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

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


10.  The Mayan noun generally functions much like the English noun. It has though one difficult peculiarity for the English - speaking person and that is that the Mayan noun has no article per se. There is however a particle le which when combined with the positional markers -a, -o, and -e which are suffixed on to a noun or clause functions like an article in a sense, but the constructions le (noun/clause)a, le (noun/clause)o, and le (noun/clause)e are really demonstrative adjectives with the meaning "this (noun/clause)", "that (noun/clause)", and "that (noun/clause) over there". Thus for the noun pek (dog) there is the following:

le peka this dog
le peko that dog
le peke that dog over there (usually out of sight)


11.  The plural form of a noun is generally formed by adding the plural marker -oob as a suffix to the noun if the noun ends in a consonant or -ob if it ends in a vowel:

singular plural
pek (dog) pekoob (dogs)
tzimin (horse) tzimnoob (horses)
cħicħ (bird) cħicħoob (birds)
be (road) beob (roads)
ku (nest) kuob (nests)
na (house) naob (houses)

Below are the singular and plural of these nouns with the demonstrative adjective. Notice that the glottal-stopped vowel of the plural marker -oob becomes a vowel of regular length when a positional marker is suffixed to the plural marker:

singular plural
le peka le pekoba
le tzimno le tzimnobo
le cħicħe le cħicħobe
le bea le beoba
le kuo le kuobo
le nae le naobe

There are other plural markers as well. A common plural marker in the colonial times and still used today is -i.

singular plural
ac (turtle) aci (turtles)
cay (fish) cayi (fishes)
nal (corn) nali (plural of corn)

Today cayoob is the standard way of saying the plural of cay, but nali is the standard way of saying the plural of nal. The plural of ac can be either aci or acoob.

There are also irregular plural markers:

singular plural
pal (child) palal (children)
palaloob (an alternative plural for "children")

There are also words which have no plural markers:

ixim   (corn as a grain, both singular and plural)
buul   (bean, beans)


Cases of Nouns

12.  The case of a noun may be determined both by its position in the phrase or sentence, and, in the case of the genitive and dative cases, by the preposition associated with the noun.


13.  The genitive case uses the third person possessive adjectives u and u (noun)oob, which are the same as the third person Set A pronouns/possessive adjectives shown in Section 30, as the possessive markers. The possessive marker u is placed in front of the noun which is possessed which is then followed by the possessor/genitive case noun. Examples:

u ppoc Pedro Peter's hat
u yotoch le Juano that John's house
u pek le palalbo the children's dog
u pekoob a tata your father's dogs


14.  The dative case is usually determined by the various adverbial prepositions which precede the noun. Some of the more common prepositions are the following:

ti to, at, from
desde (Spanish) from
yetel with
xma without
ich, ichil in, inside of
tancab outside (referring to a building)
tu tzel beside, next to, outside of
yok, yokol on, on top of
yanal, yanil under, beneath
actan, tu tan, tanil in front of
pachil, tu pach behind, in back of
tumen, tuolal, tiolal because, because of, by
utial for
tac even, including, until

Examples of usage of some of the above prepositions:

  1. Le uaha utial Pedro. "These tortillas are for Peter."

    Note A: It is not uncommon to refer to things which are assumed to appear in plural form in the singular. This sentence could also be said as follows:

    Le uahoba utial Pedro.

    in which the word uah (tortilla) is given in plural form.

    Note B: The verb yan (to be, to have) is used only in terms of "to exist". The verb "to be" as used above in English does not exist in Mayan.

  1. Tin ualah ti in uidzine ca u dza tech uah. "I told my younger brother/sister that he/she should give you tortillas."

    Note C: Older siblings are referred to separately by sex: zucun (brother), cic (sister). The younger ones are referred to collectively: idzin (younger sibling).

    Note D: The -e as a suffix on uidzine is used to emphasize that the younger sibling was told. The -e may in fact be derived from the -e of the demonstrative adjectives. In any case, it is just as possible to say:

    Tin ualah ti in uidzin ca u dza tech uah.

    in which case idzin is not emphasized.

