Nahuatl is a Uto-Aztecan language spoken today by about two million people (the terms Nahua and Nahuas refer to the people; Nahuatl to the language). During Mexico’s colonial era, it was the first language of Indigenous people across the core area of what had been the Aztec Empire, and in areas to the east, such as Tlaxcala, that managed to remain outside of the imperial lines. The Mexica rulers of the empire, based in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), spread the use of the language into their non-Nahua tributary territories. Under the Spanish colonial regime, Nahuatl use continued to expand as a bureaucratic and religious language. Roman Catholic priests assigned to Indigenous communities would often study Nahuatl and expect local people whose mother tongues were different (Otomi, Mazahua, etc.) to know enough Nahuatl to learn the catechism in it and confess their sins in it. Many communities included speakers of multiple Indigenous languages. Hence not every Indigenous person observing or participating in a Passion play would necessarily be a first-language speaker of Nahuatl.

Linguist Frances Karttunen and historian James Lockhart (1976), after an exhaustive review of documents written by colonial Nahuas, observed that the impact of Spanish on the language fell into three stages. For the first couple of decades there was virtually no change. From about 1540 to about 1650, Nahuatl-speakers readily borrowed nouns from Spanish, especially for things unknown to them before the Spanish arrival in 1519. Many of these things were minutiae of government such as legalese (sentence, proceeding, evidence) and terms for officials (king, governor, constable); many were new implements of daily life (table, chair, knife); others were concepts associated with the Roman Catholic Church (saint, God [as Dios], cross, chalice). Only after 1650 did Spanish verbs, particles, and other forms freely enter the language, and more than superficial shifts in grammar and syntax set in.

One striking thing about Nahuatl theater is that even plays from the eighteenth century retain, with only occasional exceptions (such as pluralizing an inanimate noun here and there), the Stage Two Nahuatl of the 1540-1650 era. In part this is due to the passing down and recopying of scripts originally composed during that era. However, there must also have been an intentional effort to retain this increasingly archaic form of talking for use on the stage, rather than update it to current practice, which could easily have been done when new copies were made. Additions to the scripts were translated the same way: I suspect the death warrant issued by Pilate, which we see in the Passion plays from the Penn and Princeton libraries, was added in the eighteenth century and adapted to the standard mode of dramatic speech. We could liken this preference for archaic Nahuatl to the aura of period authenticity English speakers might associate with the work of, say, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, the script of a historical drama such as Downton Abbey—or even the more archaic charms of Shakespeare and the King James Bible (for Spanish speakers, think of the language of Cervantes or Siglo de Oro theater). We should additionally note, however, that this archaic speech was not just quaint; it was redolent of ancestral authority. It was, quite literally, huehuehtlahtolli ‘old speech.’ This term denoted the formal admonitions given by parents to children or elder office-holders to younger ones, avidly collected by Spanish friars as explanations of Nahua values and models of effective rhetoric. Reciting or listening to plays, Nahuas of the eighteenth century heard the voices of not only Jesus and Mary and their cohort, but of their own parents and grandparents, echoing down the generations and tying the present to the past as well as to the sacred. For more on the language used in Nahuatl theater, see Barry D. Sell’s essay on the topic (Sell 2009).

Things are always lost in translation. Words can have many nuances of meaning, some conveyed better by one possible translation, some by another. My own translations are the result of many compromises and deliberations as I strive to achieve some degree of conversational readability without entirely losing the style of the Nahuatl, with its semantic and syntactic parallelism (speakers tends to use two words or phrases where a terser tongue would use one), vocatives (O my child, O ruler, etc.), and local expressions of some Christian ideas—hence “make him stretch his arms” instead of “crucify,” “mictlan” (place of the dead) instead of “hell.”

The reverential or honorific verb mode is one feature of Nahuatl that is particularly difficult to convey consistently without producing a text that is very stilted in English. The plays are generally very consistent in using this respectful tone when characters are speaking of or to Jesus, Mary, and other revered figures—except when these characters are actually being disrespectful. When Judas, Malchus, Caiaphas, or other foes speak to or about Jesus without reverential verbs, their words thus drip with disdain. Who is and is not on Jesus’s side tracks consistently with the use of reverential verbs in reference to him—Judas sometimes shifts back and forth depending on his feelings at the moment. Interestingly, the use of honorifics extends to stage directions, which often use respectful tones when stating what the actors playing these revered personages are supposed to do—as if the actors when in role are closely identified with the figures they are impersonating.


Karttunen, Frances, and James Lockhart. 1976. Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sell, Barry D. 2009. Nahuatl Theater, Nahua Theater. In Barry D. Sell and Louise M. Burkhart, eds. and trans., Nahuatl Theater Volume 4: Nahua Christianity in Performance, 51-70. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Louise Burkhart 5/21/21