A Nahuatl Grammar

Ávila, Francisco de

Arte de la lengua mexicana, y breves platicas de los mysterios de N[uestra] Santa Fee Catholica, y otras para exortacion de su obligacion á los indios. compuesto por el P.F. Francisco De Avila, predicador, cura ministro por Su Magestad del pueblo de la Milpan, y lector del idioma mexicano, del Orden de los Menores de N.P. San Francisco.

Mexico: Por los Herederos de la Viuda de Miguel de Ribera Calderón en el Empedradillo, 1717


Octavo: 14 x 10 cm. [12], 37 leaves (without the errata leaf 2¶1, apparently never bound in.) Collation: π4, ¶4, ¶¶4, A8, B-H4, I1


Bound in contemporary limp vellum, lightly worn and soiled. A nice, unsophisticated, crisp copy with isolated instances of light finger-soiling, a little light dampstaining or very light marginal foxing. Final leaf with a clean tear (no loss). The text is in Spanish and Nahuatl. This publication was censored in the 1750s by the Mexican Inquisition, especially for the "Instruccion para enseñar lo que se resive en la Hostia" (leaf 34 r. and v.). Fortunately, this copy escaped the censors.

Ávila was a Franciscan curate of Milpa Alta in the diocese of Mexico and for twenty years he taught the Nahuatl language in the convent of the Franciscan order. It was in the course of those twenty years (as he tells us in his dedicatory epistle) that Ávila developed and tested his method. Ultimately, his method would prepare a student to speak the language within six months. It was that method upon which he based his grammar.

In his introduction, Ávila states that it is not enough that a Franciscan who ministers to the Indians know the language. He must also be equipped with an understanding of their culture and "nature."

"Tambien quise, ya que el escribir este Arte es para los que han de dar a la administracion, notar algunas cosas, que sirvan de avisos, en orden el conocimiento, natural inclinacion y obrar de los Indios; pues su administracion Buena, no depende solamente de saber su idioma, si no se reconocen sus propiedades; por lo qual advierto."

To assist in their learning, Ávila provides a summary overview of Indian culture, morals, and ethics, noting that their labor forms the backbone of Mesoamerican society. They till the fields, make bread, quarry stone, cut trees for wood, make clothing, etc. They do all this without complaint due to their servile nature ("animo servil"), neither begrudging their work or, curiously, being motivated by reward ("No sienten agravio ni agradecen beneficio.")

The grammar itself is divided into six sections (phonology, morphology, etc.)and concludes with a number of short instructional texts (pláticas) to be used while taking confession, urging a sinner to repent; explaining, in question and answer format, the sacrament of the Eucharist (what its nature is, how the wafer is converted to the flesh of Christ, how dividing the host does not divide the body of Christ, which is indivisible, etc.); the nature of the Trinity, the miracle of Christ's birth, etc.

The Language:

"Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, is part of the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the largest of the Native American language families. The Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Nahuan family includes many North American languages such as Comanche, Shoshone, Paiute, Tarahumara, Cora, and Huichol. The Uto-Aztecan main language diffused out of the Great Basin, moving where the Nahuatl language probably originated, in the upper Sonoran region of what is now New Mexico and Arizona, and the lower Sonoran area in Mexico.

With thefounding of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan, and the growth of the Aztec/Mexica empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, Náhuatl spread all over Mesoamerica. This language became a lingua franca spoken by merchants, soldiers, and diplomats, over an area including what is today northern Mexico to Costa Rica, as well as parts of Lower Central America.

Legal steps that reinforced its status as lingua franca included the decision by King Philip II of Spain (reg. 1556–1593) in 1570 to make Nahuatl the linguistic medium for clerics to use in religious conversion and for the training of ecclesiastics working with the native people in different regions. Members of the nobility from other ethnic groups, including Spaniards, used spoken and written Nahuatl to facilitate communication throughout New Spain.

The Franciscans in the New World:

"Among the nations of the New World, Mexico is probably the country in which the Franciscans worked most intensively. Having been the first missionaries to arrive in Mexico, they covered most of its territory and worked with numerous native groups: Nahuas, Otomies, Mazahuas, Huastecas, Totonacas, Tarascans, Mayas. Their intense missionary activity is evident in the many indigenous languages the Franciscans learned, the grammars and vocabularies they wrote, the numerous Biblical texts they translated, and the catechisms they wrote with ideographical techniques quite alien to the European mind. 

This activity left an indelible mark in Mexico, a mark still alive in popular traditions, monumental constructions, popular devotions, and folk art. Without a doubt, in spite of the continuous growth of the Spanish and Mestizo populations during colonial times, the favorite concern of Franciscan pastoral activity was the indigenous population. Thus, Franciscan schools and colleges, hospitals, and publications were addressed to it. For their part, the native population showed the same preference for the Franciscans. To the eyes of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, Franciscans and natives appeared as an inseparable body, an association not always welcomed by the Spanish Crown."(Morales)

Medina, México, 2478; Palau y Dulcet (2d. ed.); vol. 1, no. 20391; Sabin; vol. 1, p. 334, no. 2494; Viñaza, Bib. lenguas indígenas, 271; García Icazbalceta, J. Apuntes, 9; Pilling 193