere; [w] is written hu; and [ts] is written tz.
- The letters b, d, g, f, ñ and rr are also used, but only in Spanish loanwords.
- Long vowels are usually written with macrons (as above), but if macrons are not possible, they are sometimes are written with a circumflex (â, ê, î, ô), with a dieresis (ä, ë, ï, ö) or doubled (aa, ee, ii, oo).
- The glottal stop (saltillo) is not always written. It can be indicated by h, j, ‘ or a grave accent, (e.g. à = /aʔ/). In some dialects it is pronounced /h/.