Nahuatl is a group of Native American languages and dialects spoken in modern day Mexico. There are also small Nahuatl-speaking immigrant communities in the United States, notably in New York and California. This language is most well known as the historical language of the Aztecs, but the form of the language they spoke is more accurately referred to as Classical Nahuatl. There are over 1.5 million speakers and is the most widely spoken native language in North America. The language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family, which includes over 60 languages and spans a geographical area including not only Mexico, but also the modern day United States of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah. Most — although not all — pepole who speak it also speak Spanish.
Although the Aztecs are the most famous speakers of Nahuatl, they were not the first. Earlier tribes spoke different dialects of the language, and varying dialects persisted among different tribes during the time of the Aztec empire. However, due to the extensive power exercised by the Aztecs at the height of the empire, Classical Nahuatl became the most widely spoken version and was used as a lingua franca throughout Mexico and other Mesoamerican countries prior to the European conquest. It is also the most documented early dialect of the language, as extensive written records and translations exist from the colonial period.
Pre-conquest, the Aztecs employed a rudimentary writing system consisting mostly of pictograms and ideograms. It did not represent the language word for word, but was used mostly to keep brief records or the basic ideas of a text that would be fleshed out in the telling. The large body of Aztec literature transcribed in the Roman alphabet after the conquest was memorized in pre-colonial times. A phonetic syllabary also existed before the arrival of Europeans, but it was cumbersome and infrequently used. Today, the Roman orthography developed in the colonial period is still used to write the various dialects of Nahuatl, but its use is not standardized, and inconsistencies in spelling can be found between sources, a problem also present in classical texts. There continues to be controversy about spelling in Nahuatl.