Fresh Ink

So it has been almost two months since I got this tattoo, but thanks to a crazy senior fall semester at Juniata, I haven’t had a free second to write until now…

One of my classes I took during my semester abroad in Xalapa taught me around two hundred words and phrases of one of the Aztec languages known today as Nahuatl. Nahuatl is still widely spoken and utilized throughout Mexico today, which is why I thought I should take advantage of an opportunity to be taught by a native speaking professor. Also me being me, someone who loves languages, linguistics, and challenges, I had to take this course.

When Nahuatl is written or recorded in hieroglyphics like the ones found throughout thousands of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, two vertical dots, almost like our colon [ : ] signifies the number 21. This leads me to the phrase: Na nihnemih sempoalli wan se xihuitl … which in Spanish translates as: “Tengo veintiuno hojas”…which then translates in English as: “I have 21 leaves”. Nahuatl speakers describe their years of life as additions of annual leaves on a tree where you are your own tree. Now again being Clare, I am OBSESSED with everything trees and nature; so when we learned how to say “I have 21 leaves” in class one day, I immediately knew I wanted to make a tattoo out of it. I had pondered getting something small done, but the fear of contracting that lovely hepatitis or any other just-as-glorious disease impeded me from doing anything while I was down there. But really! How beautiful and compelling is it that these people express their years of life as leaves growing on a tree?

Earlier in Nahuatl class we had also learned how to count just like in any other language class, only the numbers in Nahuatl each mean a different thing. For example, nawi, which is the number 4 or “cuatro” in Spanish for you Spanish wizards out there, means the four movements of the winds and the four directions of the earth just like we have our cardinal directions.

Again. How cool is that?! When Nahuatl speakers use or think of the number four they have thoughts of the movement of the winds and atmosphere across the world. When we think of the number 4 here, what do we think of? How do we count and what do we use to count?

After taking my oral final in this course which actually was a conversation with my professor, I felt so honored to have learned this new language which in turn had also given me new perspectives, something that I can never satiate my thirst for.

Now being back in the US of A, I had begun to realize a few months ago what learning that language has really done for me.

As part anthropologist, I had already been familiar with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which basically states that the language you speak directly effects your cognitive perception of the world. I had already experienced this value of linguistic relativity in small doses during random moments when I was living abroad and using my Spanish, but I never truthfully understood the hypothesis until after taking my Nahuatl class.

This past semester when I would have moments of missing Mexico and my family there so very much, I would always look at a tree and its leaves and think of how it has grown just like I have changed and grown myself from my time spent in Mexico. I have days where classes and in general our fast-paced college lives just bring me down and exhaust me so much, but it helps when I take few seconds to think of my Nahuatl mantras to calm me down and reconnect myself with the ground.

Now this brings me to my newest and freshest ink addition, my little piece of Mexico that I’ll never lose.


It all happened on a day which was originally to be spent planning out my post-graduation plans, but it turned out to be one of the most fun and spontaneous days I’ve had in a long time. I had only decided I wanted a tattoo earlier that day and I didn’t even decide on this design until I chatted with the artist and his opinions. I finally decided on getting my two vertical dots with a green leaf underneath because I was 21 years old when I learned the language. I also wanted to incorporate my lucky and new favorite number 4/ nawi into the design so I also had four horizontal dots tattooed on the inside of my fourth finger.

Thanks new my new ink, I can still try and remember to see our 21st century world through the kind eyes and mind of a Nahuatl speaker.


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