One of my language interests has been Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs). Somehow that “tl” morpheme caught my eye. It also didn’t hurt that the language I took in high school was Spanish, and most of the original information about Nahuatl was recorded in Spanish by Spanish priests.
But there is another connection. Here in Ohio, one of the absolutely coolest Amerindian artifacts is the Newark Earthworks, which includes the Octagon, a lunar observatory. Another of the cool artifacts is the Serpent Mound.
The Octagon itself is currently a golf course (feh! though the fact that it was a golf course probably is what preserved the Octagon from the plowing over that destroyed so many of the other native earthworks). Nonetheless, a few times a year the Octagon is opened to the public (and the golfers have to hold off) and people are free to tour the whole site. (A better description of the events are here on the Ohio Archeology Blog.) One of those Open Houses is occurring April 17-18. These are worth going to.
Anyways, one of the events put on by the Newark Earthworks Center as part of the Octagon Open House is is a chance to throw some spears using atlatls. For those of you who don’t know, an atlatl is a special kind of formed stick used for throwing spears. It can really add power. When Cortez and his men invaded Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), their armor was ineffective against the atlatl.
All of the above is an introduction to my sharing with you where the term “atlatl” came from, and to try to correct some of the abominably awful pronounciations of that word.
It is NOT pronounced “oddle-oddle”. Really! Don’t do it!
The first thing you need to know is that “tl” is a single consonant. It is NOT the “tl” that you hear in the word “little”. What is rendered as “tl” in Nahuatl is a special kind of “t”. If you pronounce the “t” sound, you will notice that there is an explosive puff of air that comes off the tip of your tongue. Well, with the Nahuatl “tl” sound, this puff of air comes off the side of your tongue instead. Practice this a bit. And for the rest that follows, instead of trying to make the “tl” sound a 2 syllable sound, you’d do better making is just a single “t” sound. You’d be closer to the truth.
This (“tl”) was a ubiquitous sound in Nahuatl.
“Atlatl” is a two-syllable word. The first syllable is “ah-“, where the orthography of the “h” is the glottal stop. See Ahcuah?. The best way to describe the glottal stop is the sound a Cockney uses when he says “little” — you stop the vowel sound not by simply ending it, but by closing the back of your throat, the glottis. The second syllable is “tlatl”, with the final “tl” being nothing more than a singular noun ending. Also, in Nahuatl, the accent is on the penultimate syllable. So, the correct (historically) orthography of “atlatl” is “ahtlatl” and the correct pronunciation is “AH-tlatl” (again, that “H” needs to really be a glottal stop). To try to approach saying it correctly, try just saying “AH-tat”, and slowly change the front-puffed “t” to a laterally-puffed “t”.
There is a bit of debate on the origin of the word “ahtlatl”. Richard Andrews, Nahuatl scholar and author of Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, broke it down as a combination of “ah-“, meaning “not”, and “tlatl”, sling. “Tlatl” is used in other places as a sling, in “maxtlatl”, crotch-sling (a breechclout), and in tematlatl, rock-hand-sling (a real David-and-Goliath type sling). Francis Kartunnen, another Nahuatl heavyweight, doubts this, since there are discrepancies. Who knows?
Further confusing things is the fact that one of the premier ancient dictionaries of Nahuatl, “Vocubulario en Lengua Castellana/Mexicana y Mexicana/Castellana”, by Fray Alonso de Molina, has “atlatl” defined as “amiento”, or simply “sling”. This led many early scholars to disbelieve that the Aztecs (or any Central American Amerindians) had anything like an atlatl. This was finally explained by Zelia Nuttall in “The Atlatl or Spear-Thrower of the Ancient Mexicans”: One of the Spanish expressions for throwing with an atlatl was tirar con tiradera, along with jugar con jugadera and arrojar con arrojadera, all of which more or less meant “thrown with the thing-thrower”. However, “tiradera” also specifically meant “sling” in Spanish, so that led to the confusion that became “amiento” in Molina.
To remove any doubt that the ancient Aztecs really used atlatls, there are quite a few pictures of them in the Codices of the time. Here is a picture of one, with spear, from the Cospi Codex, page 29 (you can even see the finger straps for the first and second fingers):
The image comes from The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.