Mayan for Ts'ulo'ob
Growing up in California, we Working Gringos were aware at a young age of the importance of Spanish and Mexican culture in the history of our country. Not only did many of the people around us have an Hispanic heritage, but the architecture of many historic buildings were from a time when Spain, and later Mexico, ruled over the orange groves and cattle ranches. The most important of these buildings are the Catholic missions, a string of adobe churches built one day’s ride apart by horseback along El Camino Real, the King’s Road. Some of these missions were built before the United States declared independence from Great Britain, so we knew they were probably the oldest man-made structures around.
Our first knowledge of the Spanish language came to us through the names of towns and streets. We learned that Los Angeles means “the angels” and that San or Santa anybody is a Catholic saint. We learned that Los Osos means a place where there used to be bears. As we grew older, we learned that Cienega means “marsh”, Arroyo Grande means “big creek”, Higuera means “fig tree” and Atascadero is a place where you get stuck.
Once we got ourselves unstuck and moved to Yucatan, we began to relive the same experience all over again. Here, nearly all the names of towns and many of the streets are in the Mayan language, a testament to the importance of their culture in this region. On the face of it, this is rather odd, since the Spaniards invaded Yucatan decades before taking up light housekeeping over in California, where seldom is heard any word in a Native American tongue.
We started learning the Mayan names of towns and Archaeological zones, and slowly learning the English equivalents of the Mayan words. The problem with learning and remembering Mayan place names is that most of us new arrivals don’t know how to pronounce them, so it’s not possible to “hear” them correctly in our heads and memorize them. The same thing happens to the newly arrived to California who are not familiar with Spanish. They invariably mispronounce San Jose (the “J” is supposed to sound like an “H”, dude) or Camarillo (the double “L” sounds like a “Y”, ya’know?). And while we're on the subject, San Luis Obispo is NOT pronounced "San Looey", as anyone who has ever lived there knows.
To help you get started with Mayan, we thought we’d offer this beginner’s guide on how the language works.
Conveniently enough, the vowel sounds in Maya are the same as in Spanish:
- “A” sounds like the “a” in father.
- “E” sounds like the “ay” in way.
- “I” sounds like the “ee” in feet.
- “O” sounds like the “o” in bone.
- “U” sounds like the “oo” in boot.
- “AY” sounds like the English word “eye”.
The similarities between Mayan and Spanish pretty much end there. In fact, most native Spanish speakers tell us they think Mayan has more in common with English. We’ve scratched our heads over this and have concluded that they mean Mayan sounds more like English than Spanish. With one famous exception, the consonants in Mayan sound like English. The letter “H” is pronounced the same as in English, while in Spanish it is silent. The letter “Z” is pronounced with a buzzing quality while in Spanish it sounds like an “S”. In general, Mayan syllables end in hard consonants more often than they do in Spanish, giving it a more brittle sound, like English.
The famous exception is the letter “X”. The story goes that when the Spaniards arrived, they heard the Native Americans using an unfamiliar sound, namely “sh”. Since there was no such sound in Spanish, they represented it with the letter “X”. This caused all sorts of misunderstandings. For example, the Nahuatl word from which we get “Mexico” is “Mexica”, who were the native people of the Anahuac valley that is now Mexico City. In English, we would pronounce this “MEKS-ee-ka”, but Spaniards say “MEH-hee-ka” and the actual Nahuatl pronunciation is “meh-SHEE-ka”.
In Yucatec Mayan, “X” is pronounced like “ish” at the beginning of words signifying the female gender and like “sh” anywhere else. It tends to sound very soft, like the “sh” in “slush”. So,
- The Mayan Archaeological zone of Uxmal is pronounced OOSH-mahl.
- The Yucatan Fair in X’matkuil is pronounced ish-MAHT-koo-eel
Although there are academic circles that believe some of the ancient Mayan hieroglyphs can be pronounced phonetically, the Mayan language is an oral tradition. Despite this, shortly after the Spanish arrived, they taught their letters to the Mayans, who learned quickly how to write using our Latin alphabet. The Popul Vuh, written by Quiché Mayans in Guatemala after the arrival of the Spaniards, records many of their myths and prophesies in Mayan using our imported system of writing. Since then there have been many attempts to reconcile spoken Mayan with our printed word, which can be a source of confusion.
When you visit any Mayan Archaeological zone, such as Chichen Itza, you will encounter expository signage printed in three languages: Spanish, English and Mayan. But even Mayans who can read and write Spanish have to learn the arbitrary rules of written Mayan in order to understand how the printed version compares to what they have learned to speak since childhood. Here’s a sample written phrase, which means “where are you from?”:
- Tu’ux a taal
Notice the apostrophe between the two vowels in “tu’ux” and the two vowels together in taal. What’s this all about?
