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

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


73.  The verb, because of the number of different tenses needed to adequately express the various times during which an action occurs, is the most difficult part of speech to master. In the Mayan language there is an extra problem in that the verb goes through different conjugations depending on whether or not an object is expressed. In English there is no difference in the conjugation of a verb whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. For example there is no change in the verb "to eat" if we say "I am eating bread." (transitive) or "I am eating." (intransitive). In the Mayan language however the verb conjugations differ depending on whether the verb is transitive or intransitive.

Tan in hanal.    "I am eating." (intransitive)
Tan in hantic uah.    "I am eating bread." (transitive)

In both cases the auxiliary verb tense indicator tan, the personal pronoun in, and the verb root han- are the same. However the verb endings for the transitive and intransitive verbs are different.

For passive verbs, English does have a different conjugation, and so does Mayan.

Tan in hantaal.    "I am being eaten."

In the Mayan language therefore there are three basic sets of conjugation: transitive, intransitive, and passive. In this grammar each conjugation will be looked at separately.


74.  The Mayan verb usually appears in four principal forms in each conjugation. There are however some verbs which by their nature are defective and thus are lacking one or more of these forms. These four forms are:

general form
second form
third form
fourth form

The most common form of a verb in any one of the conjugations is the one used both with the majority of the auxiliary verb tense indicators and with the habitual tenses. This form is called in this grammar the general form. In colonial dictionaries intransitive and passive verbs are often listed using this form.

The second form is used in the various past perfect tenses. The action expressed in these tenses is action which was completed in a relatively short period of time. In colonial dictionaries transitive verbs are often listed using this form.

The third form is used in the past action-continuing purpose tenses. The action expressed in these tenses happened in the past, but the purpose for which the action was done continued for some time, usually through the present.

The fourth form is used both in future tenses and in certain past tenses, depending on the auxiliary verb tense indicator associated with it. The transitive fourth form is also used somewhat like our infinitive in a transitive infinitive clause.


75.  In the description of each of the conjugations which follows some sample verbs are given for examples. These verbs are listed with their four forms if they are not defective. For the intransitive and passive verbs since the second, third, and fourth forms are conjugated with Set B pronouns the third person singular only is given in the examples.

As noted in the foreword to this grammar the tenses in the conjugations of Mayan verbs do not fit neatly into the Latin verb model which, rightly or wrongly, has been applied to other European languages such as English. We have decided to try a different approach to describing what each of the various Mayan tenses is expressing in terms of when an action is taking place. What we have done is to arrange the various tenses linearly in order starting with the remote past and continuing to the distant future, and for those tenses for which there is no exact tense denomination in the Latin model, which is for most of them, there are descriptions of the meaning of those tenses. Since irregularities within any one tense do not exist as they do in the English language only the third person singular is given for each tense.

It should be noted that the tenses of Mayan verbs tend to be more precise in their expression of the time that the action of the tense takes place than their English counterparts. On the other hand, and this may seem like an inconsistency, once a time frame has been established in a conversation the verb tenses which follow may not coincide with what should actually be used. Frequently once a time frame has been set the following verbs will be given in a present tense. This can be seen in the accompanying short stories.


76.  Sometimes a consonant, usually -t- or -l-, or the causative marker -z- is inserted between the verb root and the verb ending. This happens with transitive and passive verbs but not with the intransitive verbs. To see what effect these consonants have on verb roots we shall look at the verb roots uk (to drink), han (to eat), hay (to stretch out), naac (to raise), cim (to die), and can (to learn). These effects will be discussed following the table.

The table here shows the verb roots and the general form for each of the conjugations. Notice that only for the verb root can are there three possibilities: the verb root without a consonant, with the consonants -t-, and with the causative marker -z-. There are very few verb roots which appear in more than one of these possibilities.

root transitive intransitive passive
uk ukic ukul ukaal
han hantic hanal hantaal
hay haylic hayal haylaal
naac naaczic naacal naaczaal
cim cimzic cimil cimzaal
can canic
canal canzabal

The verb root uk (to drink) does not take a consonant. The meaning of the verb in each conjugation is straightforward:

ukic to drink something
ukul to drink
ukaal to be drunken

For the verb root han (to eat) the -t- seems to have no particular effect on the meaning of the verb. This seems to be true of all verbs using the consonant -t-. It seems to have no effect on the meaning of the verb, but rather seems to be applied for the balance of sound.

hantic to eat something
hanal to eat
hantaal to be eaten

For the verb root hay (to stretch out) the -l- seems to have no particular effect on the meaning of the verb. This seems to be true of all verbs using the consonant -l-. It seems to have no effect on the meaning of the verb, but rather seems to be applied for the balance of sound.

haylic to stretch out something
hayal to stretch out
haylaal to be stretched out

For the verb root naac (to raise) however the -z- does have an effect on the meaning of the verb. The -z- is called a causative marker, and one could translate naaczic as "to cause to raise".

naaczic to lift something
naacal to raise
naaczaal to be lifted

Another example of this change of meaning caused by the addition of the causative -z- can be seen in the verb root cim (to die).

cimzic to kill something
cimil to die
cimzaal to be killed

Again, one could translate cimzic as "to cause to die" just as naaczic could be translated "to cause to raise".

There are a few cases where a verb root is used both with and without the causative marker -z-. One of these verb roots is can (to learn). In the colonial times the word can, as a noun, meant "speech / conversation", and was a synonym for than (speech, language). Can is no longer in use today in this capacity. In colonial times verb root can (to speak) appeared with the consonant -t-.

canic to learn something
cantic to converse (colonial usage only)
canzic to teach something
canal to learn
canzabal to be taught

The word canic, which is unaffected by a consonant, is equivalent to "to learn", and canzic, with its causative marker -z- yields "to cause to learn". Of these three forms, only cantic has preserved the meaning of the noun can (speech). This could be an indication that there was a shift from the meaning "to speak" to "to learn" for the verb root can.

The consonant -t- is also used in the formation of composite verbs, in which two verbs roots are combined to from a new verb.

cħa nuctic to understand and consider another person's point of view, from cħa (to take) and nuc (to answer)
dza nuctic to make oneself understood, from dza (to give) and nuc (to answer).

There is an indication in the colonial manuscripts and dictionaries that the earlier form of the causative marker was -ez-. However, even in these sources the use of the -e- in -ez- is limited mostly to the fourth form. Examples of this usage are:

talez     to bring: from tal, to come
ocez     to stick in, to admit, to accept: from oc, to enter
lukez    to take out: from luk, to go out, to leave

Ocez a uol tu than hunab ku.    "Believe (accept in you heart) the word of the one and only god."

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