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In this lesson, you will explore how art and language were deeply connected in the Aztec Empire, a powerful culture that controlled Central America. Then, you will be able to test your understanding about the Aztec Empire, their language, and their art with a brief quiz.

Art and Language in the Aztec Empire

In the Valley of Mexico, high in the mountains, was a city named Tenochtitlán.

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This city was the capital of the Aztec Empire that spread across Central America. The Aztec Empire consisted of many different conquered cultures and people, but the culture who ruled the empire were the Mexica. The Mexica had a complex and sophisticated culture but did not have a formal written language, so their art and oral traditions worked together to record and communicate information.

Mexica Language and Oral Traditions

The Mexica spoke a language called Nahuatl.

This language, or languages similar to it, was spoken by the Mexica and other central Mexican cultures since the seventh century. After the Aztec Empire expanded across Central America, Nahuatl became an unofficial language of the conquered territories so that the entire empire had a single language for administration.The Mexica did not have a formal writing system, so Nahuatl was not a written language. Therefore, oral traditions were very important and most of Mexica culture and history were passed down verbally by specialized speakers whose jobs were to remember and recite rituals, events, and information.

Mexica Language and Art

The Mexica may not have had a formal written language, but they did make several books. Inside these books, they painted images. Across the Aztec Empire, the concepts of writing and painting were inseparable. We tend to think of art and language as different things, but in the Aztec world, they were one and the same.

The images painted into books do not constitute a true writing system because they do not represent the full vocabulary or grammar of spoken Nahuatl. Hieroglyphs, or images that represent sounds, words, or ideas, like the Egyptians or Mayans used, were complex enough to fully represent the entire language.Because art and language were considered the same, the images in Mexica books were not meant to be read. They were meant to be spoken.

The images represented ideas, people, places, even numbers but really functioned to help the speaker memorize the information as a mnemonic device. You know how you’re memorizing information, and certain acronyms help you to remember different pieces? For example, when learning the color spectrum, we started with the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. To help us memorize that order, many of our teachers used the mnemonic ROY G BIV. ROY G BIV is easier to remember than each color individually, but it helps you remember what those colors are. A mnemonic for this lesson might be the Mexica Ruled Over the Aztec Empire and Writing was the Same as Painting, or MOA WSP for Mexica Over Aztec Writing Same Painting.The images in Mexica books worked in a similar way.

Different images either represented an entire word, a sound, or an idea to help the speaker memorize the information. By putting these images together, the speaker could recite the information, but they were not reading it like a book. This style of communication took lots of practice, and the artists who painted Mexica books spent a lifetime in training. They were called tlacuilos and were some of the most respected members of society. The earliest books recorded important rituals and information, as well as tribute items the conquered people paid as taxes.For the Mexica, art and language were intertwined to communicate or record information. Besides painting, the Mexica carved statues and sculptures into their temples that told stories from history or mythology.

The famous Aztec sunstone is a massive carving of the Mexica calendar. Art was used to record information and was so prevalent that the Mexica were able to dominate a vast empire without ever needing a more formal writing system.

Lesson Summary

The Aztec Empire was a vast military state in Central Mexico, ruled by the Mexica people from their capital city Tenochtitl;n. The Mexica had a complex culture that was often shared across the Aztec Empire, including their language called Nahuatl. Nahuatl was a spoken language, not a written language, so oral traditions were very important in the Aztec Empire.

Mexica books, written by highly trained artists called tlacuilos were filled with images that served as mnemonic devices to help speakers memorize the information.Since these books were made to be spoken, not read, painting and writing were one and the same to the Mexica. In fact, most Mexica art was also used to record or communicate information. Since this writing was not a direct representation of the entire language, the way hieroglyphic images are, it’s not considered a true writing system.

Still, it worked just fine for the Mexica, who used it to control a major empire.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Recall the ruling language of the Aztec empire
  • Discuss the Aztec’s use of art as written language
  • Explain how Aztec books were designed and used
  • List some other Aztec art forms

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