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

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


Contractions and Syncopations

185.  As was noted in Section 8, the spoken Mayan language is highly contracted. We have tried to note many of these contractions throughout this grammar. The problems arising from contractions were noted in Section 8. We cannot stress too strongly how important it is to learn all of the different modes in which contractions are used so that some of these problems can be avoided.


186.  A somewhat similar problem which we have noted briefly in the chapter on the alphabet, Section 4, is that certain letters, especially l when it is the final consonant in a syllable, get lost in normal conversation. An example of this kind of problem is as follows: in the chapter on verbs it will be remembered that the second form of the transitive verb conjugation is -ah, that the general form of the intransitive verb conjugation for certain verbs is -al, and that the general form of the passive verb conjugation is often -aal. In normal conversation all of these endings sound more or less the same, namely -ah. Therefore for the verb root ppat ("to stay", "to leave"; the idea being that there is no movement) the words ppatah, ppatal, and ppataal would all sound the same in normal conversation. Thus the phrase which audibly one would hear as tin ppatah could be one of three things:

tin ppatah    I left
tin ppatal     I am staying
tin ppataal    I am being left

Note that in the case of the transitive conjugation that tin is the time indicator particle t- plus in whereas in the other two cases tin is the contraction of tan in.

Of course it is clear from the context which one of these three conjugations is being used.

Tin ppatah in uatan.    I left my wife.
Tin ppatal.     I am staying
Tin ppataal tumen in uatan.    I am being left by my wife.

Frequently in transcriptions of conversations by such people as Andrade and Vermont Salas all three of these tenses would be transcribed as p'ata. However in the transcriptions of stories which follow in this book we have written out the tenses as they would be said in formal speech. This is of course some help to the learner of the language. Just bear in mind that when listening to the Mayan language the speakers will not normally make the clear distinction between the three types of verbal suffixes.

One problem which we haven't noted about contractions is the dropping of the l from the demonstrative particle le. We have noted that l, especially as a final consonant, is frequently not spoken. Depending on the speaker the same is true for the l of le. There is however an occasion in which the omission of the l is much more uniform and frequent. This occurs when le follows a word which ends in -e, particularly if the -e is some kind of suffix.

Example of a sentence in formal speech:

Max cun u bete le hanalo?    "Who is going to make the food?"

With the l contracted out:

Max cun u bet'e hanalo?

Another contraction we noted earlier in Sec. 4 is the dropping of the consonant k from a syllable when the k is the final consonant of that syllable. This contraction seems to take place only when the syllable is followed by another in the same word.


colonial/formal usage contracted usage
ekhocħen ehocħen evening
kaknab kanab sea
hokzic / hokzabal hozic / hozaal to take out / be taken out


Consonant and Vowel Shifts

187.  Another problem which was mentioned briefly in the chapter on the alphabet, Sections 4 and 5, is that there are certain letters which shift to other letters. These shifts have various reasons and are based on a wide range of factors. The factors range from regional dialectical differences to individual preferences.

For the consonants some of the more common shifts are:

n m  
c k  
p pp  
t th  
z tz dz

For the vowels some of the more common shifts are:

a o
a u
o u

For example, a dog like animal variously reported to be a coyote or a fox has the following names:

chamac cħamac
chomac cħomac

It seems that both from the colonial sources and from modern day usage, at least in northwestern Yucatan, that cħamac is the preferred usage. In any case one could argue that the reason that the pronunciation of this animal's name varies so widely is that it is not a common animal: neither of us has ever seen one nor do we know of anyone reporting a sighting of one. Thus its name is rarely used and maybe the variations stem from the fact that the person pronouncing the name is groping for the right one. This seems to be a general trend: those items which are not part of everyday life tend to have more variations in the way their names are pronounced than do the everyday things.


Idiomatic Expressions

188.  In the Mayan language, as in any other language, there are idiomatic expressions which are particular to the language and direct translations of these expressions into another language would render either unusual or meaningless phrases. Small talk in Mayan seems to be especially prone to idiomatic expressions. Greetings in particular are rather odd to the outsider.

An example of a formal exchange, such as when a younger person meets an elderly man in passing, is as follows:

Dias, nohoch tat. Bix a bel?   "Good morning, great father. How is your road? (How are you?)"

Hach toh in uol, dios botic tech. Cux tun tech?   "Very straight my spirit, god pay you. (Very well, thank you.) And thus you?"

Xulul beyo, dios botic.    "Always like that, god pays. (As usual, thanks)."

A more standard greeting amongst peers is as follows:

Baax ca ualic?   "What do you say? (= How are you?)"

Mixbaal. Cux tech?   "Nothing. (= O.K.) And you?"