  1. Tan u hokol ti in uotoch. "He/she/it is coming out from my house."
  1. Ti in cahal yan chaan behlae. "At my town there is (a) fiesta today."
  1. Hantabi in col tumen uacaxoob. "My garden was eaten by cows." Literally: "Was eaten my garden by cows."
  1. Xma xanab ma tu patal in ximbal. "Without shoes it is not possible that I walk."
  1. Tac in bin ta uetel ichil a col. "I want to go with you to your garden." (Literally: "Want I go you with into your garden.")

    Note E: As was mentioned in Section 3 under the discussion of the consonants u and y, there are words which in their true form begin with a vowel, but generally take one of these two consonants in the normal course of being used. Thus etel - yetel (with, and) when used as the preposition "with" and follows one of the possessive adjectives is declined as follows:

tin uetel (with me) yetel toon (with us)
ta uetel (with you) ta ueteleex (with you pl.)
tu yetel (with him/her/it) tu yeteloob (with them)



15.  As the reader may have already noticed, there is a lack of explicit gender in the Mayan language, for example in the personal pronouns and possessive adjectives. This lack may reflect to some degree the more or less equal esteem which each gender holds the other in the Mayan society, a feature definitely lacking in the machismo of the Spanish speaking society found throughout Mexico. In any case, one could say the three genders, namely masculine, feminine, and neuter, exist in the Mayan language, but knowing the gender of a noun in fact is not an important grammatical consideration.


16.  There are various ways which the gender of a noun is determined. There are nouns in Mayan which by their very nature determine the gender to which they belong:

xibpal boy
tancelem male teenager
xib, uinic, mac man
yum father, lord
colel, xunan woman, lady
nuc xib old man
icham husband
atan wife
tzo tom turkey


17.  Gender, when not determined as above, can be determined by adding the prefix h- for "male" and x- for "female". There are also many nouns which are obviously female in nature which normally carry the x- (female) prefix. These two modern gender markers are derived from prefixes ah (male) and ix (female) which were in common use during the colonial times. Today on rare occasions, usually having to do with religious matters (either christian or Mayan), one hears these older prefixes. The prefix h-, depending on the noun it is prefixed to and on the speaker's predilection, can either be spoken or silent.

x-cħupal girl
ix cħuplal colonial form of "girl"
x-lobayen female teenager
ix lokbayen colonial form of "female teenager"
x-nuc old woman
ix nuc colonial form of "old woman"
h-dzon male hunter
h-men male medicine maker
x-men female medicine maker
(men means "maker" as a noun or "to make" as a verb. There are other professions which use the word men in them such as h-men xanab (male shoe maker) and one could add the word dzac (medicine) to form h-men dzac (male medicine maker) if that became essential, but normally by h-men / x-men everyone understands that a shaman is being referred to.)

From the above two lists it is clear that because a gender determinator is used for one of a pair of complimentary nouns that it is not necessarily true that it is used for the other. Some of the pairs are:

xibpal x-cħupal
tancelem x-lobayen
xib x-cħup
nuc xib x-nuc
yum xunan
h-men x-men
tzo, h-tzo x-tux (hen turkey)
ah tzo ix tux (colonial usage)

The following are some examples of the modern use of ah:

ah kin priest, now referring to the priest of the Cruzoob of Quintana Roo.
ah tepaloob "the ruling ones"; one of the deities called upon in h-men rituals.
ah can titziloob "the ones of the four corners of the world"; another set of deities.


