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

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


180.  The Maya have suffered three conquests in historical times. The first conquest was that of the Toltecs under the leadership of Quetzalcoatl (Kukul Can in Mayan) in a Katun 4 Ahau (816 A.D. in colonial Mayan reckoning, or 987 A.D., Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation). The second was that of an unidentified Mexican group, the leaders of which were Ah Cintli Iuitl Chan, Ah Tzontecomatl, Ah Tlaxcalo, Ah Pantli Mitl, Ah Xochi Ueuetl, Ah Itz Coatl, and Ah Quaquatecatl, in a Katun 8 Ahau (1080 A.D. in colonial Mayan reckoning). The latest conquest was that of the Spaniards in 1546.


181.  The Toltec and Mexican influence on the Mayan language seems to be very slight. Indeed, it may be that the conquering Toltecs and Mexicans adopted the Mayan language much as the German invaders of the Roman Empire adopted Latin. In any case, the language of the Toltecs before leaving Tula in the Mexican highlands is thought to have been a Nahuatl dialect. It is also to be presumed that the language of the Mexican group was also Nahuatl. A brief glance through a Nahuatl dictionary published in 1571 by Alonso de Molina reveals very few words shared by both languages:

Nahuatl Mayan English
chimali chimal "shield"
maceualli (vassal) mazeual "Indian" or "native"
huaxim uaxim "acacia"
huipil (blouse) uipil "dress"

The name for Yucatan may well come from Nahuatl. The name seems not to be Mayan in any case because most Mayan place names have recognizable meanings and Yucatan does not, although there have been various attempts to explain it as a Mayan word. The reason for supposing that Yucatan is a Nahuatl word is because of the suffix -tan. The Nahuatl suffixes -tla and -tlan both indicate "the place of", although it seems that -tla indicates more precisely "the place where there is an abundance of". Both the Maya and the Spanish were not very good about writing, and thus presumably pronouncing, Nahuatl words, especially those with the tl in them. Normally the tl is turned into a t. Thus the suffix -tlan would become -tan in Mayan.

Yuhcatla is given in Simeon's Diccionario de la Lengua Nahuatl as meaning "deserted place, solitude, vacant space". On the other hand, yuca is given in Molina's dictionary as "to be of another". Thus there seems to be at least two possibilities in Nahuatl for a word which is similar to Yucatan: Yuhcatlan or Yucatlan. Either of these two words could have been the basis for Yucatan's name. There is also the Spanish word yuca (the yucca plant called tuc in Mayan) which is derived from some Native American language, although we have not been able to trace the origins. While the yucca plant is different from the various agave plants which grow and are cultivated in Yucatan (ci is the Mayan name for the cultivated henequen plant and cħelem is the Mayan name for the smaller and hardier wild plant) the yucca and agave plants share many visual characteristics. As a long shot it could be that the name Yucatan is derived from a name meaning "place of the yucca", but we have seen nothing in the Nahuatl dictionaries which would support this reading.

On page 63 of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel there is a line which might indicate that for the Mayan of Yucatan the word Yucatan is a foreign word: uay ti luum Yucal Peten, Yucatan tu than maya ah Itzaob lae ("here in the land Yucal Peten, Yucatan in the mayan language of the Itzas" or as Roys translates this line "here in the land Yucalpeten, Yucatan in the speech of the Maya Itza"). The word Yucal Peten can be looked at as a composite of u (collar), cal (neck), and peten (island, province, region, from the root word pet (round)). Given that yucal che, meaning "yoke", is in fact "neck wood" (u, cal, che) one could say that yucal peten is "neck region" or "neck island" which yields "peninsula", a recognition by the Maya that their land is a peninsula. Roys maintains that Yucal Peten is a Mayan imitation of the name Yucatan, but the reverse could also be true. In the Mayan language peten is not used to the same extent that the Nahuatl language uses -tlan, but they are somewhat equivalent. In any case, we have not found in the various pieces of literature written by the Maya any explanation for the name Yucatan, so we will leave this problem inconclusively.


182.  The influence of Spanish on the Mayan language has been much greater, especially in this last century. The principal reason for this strong influence seems mostly to be because of the new technology being brought into the Mayan culture via the Hispano-Mexican culture. Many of the words which come with this technology are part of the global technological vocabulary while others are from the Spanish vocabulary or from the regional Mexican vocabulary. There are also other words from these technologically advanced cultures which are also being brought into the Mayan language. Thus baseball and sandwich as well as refrigerador and television are words which are to be found in Mayan today. However even as early as 1557 when the Mani land treaty was written Maya showed the propensity to incorporate new terminology in their language. At that time Spanish terminology for various official positions and political apparatuses had already been brought into use: gobernador, juez, alcalde, regidor, audencia, provincia, etc. Also for some reason it became immediately fashionable to have Spanish first names: Fransico de Montejo Xiu, Juan Cocom, Juan Hau, Gaspar Antonio Chi, etc.

Aside from the names for the items which are new to the Maya and the use of Spanish numbers mentioned in Sections 7 and 71, the Yucatecan Mayan language has stayed in remarkably good state of preservation despite the long continuous contacts with outside cultures. This can be seen in the modern short stories given in the Anthology section of this book. It is true that there are those speakers of the Mayan language today who tend to mix in a large Spanish vocabulary when speaking Mayan, with some people using up to or more than 25% Spanish. However, except for the things mentioned above it is almost always possible to find a perfectly good and well used Mayan word for most of the Spanish words interjected into the Mayan language.


183.  Spanish words used in Mayan usually suffer a tonal change as was mentioned about numbers in Section 7. Spanish words are also with some frequency mispronounced, especially those words which have in them letters which are not normally used in the Mayan language.

Spanish Mayan English
fiesta piesta "fiesta"
volquete bolcete "dump truck"
vidrio bidrio "glass"


184.  Spanish verbs are turned into Mayan verbs by tacking on the following suffixes:

-tic, -tah, -mah, -te transitive conjugation
-, -nahi, -nahaan, -nac intransitive conjugation
-taal, -tabi, -taan, -taac passive conjugation

Conpesar (to confess):

conpesartic, conpesartah, conpesarmah, conpesarte
conpesar, conpesarnahi, conpesarnahaan, conpesarnac
conpesartaal, conpesartabi, conpesartaan, conpesartaac


185.  Spanish nouns are not altered except for pronunciation when brought into the Mayan language. However the method by which the plural of these nouns is formed is quite varied. In some instances just the Spanish plural form is used. In other instances the Mayan plural marker -oob is appended to the plural form of the Spanish noun. This is the preferred method. And finally in some instances the Spanish noun has the Mayan plural marker attached directly to it. It seems that the choice of which type of plural marker to use is subject to individual preference and not to some set of rules.

bomba bombas, bombasoob
refrigerador refrigeradores, refrigeradoresoob
gobernador gobernadoresoob
piesta piestasoob
cruz cruzoob

Previous Page  |  Table of Contents  |  Next Page

Return to top of page