The original word for Mexico was probably Meshtleeko. This word was a mine field of pronunciation for the missionaries. Native Spanish speakers have a difficult time pronouncing sh, whether in an English or a Mexican word. As a result, they inserted an x in any word containing sh, thus x came to be pronounced sh.
As the first missionaries to come to the New World from Spain, the Franciscans used the x to help commit indigenous Mesoamerican languages to script using Latin characters. Whenever they couldn’t translate the sounds of letters to Latin, they used an x, much like an “unknown” in mathematics. As linguists, these friars faced the problem that there were sounds produced in the native languages that didn’t exist in Castillian Spanish. The guttural j is an example of this (similar to ch in German, as in Heinrich), and another is the x mentioned above, the case of the sh sound, as in “shoe.” The native people, on the other hand, had similar problems with Spanish sounds that didn’t exist in their own languages. So the missionaries used an x to stand for many varying sounds–f, guttural j, sh, s and ks. The uncertainty regarding which of these sounds x was meant to symbolize in any given word is what leads to present-day confusion.
So, the simplified Mexico evolved from the fact that the original Meshtleeko was truly difficult for native Spanish speakers to render. Within a few generations after the conquest, people replaced the original sh sound that the x symbolized by the more common interpretation of x, the j. This occurred because native Mexica speakers nearly disappeared from the central Valley of Mexico in the first few decades after the conquest and those few remaining weren’t influential at all. Those Spaniards across the oceans who administered their new possessions on the basis of written reports issuing from colonial governors didn’t have the guidance of native speakers of Mesoamerican languages to properly interpret the “Latinized” versions of native words.
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Because of this, Spaniards soon began writing the name of the country as it was pronounced–Méjico. Mexicans themselves have continued to use the Mexico version. Even though both pronunciations are as far from the original Mexica word, the usual reason advanced for this is that this word and its present spelling connect Mexico with its historical past.
To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.