Another installment of this occasional series, this one on the Aztecs. You recall the Aztecs, no doubt, the sprawling Mesoamerican empire under Montezuma, who confronted and was later destroyed by the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortes.
Let’s start by correcting a few simple translation differences: Hernando Cortes is Hernán Cortés in the original Spanish, while Montezuma is the more popular–but less correct–transliteration of the Aztec leader’s name: the more correct version is Moctezuma. I doubt the US Marine Corps will be correcting their hymn anytime soon (“from the halls of Montezuma”, and it is a nuanced pronunciation change, so “As you were, Marines!”). Neither of these points matter much, and are easily explained by the difficulties in translating between vastly different language groups.
The more important change goes back to that term Aztecs. See, there were no Aztecs. From what we know of the empire around Tenochtitlan at that time, the people called themselves Méxica, which represented a new name denoting an alliance of powerful city states (primarily Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco), and the language they spoke was Nahuatl. When you run into many difficult tl phonemes in Mexican place names, blame it on Nahuatl. If you read the Spanish accounts of the conquest, there is no mention of the Aztecs; the Spaniards referred only to the Méxica. (As an aside, if you want to read an amazing adventure story, there is an English language translation of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s eye-witness account of the conquest, which is gripping!).
So whence Aztecs? The Méxica people’s origin story was that they descended from a tribe who lived in a legendary place called Aztlan, and were thus “from Aztlan” or “Aztecas” in Nahuatl. It was an important term of ancestral relationship, much like my family claiming to be Irish, when we have more German ancestors than any other ethnic group, and we’re all Americans, anyway.
This interesting historical and linguistic fact (the Méxica, not the Neary’s) was irrelevant until the 19th century, when a German explorer conducted an expedition into Mexico and wrote about the Méxica origin story, calling them Aztecs. His work was cited by William Prescott, a famous American historian who wrote History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843, long considered the seminal work on the subject. Prescott used the appellation Aztecs for the Méxica, and it stuck.
It makes much more sense that a country named México was inhabited by a people named the Méxica; less so the Aztecs. While the Méxica origin story is important, it was probably a mistake to re-name their culture for it. Imagine a historian of the future noting that in the 21st century, there were people living around a lake in Mexico, and their origin story was they were Expats, so they must have been from a heretofore undiscovered place called Expatia. In some sense it would be technically correct, but not in any sense right. The next time you here a reference to the Aztecs, stick up for the Méxica!