18.  In the colonial times the use of ah and ix was very common in Mayan names:

Ah Na Pot Xiu
Ah Xupan Nauat
Ah Kin Chilam Balam
Ix Chel
Ix Kan Le Ox
Ix Titibe

The naming convention of ah / ix plus na plus the mother's father's surname plus the father's father's surname was a common way in which a person referred to himself or herself in the early colonial period and this naming convention continued up to the end of the 19th century in some of the remote Mayan groups. It seems that every child born to a particular union would carry this name, and of course that would amount to confusion if there weren't alternative names, which of course there were. The word na is probably derived from the na ("house"; vowel of regular length) although it might come from na ("mother"; vowel clipped). We have not come across any explanation of this naming convention in the various colonial works such as dictionaries, grammars, etc., so the meaning and pronunciation of na is unknown to us. An example of how this naming convention worked is:

Ah Na Menche Uc husband
Ix Na Kin Couoh wife

Children of this union:

Ah Na Couoh Uc
Ix Na Couoh Uc

Today in some towns it is quite common to use the x- in front of female names. Here are some Spanish names with their Mayan equivalents:

Nicolasa X-Nico
Victoria X-Bicha
Emilia X-Mila

The use of h- in front of male names is much less common:

Manuel H-Uel

As a sign of respect the Spanish convention of preceding the given name with Don and Doña is now common practice.

Don H-Uel Doña X-Ana
Don Julio Doña Bicha

Also common today is to precede a woman's name with Mam. The use of Mam indicates a greater degree of familiarity than the use of Doña. In some towns this convention is carried out to such a degree that generally the use of Doña seems to indicate a woman of non-indigenous origin and the use of Mam is applied to a woman considered to be Mayan.

Benancia Mam Ben
Olga Mam Olga

Example of usage:

Nin caah na Mam Bicha. "I am going to Mam Bicha's house."
Note: Houses seemingly belong to the women of the Mayan society. An example of how the people feel about this is to be found in the way people refer to houses as shown in the example given above.


19.  Mention was made above of alternative names, a feature which was a necessity when using the older naming convention. Today alternative names are still a common feature. These are called baxal kabaob (play names). These baxal kabaob can be almost anything but more often than not are animal names:

X-Mucuy turtledove
X-Pepen butterfly
X-Nicħ bite
Much frog
Cay fish
Bach road runner
X-Changa ape
Chocolate chocolate


20.  Gender, particularly in animals, is also determined by the use of the particles xibil (male) and cħupul (female):

xibil ceh (male deer) cħupul ceh (female deer)
xibil pek (male dog) cħupul pek (female dog)

The word ton (penis) is sometimes used to indicate the male gender:

ton pek (male dog)
ton uacax (bull)


21.  Inanimate objects show no gender as noted above. There is no need to do so because gender is not shown in other parts of speech.


Nouns from Other Parts of Speech and Other Parts of Speech from Nouns

22.  -il: Many adjectives can become nouns by adding the suffix -il which when used in this manner acts somewhat like "-ness" in English:

kohaan (sick) kohaanil (sickness)
lob (bad) lobil (badness)


23. Verb and nouns are sometimes distinguishable only by syntax as is the case with some English noun/verbs which are distinguishable only by syntax. For example hanal is both the noun for "food" and the intransitive verb for "to eat".

Taz ten in hanal. Bring me my food.
Tac in hanal. I want to eat.


24.  Nouns and verbs can be readily transformed into one another by the addition or subtraction of verbal suffixes:

miz, mizib broom
miztic to sweep something. -ic is the general transitive suffix.
Tan in miztic in uotoch yetel u miz X-Tina. "I am sweeping my house with X-Tina's broom."


25.  -Vl: Adjectives can be formed from nouns by tacking a vowel which agrees with last vowel in the noun onto the noun and ending the word with -l ( (noun)-Vl ). Examples:

caan (sky) caanal (high, tall)
cab (earth) cabal (low, short)
pet (circle) petel (round)
xib (male) xibil (male)
boc (stench) bocol (stinking)
cħup (female) cħupul (female)

Examples of usage:

Tin betic in col tuux yan le caanal kaxo.   "I am making my garden where there is that high forest."

Otzil xunan; hach cabal u bacil.   "Poor woman; she is very short." (Literally: her bones are very short.)

Ma ta cimzic le cħupul kekena.   "Don't kill this sow."


