Writing Systems


Glyphs identifying the years 7 House, 8 Rabbit, and 9 Reed, Aubin fol. 8r


Place sign for Tollan, meaning "among the reeds" and Nahuatl gloss reading "On this Acatl year, the Mexica had spent 20 years in Tollan" Aubin fol. 8r.

The system of pictorial writing is similar to that of other civilizations, most notably the Mixtec speaking peoples living south of Tenochtitlan. The iconography surrounding rulers and dieties is similar, and in many ways the pictographic writing system is similar, despite the difference in language, because writing was not necessarily dependant on spoken language. The format of Aztec histories, generally called annals, is important to the understanding of their creation and audience.[i] Even though we do have Spanish accompaniments to the manuscripts, the pictographic writing is still not completely understandable to modern readers familiar with a Romanized alphabet. Once pictographic writing is understood, the format of the history is easier to decipher and analyze.

Pictographic writing includes components that are related to spoken language (Nahuatl) such as logograms, which represent an idea but are not pictorial descriptions.  The content of Aztec histories includes the history of “the people” as a whole, not just nobles, as would appear in Mixtec histories, so there are some unnamed figures. Groups of people show an important part of the Aztec history, its migration, and places emphasis on the shared heritage of the Aztecs, rather than specific actors that later appear to dominate the imperial period. The imperial development and consolidation of their empire through conquest of nearby polities are the second and third “chapters” of Aztec histories.[ii]



[i] Mary Elizabeth Smith, Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 3-4.

[ii] Ibid, 22.