The House of David

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Monday, December 12, 2016

The Welsh of the Aztec Empire

Today I find a new – well, colonial-era – etymology of “Chontal” from Eric Thompson, Maya History and Religion (U of OK Press, 1970), 5. Thompson noted that “chontal” parallels the Nahua word “chontalli” which means “foreigner”. As a result the Tequistlatecs on the Pacific side of the isthmus, unrelated to anyone else, have had their language tagged “chontal” like the Gulf Chontal, quite against their will. Thompson thought that the Aztecs and/or New-Spaniards had foisted this word on the Gulf-dwelling Chol as well.

Thompson’s work isn’t commended these days generally, but for this ethnonym his etymology is still being used, at least outside academe, by default perhaps.

First of all, “Chontal” isn’t the first outsiders’ name for that language. The colonial-era label was “Acalan”. “Chontal” is more modern, and may well be more accurate. De Ara’s glossary of the middle 1500s lays out the “Tzendal” language in the vicinity, but linguists have always identified this with proto-Tzeltal and certainly not anything “Cholan”.

All we can really say of Chontal(li) is that Mexicans intended (a kind of) “foreigner” as of 1550 AD, when Spaniards were writing down the grammar for Nahuatl, preparing New Spain’s common language. I must ask: what did “chontal” mean in 1300, when the Triple Alliance was being formed? For instance what does it mean to the Pipil who were the first Nahuatl-speakers to enter Maya land? I’ve been looking at other Uto-Aztecan dictionaries for the word “foreigner” or “outsider” or “alien” and I’m just not seeing it, except in classical / colonial sixteenth-century Nahuatl.

I propose that scholars revisit Thompson’s etymology. Narrowly for the history of Nahuatl, I raise as a possibility that the borrowing for “Chontal” / “Chontalli” went the other way.

By analogy I invoke the Germannic word which has given us “Welsh” (and “Wallace”, “Vlach”, “Walloon” etc): it meant the non-barbarian sort of foreigner, now reduced to peasantry, with hints of having fallen from a past civilisation. That word wasn’t native Indo-European; I think the Germans had it from the Volcae tribe of Romanising Celt, formerly of the Low Countries. In Mesoamerica, visiting Mexica would assuredly have observed this same state of affairs among the lowland Maya peoples. Such were now grubbing at chol to the east of the empire. (In this case chichimecs and jungle-tribes, even Lakantum Maya, wouldn’t qualify as chontalli; just like Germans don’t call Lapps and gypsies “Welsh”, nor even the Irish.)

If so a word like Tzendal or Chontal would have entered Nahuatl, from those peoples themselves, and whatever passed for ethnologists among the Aztecs and conquistadores would have taken that as a term for degenerate milpa-farming heathens. Such is human nature.


posted by Zimri on 17:45 | link | 0 comments

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