In Mayan, a vowel can be spoken in one of three ways: short, long and glottal stop. Unlike in English, where a long vowel has a different sound than the short version, a Mayan long vowel is the same sound uttered for roughly twice the duration. Hence, the vowel sound of the Mayan “a” is voiced for a longer period of time in the word taal. This also causes some confusion at times, because in actual practice - when a Mayan speaker really gets going - their long vowels tend to shrink in duration until all that remains for interpretation is context. Ask a Mayan what their word is for “red”. They will tell you it is chac. Then, ask them the name of the ancient Mayan god of rain, and they will answer, Chaac. If you can hear the difference, you have better ears than us.
A glottal stop is when your throat briefly stops the flow of air that produces a sound. In English, we do this with expressions like, “uh oh”. An apostrophe is used in written Mayan to indicate this, so the word tu’ux should be pronounced “too oosh”. The glottal stop sound sprinkled throughout the Mayan Language is what our English ears recognize as Native American speech. However, in daily use – just like the long vowel – the glottal stop may practically disappear.
There are a few other things to know about written Mayan that are not demonstrated in the above example. One is that Spanish writers of Mayan use the letter “J” to indicate the sound of the English “H”. Another is the use of the letters “dz” (or sometimes “ts”) together, which are trying to represent an unusual sound in Mayan that does not exists in Spanish or English. To our ears, this sound is a short, crisp version of what we hear at the end of the word “bits”. This means everybody’s favorite Mayan tongue twister, the Archaeological zone of Dzibilchaltun, is pronounced tsee-BEEL-chahl-toon.
Now that you know the basic rules for reading the Mayan language, here are some definitions of Mayan words commonly used in place names around the Yucatan:
|Sac: white||Tsimin: horse|
|Beh: road||Uay: haunted|
|Hol: hole (!)||Ceh: deer|
|Box: black||Chac: red|
|Yax: green, blue||Chan: little|
|Che: stick, tree||Ak: turtle|
|Chi: mouth||Aktun: cave|
|Chen: well, cenote||Kol: field, farm|
|Lol: flower||Can: snake|
|Tun: stone||Kun: nest|
|Ek: star||Dzots: bat|
|Balam: jaguar||-mal, -il - al: place|
And here are a few everyday expressions you can use in Yucatan:
- Ko’ox -- Sounds like “koh-osh” and means “let’s go”
- Maare -- Sounds like “maahr-ray” and means “wow!” or “neat!”
- Uay -- Sounds like “why” and indicates an unpleasant surprise.
- Ma’alo’ob – Sounds like “mah-ahl-ohb” and means “good” or “great”.
We can imagine how this last word may have caused some basic cultural misunderstandings between the Spaniards and Mayans. When you hear a Mayan actually pronounce ma’alo’ob, it sounds like the Spanish word malo, which of course means “bad”.
Until recently, the first language of most Yucatecos was Mayan, but this has changed with a younger generation whose lives include satellite television, shopping malls and the cineplex. To speak Mayan in this modern setting is to invite social stigma. The Yucatan State Government recognizes the importance of the Mayan culture, both economically and socially, and has many programs and events designed to promote and encourage Mayan traditions. One such organization is called INDEMAYA, which in English stands for Yucatan State Institute for the Development of the Mayan Culture. Among other activities, this organization sponsors an annual contest for the best music compositions with lyrics in the Yucatec Mayan language. You can hear a sample of these on our Music page.
At the same time – paradoxically – the Mayan language is becoming “hip”. Several popular Mayan-Spanish expressions have become a fashion statement around Yucatan, where phrases like Me Haces Loch (give me a hug) and Invitame al Xix (I want the leftovers) are paraded through the malls by teens on their t-shirts. The little shop in Merida that started this fad is called Mayan Xic, and its website is a fun place to learn more about the Mayan language (although it appears to be defunct...).
There are also several radio stations and a television station called TreceTV (channel 13) that feature telenovelas and variety shows at least partially spoken in Mayan. TreceTV also airs what is probably the most popular entertainment based on Mayan culture, a cartoon called La Gruta del Aluxe. Apocalypto, a movie directed by Mel Gibson, features dialogue spoken entirely in Yucatec Mayan.
Now that you know enough to pronounce the last word in the title of this article, you probably want to know what it means. Most times it is translated as “strangers”, but it literally means “those who are not us”. It's the nearest thing in Mayan for the word “gringos”.
A handy reference book that describes Mayan grammar and syntax in detail is: Maya for Travelers and Students by Gary Bevington.
Like this article? Read more from this author about the Mayan language: