As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

by Bob Brooke

Even though Mexico was long ago conquered by the Spanish, as was much of Latin America, the names of its towns and cities are, in many cases, derived from names given them by the indigenous people who lived there long before the conquest. Some places have retained their original names, while others are a combination of Spanish saint's names and their indigenous counterpart. And others have been renamed for revolutionary heros, such as San Miguel de Allende, named for the town's patron saint and Ignacio de Allende, one of the leaders in Mexico's fight for independence from Spain.

The Spanish missionaries had a hard time pronouncing many of the Aztec words. The Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, a language filled with strange letter combinations. Particularly difficult were the unique combinations of consonants.

These missionaries found that there were sounds produced in Nahuatl that didn't exist in Castillian Spanish. So they replaced whatever characters they couldn't pronounce with an x. Usually, the x stood for an sh sound. They eventually replaced the sh pronunciation with the easier ch or even simply an s, so that Nahuatl word for flower becomes xo'chitl. Today, Mexicans pronounce Xochimilco, known for its floating gardens and meaning "plantation of flowers," as so-chee-meel-koh.

Another example of a case where the sh sound has been replaced by and s sound but the actual visible letter is x is Tlaxcala (in the original language of the Tlaxcallans, pronounced Tlash-Kall-ahns), meaning "residence (or, place) of bread (or tortillas). Spanish-speaking Mexicans now pronounce the name of both the state and city of Tlaxcala as Tlass-kall-ah. But, unfortunately, this hasn't occurred universally. For instance, Chignahuapan is a case where sh sound has been replaced by ch in both letters and sound. Residents fo the small community of Xonaca, just outside the city of Puebla, pronounce their town's name as shoh-nah-kah (from the original Xonocatl, meaning onion in Nahuatl), with the x representing an sh sound.

The Spanish missionaries also had trouble pronouncing the Aztec or Nahuatl "t." The closest they came to writing this sound was to use a T followed by an L. This sound is composed of two separate sounds-the sound of the letter "T" and the sound of the letter "L"--and is quite different from the single sound of the letter "T."

An example where an initial x became j is in the name of the city of Jalapa in the State of Veracruz. Natives of the region write it as Xalapa. But originally it was Xalapan, pronounced Shah-llah-pahn, meaning "sand upon the waters." By the way, this is where the jalapeño pepper got its name.

Certain suffixes are very common in Mexican place names of Nahuatl origin. One of the most common is -tlan, which means "place near an abundance of..." For instance, Mazatlan, a resort on Mexico's Pacific coast, means "place near an abundance of deer"(mazatl). Tepotzotlán, in the State of Mexico, means "place of the hunchback.".

The suffix -co, as in Acapulco, means "place of thick reeds." Atotonilco, a small town with natural hot springs in the State of Morelos, means "place of heated water," while the suffix -tepec means "hilly place." Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, means "hilly place of grasshoppers," while Coatepec, a small town in the State of Veracruz, means "hilly place of snakes," and Tehuantepec, in the State of Oaxaca, means "hill of the jaguar."

Other suffixes like -pan (on) and -can (place) added to Nahuatl words like coyotl, creating Coyocan, or "place of coyotes," and Uruapan, or "where flowers bloom."

In the States of Yucatan, Chiapas and Campeche, many of the place names are Maya. Bonampak, for example, means "painted walls," since this Maya site is known for its frescoes. Izamal, or "city of hills" in Maya, is a charming little town on the Yucatan peninsula. Other towns and villages have retained their native Tarascan names, such as Tzintzuntzan, or "place of the hummingbirds" (pronounced, zin-zoon-zan) in the State of Michoacan.

The Conquistadores named a good number of cities and towns after their home towns in Spain, such as Cordoba and Salamanca, and others after viceroys and counts, like Monterrey and San Miguel Regla.

With a little practice, anyone can pronounce Mexican place names easily.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.


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