Link to enlarge K6042 (Las Bocas - Ceramic Vessel) THE FOUNDATION RESEARCH DEPARTMENT

A Grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan Language
by David & Alejandra Bolles


1.  Vowels

The Mayan language, unlike English, has a very definite sound for each written vowel. The following are the most commonly used vowel sounds with their corresponding sounds found in English words:

a pronounced as the a in father
e pronounced as the a in made
i pronounced as the ee in reed
o pronounced as the oa in boat
u pronounced as the oo in root
ay pronounced as the ie in die (Also written ai)
ey pronounced as the a in made
iy pronounced as the ee in reed
oy pronounced as the oy in boy
uy pronounced as the ewy in screwy
au pronounced as the ow in how

From the above it can be seen that the orthographic representations for the vowel system is based on the continental European system.

Of the above vowels, there is a slight variation in how the e is pronounced. For example, in the syllable ben the e can be pronounced as note above or it can be pronounced as the "e" in "end". Thus:

bencaah (how much): the e is pronounced as "a" in "made"
uchben (old, ancient): the e is pronounced as "e" in "end"

It may seem that the vowels ey and iy are superfluous, but there is a linguistic reason behind the need for these spelling conventions. For example there is the word bey (so, thus) which when not followed by another vowel sounds in its pronunciation like be (the common form for the word "road", "path", "way"). If however a vowel is attached to bey, such as the positional markers -a, -o, and -e, then the y in bey becomes audible and in fact becomes a consonant y in front of the added vowel.

bey   beya   (be-ya; like this)
bey   beyo   (be-yo; like that)

It is noted that ay and ai can be used interchangeably. However there is a tendency to use ay as the representation for the vowel sound known as "long i" in English and to reserve ai as the representation of a pair of distinctly pronounced vowels a - i.

hay   flat, stretched out, extended
hai   pertaining to water, from ha, water.

In the second case hai is pronounced ha-i.

The exception to this is the following, in which the most common spelling of the vowel sound "long i" is with ai, although ay is also to be found:

ain / ayn   crocodile.

There are in fact various combinations of vowels which are to be pronounced as individual units. Some examples of these vowel combinations are:

ai   as in   hai  (pertaining to water)
ae  as in   behlae  (today)
ao  as in   le nao  (that house)
oa  as in   le cħoa  (this mouse)

In each case the vowels are to be pronounced distinctly according to the pronunciation guide given above.


2.  Vowel Length and Tone

In Mayan the length of time which a vowel sound is held or the tonal inflection on a vowel can and usually does make the difference in the meaning of a word. There are five different ways of pronouncing a vowel sound:


The clipped vowel is generally found in one syllable words of either the vowel alone or of the type "CV" (consonant - vowel). It is produced by closing the glottis almost immediately after the vowel sound is pronounced. This vowel is often referred to as a glottal-stopped vowel, but confusion arises because there are two types of glottal-stopped vowels: the unreduplicated glottal-stopped vowel and the reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel. In order to avoid confusion we have chosen to call the unreduplicated glottal-stopped vowel a "clipped vowel".

The regular vowel is one held for a natural amount of time with no effort made to either cut it short or to elongate it.

The elongated vowel is a sustained vowel sound which is often accompanied by a tonal shift, either upwards or downwards.

The glided vowel is a slurred reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel in which, usually because of rapid speech, the vowel instead of being stopped by the glottis and then reduplicated is glided over with a tone or pitch change. This change of tone is usually from a high tone to a lower one. There is not necessarily a difference in pronunciation between an elongated vowel and a glided vowel. However when the word in which a glided vowel is found is carefully pronounced though the speaker will almost always pronounce the vowel as a reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel.

The reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel is pronounced by producing a clipped vowel and then attaching a regular or elongated vowel of the same value directly to the clipped vowel. Thus, for example, the word caan (sky) is pronounced ca-an, with a break between the syllables ca and an.


3.  Orthographic Representations of Vowels

The orthographic representation of the clipped vowel used in this book is the vowel itself without any extra notation. This makes a clipped vowel visually indistinguishable from either a regular or an elongated vowel. However, should a vowel be followed by a consonant in a syllable then it cannot be a clipped vowel but must be either a regular vowel or an elongated vowel. This is because a vowel which is followed by a consonant cannot by its nature be clipped. Other orthographic conventions for the clipped vowel will be discussed below in the discussion on glottal-stopped vowels.

The orthographic representation of the regular vowel has always been just the vowel itself.

There are two conventions for the orthographic representation of an elongated vowel. The choice of which one of these conventions is to be used depends on whether the elongated vowel is the final sound value in a syllable or whether it is followed by a consonant. If the elongated vowel is the final value in the syllable then an -h is tacked onto the vowel to indicate that it is elongated. This may be based in a hieroglyphic convention which the early Mayan writers carried over into the Latin script orthography, because there are examples of the hieroglyph with the value ha being added to the hieroglyph with the value ca to form -cah, as in chucah (captured). If, however, the elongated vowel is followed by a consonant in a syllable, then only the vowel itself is given. In this latter case, the orthography for an elongated vowel is thus indistinguishable from the orthography for a regular vowel.

The reduplicated glottal-stop has always been recognized in orthography and is represented by doubling the vowel. This has led to some confusion though when the vowel is glottal-stopped but not reduplicated such as would be the case for one syllable words of the "CV" type or the "V" type where the vowel is a clipped vowel. In these cases in colonial times some writers would write the double vowel symbol even though such a symbol was not called for. For example the following words, which are pronounced with a non-reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel, which we have decided to call in this grammar "clipped" to avoid confusion with the reduplicated glottal-stopped vowels, were often written using the double vowel convention:

standard orthography colonial orthography
ha (water) haa
na (mother) naa
uo (bull frog) uoo
i (hawk) ii

In each case the vowel sound immediately after its enunciation is cut off by closing the glottis and the vowel is not reduplicated although the colonial orthographic convention would seem to indicate that the vowel is to be reduplicated. This convention of writing the double vowel as a representation of a clipped vowel may also be based on a hieroglyphic convention, at least according to how de Landa showed the hieroglyph for ha (water) in which "water" is written hieroglyphically a - ha. Hieroglyphic researchers have also found the same convention in hieroglyphic writing. It must be stressed that the colonial writers were uneven in applying this convention of writing clipped vowels using the double vowel symbol and just a frequently wrote clipped vowels using the standard orthography. They were also uneven about writing the double vowel symbol in the case where a reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel is present in a word, thus frequently writing a word which has a reduplicated glottal-stopped vowel as if it was a regular or elongated vowel.

Recently some writers have tried to make the distinction between clipped vowels and regular vowels by placing a apostrophe or a "?" behind the vowel (V' or V?) if the vowel is clipped. Thus the above words would be written:

ha' ha?
na' na?
uo' uo?
i' i?

Many linguistic works also have been trying to differentiate between high and low tones for the vowels. One of the more common conventions is to use the accent grave (à) for the low tone and the accent acute (á) for the high tone.

In this book however we will stay with the more common convention of not making any visual distinction between a regular vowel and a clipped vowel.

Needless to say, failure to observe the length of time a vowel is to be held can result in confusion. This is especially true in Mayan because it is so highly monosyllabic. As an example of what changes are made by different lengths of vowels, if we take the consonant n and place it in front of the vowel a we have the various possibilities:

na "mother". The a is clipped.
na "house". The a is regular.
nah verb root for "earn". The a is elongated.
naah verb root for "full (of food)". The a is glottal-stopped.

Another example with c before a:

ca "squash"
ca "two", "then", "when", "if"
cah "town"
caah immediate future indicator, "to be good for"

In the cases where the vowel is not the final value within a syllable, i.e. when the syllable is of the type "CVC" or "VC", then it is not possible for the vowel to be clipped. It would seem that this stems from the fact that it is close to a physical impossibility to both cut off the vowel sound and pronounce the ensuing consonant after having cut off the vowel. Thus for syllables of the "CVC" and "VC" types there are only three possibilities for vowel types: regular, elongated, and reduplicated glottal-stopped (which of course includes glided).

Some examples:
With the letters m, i, and z:

miz "cat". The i is regular.
miz verb root for "sweep". The vowel is elongated.

With the letters c, a, and n:

can "snake", "four", verb root for "learn / teach". The a is regular.
can verb root for "to tire". The a is elongated.
caan "sky". The a is glottal-stopped.

The following are some examples in which it is very important to observe the glottal-stop:

can  (snake, four) caan  (sky)
kan  (ripe) kaan  (hammock, spider web)
kum  (squash) kuum  (boiled corn ready for grinding)

There are however some words in which the vowel can be either simple or glottal-stopped. There is usually some circumstance which determines in which form the word will appear.

och, ooch "food"
in uooch "my food"
in uoch buul "my food the beans"

In this case the word by itself is glottal-stopped, but when it is followed by a word designating the type of food then the vowel becomes regular. It might be noted that och also means "possum", but that och (possum) never takes the consonant u- nor does its vowel ever become glottal-stopped.


4.  Consonants

The consonants used in Mayan are generally similar to those used in English. The following comments will show those differences which do exist.

c is always hard as in "come". In colonial writing this rule is not always observed and so there are at times instances when c will be employed as an "s".

c' is a special orthographic convention. This symbol is normally pronounced ca with the vowel clipped, and is the first person plural pronoun / possessive adjective "we / our". The use of this orthographic convention throughout the colonial and modern literature is uneven, with c' and ca being used interchangeably. Thus the phrase "our younger brothers and sisters" can be written as follows:

c' uidzinoob
ca uidzinoob

The reason for this orthographic convention c' seems to lie in the fact that frequently the consonant from this pronoun / adjective will append itself to the word on either side of it, although this happens most frequently with the word preceding it. More detail on this is given in the chapter on pronouns. In this book the convention c' is used throughout.

k is a fortis (forced) "k" sound. This is done by squeezing the tongue against the back of the roof of the mouth as the "k" sound is beginning and forcing the "k" sound to explode. Being able to make the distinction between the two sounds in speech is important.

can (snake, four) kan (ripe)
caan (sky) kaan (hammock, spider web)
cum (pot) kum (squash)

ch and , also written chh and ch': the ch sounds like the English "ch" as in "child". The is a fortis of "ch" formed by increasing the pressure of the front part of the tongue as the "ch" is being formed. For most of this century because of typesetting considerations chh has been the standard way of writing this consonant. Because of the ambiguity of whether the second "h" belongs to this consonant or to the following syllable when chh appears in the middle of a word, and because the symbol "ħ" has recently become available again on modern computers, we have decided to return to the use of to eliminate this ambiguity. Note that the symbol "ħ" can only exist as a part of the consonant . However an ambiguity still exists when the letters ch appear between two syllables. Ch in the middle of a word can either represent the consonant "ch" or the individual letters "c" and "h". Examples:

nachil (nach-il: foreign, from nach = far and -il = adjectival suffix)
nuchal (nuc-hal: to grow, from nuc = big and the intransitive verb suffix -hal)
nachhal (nach-hal: to become distant, from nach = far and the intransitive verb suffix -hal)

h is the same as "h" in English. However, because many writers are more used to writing Spanish, from time to time g, j, and very occasionally x are employed to represent the "h" sound. Conversely, because in Spanish the h is silent, there are occasions when some writers will employ the silent h in writing Mayan words which begin with a vowel. In this book h will be used only when it is pronounced as the English "h".

It should be mentioned that when h is the final vowel of a word, should some grammatical particle which begins with a vowel be added onto the word, then the h is pronounced as the leading consonant of the grammatical particle. Thus, for the past perfect verbal suffix -ah, for example as in chucah ("captured", see above in the third paragraph of Section 3), when the direct object pronouns -en, -ech, -i, -oon, -eex, -oob are attached to the verb, as for example chucahen, then the resulting word is pronounced chu-ca-hen. Since it is often difficult to know whether a word has a final h, the test for the existence of the final h is to add a grammatical particle which begins with a vowel. Examples:

cah (town) le caho (le ca-ho; that town)
betah (made) le cu betaho (le cu be-ta-ho; that which he/she/it did)

pp, also written p and p', is a fortis "p" with the extra pressure being placed on the lips.

th, also written tt, t, tħ, and t', is a fortis "t" with the extra pressure placed on the tip of the tongue.

tz and dz: the tz sounds much like a German "z", and the dz is a fortis of that sound with the extra pressure being placed on the tip of the tongue. Dz is most commonly written in older manuscripts and publications as "", and we would use it here, but unfortunately this symbol is still not available in the computer.

u, aside form being a vowel, also works as a consonant with the value of our "w". When u precedes another vowel, especially as the first letter in a word, then it can be assumed to be the consonant "w". Unfortunately this is not always true as can be seen in the following examples:

u as "w"
uah (tortilla)
uich (face)
uudzul (to bend)

u as the vowel
uic (u-ic: to listen)
le kuo (that nest)
kuum (boiled corn)

The consonant u and its companion consonant y perform a special function in Mayan. Some words which begin with a vowel, but by no means all of these words, will add one of these consonants as a prefix. This happens particularly when these words follow possessive adjectives, but there are many other instances when this happens also. The rule for adding these consonants is that for the first and second person singular and plural u- is added and for the third person singular and plural y- is added. This rule is not always observed though and some speakers will add u- in all cases. Thus for the word ooch (food) we have the following:

in uooch (my food) c' uooch (our food)
a uooch (your food) a uoocheex (your food)
u yooch (his/her/its food) u yoochoob (their food)

For the third persons there is the alternative:

u uooch             u uoochoob

x sounds like "sh" in English.

y functions as a consonant as mentioned above as well as an obligatory consonant, i.e. one in which the word would be meaningless without its presence. There is the colonial orthographic convention y which is really a shorthand notation for the conjunction yetel (and, with). In modern texts this conjunction is now spelled out.

z sounds like "s" in English and in this book we will follow the convention of using z for the "s" sound which seems to be the firmly established convention at the beginning of this century. There is however certain amount of variation on how the "s" sound is represented, and the four possibilities are c, ç, s, and z.

There are three consonants which can cause difficulties because of their peculiarities: k, l and n.

k tends to vanish when it is the final consonant in a syllable. Examples:

ehocħen "darkness", from ekhocħen.
hozic "to take out", from hokzic.
kanab "sea", from kaknab.
olal "because of", from oklal.

l tends to vanish when it follows a vowel at the end of a word. Example:

bel "road"
dzoc u bel "finish his road", meaning "to get married". The l is retained in speaking.
hol bel "gate, yard entrance". The l is frequently not pronounced.
le bea "this road". The l is lost.

n often tends towards m in pronunciation. Example:

hun "one"
huntul "one animate object". The n is not changed.
humppel "one inanimate object". The n has been changed to m.
minaan "there isn't any", is often pronounced minaam.


5.  d, f, g, j, qu, r, and v are consonants generally not found in Mayan, and the use of one of these sounds generally indicates that the word is of foreign origin. Today r is an exception to this since it has become the custom to pronounce what used to be l in some words as r. Examples:

x-kuruch from x-kuluch (cockroach)
turix from tulix (dragon fly)


Accent and Tone

6.  Accents are generally not marked in Mayan and that may in part be due to the fact that in words of more than one syllable the accent often falls evenly on each one of the syllables. However, there are instances where there is a definite accent on either the first or the second sylable of a two sylable word, and the placement of this accent will alter the meaning of the word.


háan son-in-law / father-in-law
haán filed, polished
mácal to cover
macál yam

In the literature both these words would normally be spelled haan and macal without accent marks, and the reader would have to know which is the accented vowel by the meaning of the word.


7.  Tone plays an important part in spoken Mayan. It is our conclusion however that tone in Yucatec is akin to tone in English: that is, that tone gives the color necessary to distinguish between declarative, interrogative, and exclamatory utterances and/or tone gives emphasis to the important ideas being expressed. There are of course also examples of tone being used to differentiate between words of similar sounds as is true with Chinese, and this happens when a glottal-stopped vowel is glided over or when there is a tonal change in an elongated vowel as noted in Section 2. On the whole though we feel that tonal inflection is more a linguistic luxury which adds color to the language than it is a linguistic necessity.

An example of the use of tone in Mayan which is rather frivolous but does illustrate something of its nature is the use of tonal inflection in the number system. Today the numbers above "four" are derived from Spanish, or more precisely are Spanish numbers pronounced with Mayan tonal inflection. When a Mayan speaker is asked whether those numbers above "four" in the Mayan language are not in fact Spanish numbers the person will often answer that no, one can hear the difference between Mayan numbers and Spanish numbers. Well, this is certainly true; one can hear the difference; but the difference is due only to the tonal inflection given to the Mayan system and not due to any change in the consonants and vowels which make up these numbers.

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