Other Uses of the -il Suffix in Nouns

26.  By adding -il to the name of a town a person can show what town he is a member of:

Ho (Mérida) Hoil (a person from Mérida)
Kom cħeen Kom cħeenil (a person from Kom cħeen)
uaye (here) uayil (a person from here)
Dzoc in ualic tech ma uayileni, Maxcanulilen.   "I just told you I am not from here, I am from Maxcanul."

The use of -il for this purpose seems to be relatively recent. The colonial usage was to prefix the name of the town with the gender markers ah and ix.

Cacal (Tixcacal) Ah Cacal
Coh (Ticoh) Ah Coh
Mani Ix Mani
Oxkutzcab Ix Oxkutzcab


27.  By adding -il to a noun and following it by another noun an attributive relationship is formed between the two nouns in which the attribute of the second noun is given to the first noun:

uahil ixim corn bread (tortilla), from uah (bread) and ixim (corn).
hail cħeen well water, from ha (water) and cħeen (well).
xaanil na thatched house, from xaan (palm leaf) and na (house).


28.  Tozzer noted that collective nouns are formed by adding -il to an adjective and placing the possessive marker u in front of the word:

kohaan (sick) u kohanil (the sick)
otzil (poor) u yotzil (the poor)

This usage is now archaic. The present method is to pluralize the adjective:

kohaan kohaanoob
otzil otziloob
ayikal (rich) ayikaloob (the rich)

The -il works as a suffix in other parts of speech with various effects which are noted in the following sections: 56, 57, 104.

The -il makes its appearance in hieroglyphic writings in the form of Thompson glyphs 24 and 116 (Zimmermann glyphs 80 and 62.) It seems that the hieroglyphic -il had the same general functions as the modern -il.


Other Suffixes

29.  There are various suffixes which indicate that a certain class of noun is being talked about.

-bil, -tzil: these two suffixes connotate a reverence towards the person or object which is modified by them.

colel (woman) colelbil
mehen (child) mehenbil
mehen (child) mehentzil
mama (mother) mamatzil
yum (father) yumtzil
yum (father) yumbil

Both colelbil and yumtzil are used in rituals by modern day H-Menoob. Colelbil could be translated as "lady" and yumtzil should really be translated as "lord".

-Vb: the suffix -Vb is sometimes called an instrumental suffix. It is tacked onto a verb root and could be translated as "that which". -eb is the principal form in which this suffix appears, but there are examples of -ib and -ub also.

chul (to play a flute) chuleb (that which plays a flute; a bird called "comendador" or "charretero" in Spanish)
cħuy (to lift) cħuyub (that which lifts; hanger)
cuc (to revolve) cuceb (that which revolves; squirrel)
cul (to sit) culeb (that which sits; raccoon)
hal (to dig out) haleb (that which digs out; paca or agouti)
kul (to adore a god) kuleb (that which adores; an alternative pronunciation for raccoon)
miz (to sweep) mizib (that which sweeps; broom)
xot (to cut) xoteb (that which cuts; knife)

Although many of the words resulting from the addition of -Vb are animal names, this is not always the case as can be seen from cħuyub, mizib, and xoteb.

-nal: the suffix -nal transforms the object to which it is attached into the person who is connected with that object, either as owner or as worker. This suffix is confined mostly to colonial usage.

bel (road) belnal (customs officer)
cab (honey) cabnal (bee keeper)
otoch (house) otochnal (owner of the house and by extension citizen of the town)

-um: the suffix -um signifies that the object it is attached to is a bird.

cħuh (to sacrifice) /
cħah (to drip)
cħuhum, cħahum (woodpecker)
cħuy (to lift) cħuyum (lifting bird; hawk)
dzun (happy, joyful) dzunum (happy bird; humming bird)
kuk (feather) kukum (feather bird; quetzal)
picħ (thrush) picħum (thrush)
uc (?), uk (louse) ucum (louse bird?; pigeon)
ul (to return, mottled snail) ulum (returning bird?; mottled bird? turkey)
uix (to urinate) uixum (urinating bird; English equivalent unknown)
yax (green) yaxum (green bird; Cotinga amabilis)
U (moon) yuyum (moon bird; oriole)

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