“Remarks like that were embedded in my head and took up precious space that should have been occupied with other things but wasn’t.” – Ray Midge, The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
One of the things I enjoy about dramaturgy (and writing!) is becoming a temporary expert on all kinds of unexpected topics. And once I learn those things, I want to share them! “Ask Me About” is a continuing series of posts about trivia and knowledge I pick up in the course of rehearsals and research.
The actor asked: “I know ‘Mexico’ used to be pronounced ‘Meshiko.’ Can you find out anything about when and why that changed?”
¡Claro que sí!
The Nahuatl (Aztec) name Mēxihco pronounced “meSHEE’ko” (/meːˈʃiʔko/). This was transliterated by Spanish explorers as “Mexico” — in Medieval Spanish, the letter “x” represented the “sh” sound.
By the end of the 15th century, the letters “j” and “x” were both used to represent the “zh” sound in Spanish (like the “g” in “genre” or the “si” in “vision”). However, in the 16th century, the usage evolved so that “j” and “x” represented the sound “ch” as in “loch”. (The voiceless velar fricative, if you’re fancy: [x].) So the name of the country was spelled both “Mexico” and “Mejico.”
In the 1700s, the Real Academia Español established that “j” should represent the “ch/[x]” sound, and “x” should represent the “ks” sound (explicar, extraño). Due to the multiple spellings of Mexico/Mejico and other place names (Texas/Tejas, Oaxaca/Oajaca), the letter “x” continued and continues to be used to represent the “ch/[x]” sound in some words in Mexico, even though “x” in Spanish words should be pronounced “ks.”
So the progression went:
The Real Academia Español has the whole evolution of the letter “x” — it’s written in Spanish, but Google Translate will do an okay job translating to English.