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

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


In the preparation of this grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan language every effort was made to describe the language in its actual state today. At the time we wrote the first edition of this grammar in 1973 we were fortunate to have the following books to serve as guide posts for us as to how we should develop this grammar book.

Alfred M. Tozzer
A Maya Grammar; Cambridge, Mass., 1921.

Daniel Lopez Otero
Grammatica Maya; Mérida, Yucatan, 1914.

Swadesh, Alverez, and Bastarrachea
Diccionario de Elementos del Maya Yucateco Colonial; Mexico, D.F., 1970.

Angel Maria Garibay K.
Llave del Nahuatl; Mexico, D.F., 1940.

The reader who is interested in the development of Yucatecan grammar over the last century and the relationship between it and its large neighbor, the Nahuatl language, would benefit by consulting these books.

A recent and very comprehensive addition to this collection of books is unfortunately at the moment in limited circulation, but the interested person may be able to obtain a copy by writing to its author.

Ortwin Smailus
Grammatik des kolonialzeitlichen Yukatekisch; Hamburg, 1977.

Smailus' grammar gives an in-depth view of Yucatecan Mayan grammar as recorded by the various written colonial (i.e. 1550's through early 1800's) sources. Included in his grammar are many grammatical forms and much vocabulary which is no longer in use amongst the Maya of today, at least amongst those who live in the Northwestern part of the peninsula of Yucatan. There are however in the area around Zac Ii (Valladolid) and amongst the Maya known as the Cruzoob who live in middle Quintana Roo various people who carry on the written traditions of some of the colonial Mayan documents such as the Books of Chilam Balam. It seems certain that these people would be at least knowledgeable of many of these now archaic grammatical forms and vocabulary.

The principal difference between the earlier grammars and ours is to be found in the section on verbs. The meaning of some verb tenses seems to have undergone changes in the intervening years. We are not certain whether these changes are in fact real changes or apparent changes brought about by the earlier writers trying to make Mayan verb tenses fit standard European models. Examples of these earlier grammars are those of Fr. Juan Coronel, printed in 1620, and of Fr. Gabriel de San Buenaventura, printed in 1684. In 1746 the grammar of Fr. Pedro Beltrán de Santa Rosa was printed, and in this grammar he tried to rectify some of these problems, which he considered to be erroneous. In any case, our approach to working on the verb tenses has been to try to describe as closely as we can what the intent of each of these tenses is. In doing so we employ standard European verb tense nomenclature only when that nomenclature actually fits the tense. Information concerning the verb tenses in this grammar was collected from Alejandra Kim Bolles, a native of Ticul, and Emiliano Poot Cħim of Kom Cħeen. Also of help was Josefina Hilar of Chichimila.

When we wrote the first edition of this grammar we resolved the problem of the existence of two distinct sets of personal pronouns by naming these sets "Set A" and "Set B". We were not aware at that time that Manuel J. Andrade in his "A Grammar of Modern Yucatec" (1941) had resolved this problem by also naming the sets "Set A" and "Set B", except that his "Set A" was our "Set B" and vice versa. It has come to our attention that other more recent grammars, for example the grammar by Smailus mentioned above, have adopted this convention of Andrade. In this second edition we have renamed our sets to bring our grammar book in line with the generally accepted practice of naming these pronoun sets.

In this second edition we have included some grammatical forms and vocabulary from colonial Yucatecan Mayan which are now archaic, especially in those instances where the inclusion of this now archaic material is of some aid to understanding present grammatical forms. We feel by doing so we are able to give the reader some sense of both the changes which have taken place over the last four centuries, and also perhaps more importantly some sense of the continuity which the Mayan language has enjoyed.

Accompanying our earlier grammar was a small booklet entitled Tzicbaltabi ti in Mama uch cachi (Stories my Mother was told long ago). This booklet was written in 1972 and was intended for the Mayan population. We included the booklet with the earlier grammar so that the reader would have examples of the modern Mayan language to work with. In this second edition we have expanded the reading section into a short anthology of Yucatecan Mayan literature by adding some examples of written Mayan from the earliest document, that of the Mani land treaty of 1557, through the centuries to an autobiographical note written in 1871 by Jose Sabino Uc. Also from this century we have included transcribed oral material collected by Manuel J. Andrade and Robert Redfield / Alfonso Villa Rojas. The inclusion of this earlier material is in keeping with one of our goals in this second edition, that of showing how the Yucatecan Mayan language has developed over the centuries.

