Monday, July 23, 2007


One little factoid from my fieldwork in Central Mexico has always haunted me. It was this: that the court poets in the Aztec empire wrote poetry (and, presumably, sung it) in Otomi rather than in their own Nahuatl.

The notion that some languages are better for poetry or singing than others is widespread, but it is too east to find extraordinary music in languages supposedly lacking in musical qualities: just take a random poem of Heine or a snippet of a Janacek opera as a counterexample. There are also some near-universal ideas about how languages should be set, not violating stress, tone, or length of natural speech, for example. Aristophanes' complaints about the "new music" of Euripides are an early case in point, but then again, new musics are always finding counterexamples.

I'm not exactly sure what Otomi had that Nahuatl lacked in recommending it for poetry -- was it the VOS (verb-object-subject) order? The strong syllabic character (mostly a consonant plus a vowel, without Nahuatl's consonant cluster tl) with regular stress on every other syllable? It's a tonal language (high, low, falling, rising), which may or may not have been useful. My best guess is that it was Otomi's rhythmic effect which recommended it most for poesis, an interesting contrast to the old western prejudices for the simple vowel-rich Latin and Italian. There are an estimated 300,000 Otomi speakers, now. You have to wonder if any of them are active poets or songmakers. Heck, there are an estimated 1.7 million Nahuatl speakers -- are any of them writing or singing in Otomi?

Nico Muhly has a fine post about setting texts in and out of your own language in general, and English (the Otomi of our time) in particular.

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