Feb 172010

Mexico’s place names, or toponyms, offer many clues about geography. Mexico’s indigenous peoples spoke languages that had no formal alphabet. For place names, they used combinations of pictographs, ideographs and phonetic symbols.

Spanish explorers recorded the names provided by the locals as best they could, resulting in some inevitable confusion and distortion. For instance, it is sometimes claimed that “Yucatán” actually derives from Maya Indians responding, “I don’t know!” when asked to name a nearby place.

Suffixes derived from indigenous (mostly Nahuatl) words include:

  • -apan = in/near water or river
  • -calco = in the house of
  • -can = place
  • -cingo, -tzingo = (small) place of settlement
  • – huacan, -oacan = place where they have
  • -pan = in/on
  • -ro = place
  • -tepec = hill
  • -tepetl = mountain
  • -titlan = near
  • -tla = abundance
  • -tlan = in or near

Can you think of examples of modern-day place names using each of these suffixes? For instance,  “Zapopan”, in the state of Jalisco, is an example of a place name ending in -pan = in/on.

[Edited extract from chapter 1 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico]

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