The Yucatecan Mayan language is still widely used throughout the Yucatecan peninsula with the usual variations which are expected to be found within any language. While census and other reports conflict on several points, the number of people who speak or who are able to speak Yucatecan Mayan, broken down by political divisions, is roughly as follows: Yucatan, 400,000; Campeche, 30,000; Quintana Roo, 15,000; Belize, 10,000; Peten, Guatemala, 5,000, and Chiapas, 2,000. Many of the people in the last four groups are in fact either from Yucatan or are descendants of migrants from Yucatan.

A comment should be made here about the orthography for the Mayan language used here in this grammar and in the accompanying anthology. When the Spanish arrived and established themselves in Yucatan in the mid 1500's the religious orders immediately set about converting the Maya to christianity. One of the methods by which they hoped to do this was getting their message translated into the Mayan language. Various members of the upper class of Maya, thus people who had probably been educated in the use of the Mayan hieroglyphic writing system before becoming christianized, became involved in various ways in this effort. Such names as Juan Cocom who was a close friend of Diego de Landa and Gaspar Antonio Chi Xiu who was a protege of de Landa and later the Spanish court official interpreter, both of whom were related to Mayan ruling families, come to mind. A major part of this effort to get proselytizing material translated into Mayan involved forming an orthography for the Mayan language from the Latin script. This was done fairly quickly and in a surprisingly uniform manner when one considers the rather variable and sloppy orthography of the Spaniards at the time. When one compares the uneven effort at writing Mayan words in Spanish literature of the period, for example that of de Landa, with the Mayan literature written by the Maya themselves, it would seem that the Maya played a very important role in helping the Spanish friars develop a Latin script orthography for the Mayan language. Unfortunately we have not come across anything which gives us an indication of how extensive this involvement was. In any case, by 1557 when the Mani land treaty was written the use of the Latin script for the Mayan language seems to have been fairly well established and the orthography, which remained in use until the late 1800's, fairly well standardized.

In the late 1800's some changes in the standard Mayan colonial orthography began to appear. These changes, as far as can be determined, were brought about by the fact that in order to typeset material in the Mayan language the typesetter either had to have special typefaces made to represent those special letters which were invented in the 1500's for Mayan orthography or he had to introduce substitutes from his standard type fonts. Some printing houses did indeed go to the trouble of having these special letters made, but most did not. As a result, it slowly became customary to use these substitute orthographic conventions in written Mayan. These changes in fact only involve four symbols, so the change was not a drastic one. In any case, by the early part of this century this new orthographic convention had become the standard and is to be found in the works of Lopez Otero, Pacheco Cruz, and Redfield / Villa Rojas. This convention was also generally adopted when writing out Mayan names and words such as town names and surnames. When we set about writing down the folk tales in Tzicbaltabi ti in Mama uch cachi it was natural for us to choose this present orthographic convention. It was our intent to make the material in the booklet as readable as possible for the present day Maya, and thus it seemed most advisable to use the orthographic convention everybody was used to.

In the late 1800's there began a movement amongst Mayan scholars, at that time mostly from the United States and Europe, to develop a linguistic notation which would eliminate ambiguities in orthography. Karl Hermann Berendt was one of the early leaders of this movement. Now, a century later, it still seems that nobody has been able to settle on any one particular form of notation, although various schools, such as the American school shall we call it, have been formed. Recently though following the publication of the "Diccionario Maya Cordemex", in which the colonial orthographic convention was dropped in favor of an orthographic system which Alfredo Barrera Vasquez was promoting, there has been what seems to be a veritable explosion of orthographies, mostly from various Mexican agencies which are now trying to "save" the various indigenous languages from extinction. To us, the confusion resulting from this profusion of new orthographies is overwhelming, and in particular does not seem to be of any help as far as the goal of "saving" the Mayan language is concerned. The use of linguistic notation, given that a single system is agreed upon, does seem to serve a purpose of informing the specialists who have had little or no audio contact with the language as to how the spoken language sounds more or less. However it seems to us that the use of linguistic notation in a work in Mayan which is meant for the general populace is as inappropriate as the use of the notation used for the pronunciation guide found in English language dictionaries is for a way to write material for general reading in English.

We feel that the continued use of the orthography which had it origins in the colonial period and has been developed over the last centuries is the best course to take at this time when writing the Mayan language.

Table of Contents  |  Next Page

Return to top of page