Research

How Did Mexico Start Speaking Spanish?

Ximena Lama-Rondon

A quick look at any list of locations around Mexico and you’ll immediately notice a pattern: places like Tlatelolco and Chihuaha are not Spanish at all – they come from Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs. Clearly, we were all speaking something else on this side of the pond before 1492. So how did Mexico start speaking Spanish?

That’s actually a pretty cool history trip. Ready?

The Short and Dirty Version

The most obvious reason why Mexicans started speaking Spanish is because it was a former Spanish colony. Spanish General Hernán Cortes arrived in what is now Mexico City in 1519. After conquering the Aztec empire, the Spanish Crown stuck around as the "Viceroyalty of Mexico" until 1821.

Makes sense, right? The new rulers simply brought their own language, alongside their religion, legal system, and some hefty tax obligations.

But was it really that simple?

Why did Mexico start speaking Spanish? It's complicated
Looks confusing? That's "The History of Mexico" according to Diego Rivera

Why Did Mexico Start Speaking Spanish – And Still Does?

If you look at other former colonies, you will note that adopting the conqueror’s language is not automatic. The Philippines returned to Tagalog shortly after they became independent, and India never really lost its rich linguistic diversity.

Compare that to Mexico, where the latest census shows that over 90% of Mexicans consider Spanish to be their mother tongue.

So why did Mexico start speaking Spanish completely?

Due to a combination of historical and political reasons that took place over the course of 300 years. Not all of them were pretty, but they have made Mexico (and Latin America) the cool region it is now.

Mexico and Its Languages: A Love Story

The Spanish held onto Mexico and most of Latin America for over 300 years, starting in the early 16th century and until the 19th century. Compare that to the British Raj, or the time that the Dutch spent in Indonesia, which barely hit the 200 year mark.

Over these 300 years, the Spaniards themselves changed their attitude towards indigenous cultures and languages a few times.

The local languages (and leadership) were in disarray

As solid and magnificent as the city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was back then, the truth is that the Aztecs were not doing well as a society when Cortes arrived. The Aztecs had just finished conquering a bunch of smaller, local kingdoms, such as the Toltecs, the Olmeps, and the Zapotecs.

Aztec City States before the Conquest
Diverse? Of course! Peaceful? Not so much

Each one had its own language or dialect. At the time Cortes arrived, the local nobles all knew Nahuatl, but most of the population spoke even older languages.

At first, two languages were easier than twenty

Immediately after the conquest, the Spanish realised that the existing power structures of the Aztec empire could be used to cement their own power. Since they could not deal with dozens of different groups directly, they enlisted the Aztec nobility to act as intermediaries.

In both Mexico and Peru, Spanish generals entered arranged marriages with Amerindian noblewomen. They also established a network of schools to educate the children of old Amerindian nobility into feeling as part of the Kingdom. Here, they learned both Spanish and Nahuatl alongside Spanish law and the Catholic religion.

Meanwhile, priests and missionaries started educating peasant children in Nahuatl rather than in Oltec or Zapotec.

Then, a secret language became dangerous

The Crown's attitude towards local languages changed towards the end of the 18th century.

These were tumultuous years across both Europe and the Americas. Back in Europe, the Spaniards had dealt with a massive war of succession, which had emboldened the Catalan and Aragonese minorities into sedition.

In the Americas, they dealt with a series of indigenous rebellions in both Mexico and Peru. These rebellions were very close to being successful, and they were aided tremedously by the fact that the Amerindians now had a common language that most Spaniards could not understand.

The Pueblo Revolt
Santa Fe, 1680: The Pueblo Revolt

Because of this, in 1770,  King Charles IV ordered that all official business had to be conducted in Spanish. The Spanish Crown also began to actively persecute Nahuatl speakers (and Quechua speakers in Peru) under the excuse that these tongues were “savage and pagan”.

Independence didn't improve things

After Mexico gained independence, indigenous languages didn't enjoy the revival that tagalog did in the Philippines.

The politicians of the early Republic shared many of the same prejudices against Amerindian language and culture with the Spaniards. Throughout most of the 19th century and the start of the 20th Century, most schools punished children from rural villages for using indigenous languages in class. Native Nahuatl and Zapotec speakers were also discriminated against due to their accent.

It wasn't until the late 20th Century that the tide turned, but by then, many native languages had become extinct.

So Are These Languages All Gone?

In short: no.

Approximately six million Mexicans still speak one of 68 indigenous languages. Nahuatl is still spoken by over a million people. Over 100,000 also speak Yucatec, Maya and Zapotec. However, many others have very few speakers and are in danger of  disappearing altogether.

That being said, attitudes are changing at last.  The Mexican government is now investing heavily in preserving these languages, tasking linguists with recording their vocabularies.

Meanwhile, the speakers themselves are done with being ashamed, and many are eager to fight to see indigenous languages used again. For example, check out this this hip hop artist from Juchitan who raps in Zapotec:

How Can You Help?

Often, it feels hard to connect with the culture of a foreign country from afar. It's not impossible, though. Traces of indigenous culture and philosophy can be felt across Mexican culture as a whole.

If you check out any of Lingopie's Mexican content, you are likely to find Nahuatl-based slang and Aztec dishes lurking right behind the plot. By learning to see a country the way its inhabitants see it, you will be able to understand it and appreciate it better, away from clichés and prejudices.

Plus, if you want to travel to Mexico City to research Nahuatl further, it would be extremely beneficial to learn Spanish first – and Lingopie has the materials to help you learn Spanish by immersion without leaving home.