Living Maya Language

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Ma'alob ki'in (good morning), tu’ux ka bin (where are you going?) and Tak saamal (see you tomorrow) are some basic Maya phrases you need to learn, and practice, during your stay in southeastern México. This is your chance to hear the language which remains in the hearts of our inhabitants. It is also a cultural legacy with more than 5000 years’ history which is active until this day.

The Maya people, who have provided us with so much incredible knowledge, developed a complete language and writing system that allowed them to convey their vision of the world, religious ideas, and history. Today, people in the states of Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas, and the countries of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, still speak any of 30 varieties of Maya: Yucatecan, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Quiche, among others.

The Spaniards Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero were the first Europeans who learned to speak Yucatecan Maya. The latter not only learned to speak it, he completely integrated into a Maya community, and became the father of “mestizaje” (he was the first Spaniard to marry and have offspring with a Maya woman).

The Maya language is an important part of the commercial, cultural, and social life in the Peninsula. More than a million people speak Maya. It is the second most spoken native language, after Náhuatl, in México.

You will notice during your walks around the city that Maya is spoken every day, on the streets, in the markets, and in phrases mixed with Spanish (“Tengo poch”, I am craving), making our way of speaking and communicating in Yucatán very unique.

Such is its importance that European and North American researchers go and live in Maya communities to learn the language and be able to communicate. You would be surprised how many foreigners begin with short phrases and go on to carry on a complete conversation in Maya.

To learn the language is not difficult, but it does require attention and patience. To begin with, the Maya alphabet has 24 letters and a sign (') called a “glotal” which you will find in many words. It is also a melodious language. Poetry, legends, songs, recitals, and traditional games take on a new meaning when they are presented in Maya.

You can learn Maya in different ways: there are bilingual Spanish-Maya dictionaries that will help you understand words and phrases. But if you want a bigger challenge, you can take interpretation or reading classes in the Academia Municipal de Lengua Maya, at UADY, or at CEPHICS. It doesn’t matter if you are child, adult, or a group of people, you will surely find the learning fascinating.

Here are a few tips to help you pronounce words correctly: the letter “x” is pronounced “sh”; Uxmal is pronounced “Ushmal”. H is pronounced as an “h”, unlike in Spanish where it is silent. If you are called “chel” on the street, don’t be alarmed, it only means you have light colored skin. If you want to surprise someone with an “I love you” in Maya, say “in k’aatech”.

UNESCO has designated February 21 as International Mother Language Day, on which there will be artistic and cultural activities in Maya.

By Violeta H. Cantarell

 

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