Chen beya.   "Just like this. (= Nothing new to report.)"

Two of the words used in the formal exchange, bel (road, path, way) and ol (spirit, heart) are the foundation of many idiomatic expressions.

For bel the following are but a few:

dzoc u bel "finish his/her road" (= married)
lob u bel "bad his/her road" (= evil doer)
utz u bel "good his/her road" (= do-gooder)
kohaanil u bel "sickness his/her road" (= sickly)
chen bel "only road" (= common; lowly)

For ol the following are but a few:

ca ye ol "two pointed spirit" (= undecided)
choco ol "hot spirit" (= hot tempered)
ceel ol "cold spirit" (= cold-blooded)
ci ol "sweet spirit" (= contented)
dza ol "give spirit" (= attentive)
hak ol "surprise spirit" (= surprised)
hun pay ol "different spirit" (= undecided)
nen ol "mirror spirit" (= contemplate)
oc ol "enter spirit" (= believe)
ok ol "cry spirit" (= sad)
toh ol "straight spirit" (= well)
ya ol "hurt spirit" (= sad)
ziz ol "cool spirit" (= calm)

As mentioned in Section 9 on complex words each of the words in the above expressions are treated as grammatically individual entities:

Tulacal in palaloob dzocaan u beloob.   "All of my children have gotten married."

Nin caah in ziztal in uol.   "I have to go and calm down."

Hun pay u yol le xibpalo.   "That boy is undecided (about what to do)."


Epilogue:   On The Fate Of The Mayan Language
by David Bolles

189.  In the late 1800's a priest wrote that he felt that during his lifetime he would see the demise of the Mayan language in Yucatan. Fortunately for those of us who love to see a diversity of languages and cultures that priest was wrong, and the Mayan language has survived this earlier prediction. Now a hundred years latter many people are again making the same prediction, and we ourselves are wondering if indeed we will be seeing the demise of the Yucatecan Mayan language during our generation.

There are now several factors at work which should hurry up this demise which were not present during the latter part of the last century. These factors are:

1)  the invasion of the Spanish language through radio and television into the everyday lives of the people in the Mayan speaking world.

2)  the absolute prohibition against the use of native languages in both the state and federal school systems.

3)  the need economically by those in the Mayan speaking world to learn Spanish in order to get jobs outside the Mayan towns.

4)  the constant effort by the Spanish speaking population to inform the Mayan speaking population that the Mayan language is inferior to Spanish, and in fact is only a "dialect", and a corrupt dialect at that.

Let us look at each of these factors more closely:

1)  Almost every household throughout the Mayan speaking world has at the very least a radio, and many in those areas where reception is reasonable also have a television set. The main reason for the radio is to hear music, so in actual fact as long as the radio was the only source of the Spanish language invasion into the Mayan home there was not a very severe impact. With television however there seems to be a much greater impact, and one could suppose that this is due to the fact that most of television is dialogue rather than music.

In the early 1970's we made an effort with the aid of don Alfredo Barrera Vasquez to get a weekly hour long program on radio which would be oriented towards the needs of the Mayan speaking population. Our plan was to have interviews with various people throughout the Yucatecan peninsula on a variety of subjects which would be interesting to the Maya. For example, almost every weekend there is town fiesta somewhere in Yucatan, Campeche, or Quintana Roo. We planned to have interviews with the various people in charge in putting on these fiestas to get them to talk about the significance of the sacred rites which would take place and also to talk about the various secular activities. Another topic of interest in many Mayan homes is home medical remedies. We knew enough medical professionals who were proficient in Mayan so that we could put together quite a number of interviews on the wide range of medical problems which face the Maya today, from how to deal with diarrhea in infants to birth control. We even found some H-Menoob (shamans) who were quite willing to share their knowledge of herbal medicine and furthermore were willing to talk about the various agricultural and curing rites which they carried out. Other interviews which were planned were with farmers who were recognized by their peers as being successful and with agricultural agents who could provide some information about alternative ways of raising crops and animals.

Unfortunately this project ran into bureaucratic tangles despite the efforts of don Alfredo, and came to nothing. However, as mentioned in the foreword, there are at the time this is being written efforts by some government agencies such as Instituto Nacional Indiginista to work for the preservation of the Mayan language. As a result an effort is being made to get the Mayan language on the radio and television. It will be interesting to see how far this effort goes, and what effect it will have in the preservation of the language.

2)  For a number of decades both the federal and the state school systems have been systematically trying to wipe out indigenous languages and culture. In Yucatan the effort went so far as to make it impossible for a Mayan girl to attend school wearing a huipil and having long hair. In order to attend school she had to crop her hair to a bob and put on "western" clothes. Since the mid 1960's the restrictions on what a girl could wear to school has let up, but the prohibition against speaking the Mayan language was and in most places still is in force.

