Andrés de Olmos

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Page from Olmos' "Arte de la Lengua Mexicana"

Andrés de Olmos (c.1485 – 8 October 1571), Franciscan priest and extraordinary grammarian and ethno-historian of Mexico's Indians, was born in Oña, Burgos, Spain, and died in Tampico in New Spain (modern-day Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico). He is best known for his grammar, the first in the New World, of the Classical Nahuatl language.


Andrés de Olmos in early youth went to live with a married sister in Olmos, whence his name. He entered the Franciscan convent in Valladolid and was ordained a priest. He was appointed an assistant to Fray Juan de Zumárraga in 1527, and accompanied Zumárraga when the latter was sent by the Emperor Charles V in 1528 to be the first bishop of New Spain. As early as 1533 Olmos was recognized as unusually adept in the Nahuatl language, and well-informed about the history and customs of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples. He contributed to the founding in 1536 of the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, the first European-based institution of higher learning in the New World.

Olmos wrote a book, unfortunately lost, about the pre-Hispanic history, beliefs and religious practices of Mexico (some have suggested that this work might be the mysterious Crónica X). He also published a collection of Huehuetlahtolli, moral instruction from Nahuatl-speaking elders to their juniors, expressed in a highly stylized and polished, high-register language. He wrote several sermons in Nahuatl which have survived.

But he is best known for his Arte para aprender la lengua mexicana, completed in 1547. Although it was based on his own and others' previously written notes about Classical Nahuatl grammar, this was the first relatively complete grammatical description of an indigenous language of the New World. It antedates, by three years, the first grammatical description of the French language (by Louis Maigret in 1550.)

Olmos also published a Nahuatl Vocabulary. Much of his work on the Arte and the Vocabulary was done in Hueytlalpan, in Totonac country, where he settled ca. 1539. There Olmos learned Totonac, and published an Arte and Vocabulary in that language: unfortunately these are lost. In 1554 he moved to the Huasteca region, where he learned the Huastec or Teenek language, and wrote yet another Arte and Vocabulary describing it.


Nahuatl, Totonac, and Huastec are from completely different linguistic stocks, and represent three of the most important of Mexico's twenty language families. To describe the grammars, and initiate the lexical descriptions, of three such disparate languages is an extraordinary feat; very much more to be the first to do so. Olmos' work, particularly the Arte para aprender la lengua mexicana, was the model for many other Artes that followed on Nahuatl and other languages of the New World.


  • (in Spanish) Olmos, Fray Andrés de. 1547. Arte de la Lengua Mexicana. Edición, estudio introductorio, transliteración y notas de Ascensión Hernández de León-Portilla y Miguel León-Portilla. 2002. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).