In order to make sure that the language used in the classrooms remained Spanish the federal school system sent new teachers from one local indigenous area to that of another indigenous language. Thus two of my in-laws who became teachers in the federal system, both of whom were reasonably bilingual, were sent to the Mexican highlands, one to a Nahuatl speaking area and the other to an Otomi speaking area.

When the brother-in-law who was sent to the Nahuatl speaking area returned to Yucatan in the early 1970's to teach in a small village 6 hours walk from the nearest road I offered to give him enough of our little Mayan folktale booklets for all of his students. This he declined, saying that should the school inspector ever catch him with this material he would lose his job immediately.

It is hard to understand what the paranoia about having bilingual education is all about, although such paranoia also exists in certain regions in the U.S.A. as well. However, when one looks at such countries as Switzerland where in fact trilingual or even quadrilingual education is a part of daily reality, or at most of the Nordic countries, Germany, and Holland where bilingual education is the norm (English being the second language in those countries, and a local dialect where such exists making the people effectively trilingual), one comes to the conclusion that it is the narrow-mindedness of the dominant monolingual speakers which makes the idea of bilingual education unacceptable, and certainly not the capacity of the school children to learn multiple languages.

3)  For the third point, namely the need economically by those in the Mayan speaking world to learn Spanish in order to get jobs outside the Mayan towns, there is of course little that can be done to ameliorate this need. At the turn of the century it was the upper class Yucatecans who were bilingual, and in those days dialogue between this class and the Mayan peasant class was carried on chiefly in Mayan. Since the demise of the hacienda system the upper class has become increasingly isolated from the peasant class, and as a result the children of the upper class have not had the need to learn the Mayan language. To get the members of the upper class at this time to reeducate themselves in the Mayan language would be an impossible task.

At the present time in fact the process is quit reversed. It is the peasant families which are making the effort to ensure that their children know Spanish. In some families this effort has gone to quite an extreme. The children are taught only Spanish in these families and these children are told by their parents that they know only Spanish. In many instances these children will grow up believing this, and will always say that they are incapable of speaking Mayan, even though they have heard the Mayan language used every day of their lives.

4)  Since my earliest contacts with the Yucatecan culture in the early 1960's I have witnessed the constant effort by the Spanish speaking population to inform the Mayan speaking population that the Mayan language is inferior to Spanish, and that it is in fact is only a "dialect", and a corrupt dialect at that. Why the accusation that the Mayan language is only a dialect has such an impact on the minds of the opinion makers in the Mayan community is something which has always mystified me. In any case, by the mid 1960's the shame of speaking Mayan had grown to such an extent that it was hard to find people in the market place in Mérida who would own up to being speakers of the Mayan language, even though from these people's dress and habits it was obvious that they were speakers of the language.

An area in which Spanish is almost always preferred to Mayan is in community functions, even in those towns in which the inhabitants are almost all Mayan speakers. These community functions include such things as fiestas, religious gatherings, and political rallies. From time to time I have made inquiries as to why Spanish was being used on these occasions, especially in those towns which are overwhelmingly inhabited by Mayan speakers, but I have never been given a clear answer other than that since Mayan is only a "dialect" it would not be the proper language to use in such occasions.

Fortunately the pressure to disown the Mayan language has lightened up over the last couple of decades and as a result the use of the Mayan language in the Mérida market place and even at an occasional political rally or fiesta is now more openly heard.


The fact is of course that none of these factors need to remain as the cause of the demise of the Mayan language. However, it would take on the part of the dominant Spanish speaking population a major change of attitude towards the Mayan speaking population and their language to eliminate these factors, and the chance of such a change taking place is close to inconceivable, given the total destain and disrespect which the Spanish speaking population holds for the Mayan speaking population. For the members of the Mayan speaking population as well, there needs to be a change in attitude towards their language, albeit that that attitude was engendered in them mainly by the Spanish speaking population. The Maya need to regain a sense of pride in their language and way of life which has been lost over the last half century. It would seem though that for the moment at least, the initiation for such a resurgence of pride would have to come from leaders in the dominant Spanish culture, or even perhaps the more dominant Western culture. Demands should be made that the Mayan language become an acceptable means of communication on radio and television and in community functions, and that it be given its fair share of instructional time in community schools. It seems to us that there is still a large enough base of Mayan speakers in the Yucatecan peninsula so that if the Maya could regain a sense of pride and identity to the point where their language becomes acceptable again in community functions that the language would then be able to sustain itself despite the pressures put upon it from the outside world.

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