Mayan Language for Beginners
When I first visited the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1980s, I was warned that not many people spoke English, so I should be prepared to rely on pigeon Spanish and well-honed charade skills. Unfortunately, I found that the reality was actually worse: if you got away from the hotel desk and waiters, many Yucatecans actually spoke Mayan as their first language and knew only a little street-Spanish. As I ventured outside of tourist areas, I found that most people in small to medium-ish pueblos had at best picked up steet-Spanish when they were 14-17 years old, and that usually happened only if they had lived in a bigger city. People raised only on their family milpa (the classic Maya family corn plot, hacked out ofthe jungle) or in the pueblitos might not know much Spanish at all.
This is still often true, particularly with construction and cleaning workers who daily commute into Merida and Progreso. I’ve found many of our Mayan-speaking acquaintances actively avoid talking with obvious foreigners, because they’ve only had frustrating past experiences trying to mesh their embarrassingly weak street-Spanish with our even cruder NOB Spanish (NOB = North of the Border). As a result, these friends retreat into their shells when in the Big City, and they tend to only exchange brief glances and occasional shy smiles with NOB folks and white-skinned Yucatecans. Is it time to reach across this unnecessary divide?
Want to bridge the gap? Learn a few basic Mayan phrases.
Here’s a dandy Yucatan Living article on the basic pronunciations of Mayan with some additional background information and a little vocabulary that offers a good start: Mayan for Ts’ulo’ob.
The next step? Add the sorts of things we all enjoy talking about:
How are you? Where are you from? What’s your name? Do you have children?
Let’s just jump into the deep end! Mayan speakers absolutely love it when goofy-gringos attempt to speak Mayan. You may find that they initially don’t understand you at all, because they’ve never heard Mayan coming out of a light-skinned person’s mouth, and it’s just too foreign to be believed.
Let’s start with some greetings, followed by a reply:
|Bix a beel?||Beesh-uh-bell||Formal: How are you?|
|General Reply: Ma’alob||Mah ah-low(b)||I’m good!|
|General Reply: Ma’alobi||Mah ah-low-bee||I’m Very good!|
|Bax ka’wali?||Bah-sch kah wah-lee||Informal: How are you?|
|Specific Reply: Mix ba||Meesh bah||I’m good.|
|Bix anikech?||Beesh ahneekehsh||Informal: How are you?|
|General Reply: Uts||Ooots||I’m good.|
|General Reply: Utsil||Oootseal||I’m very good!|
Hmmmm… how can “I’m good” be said three different ways? And why is that (b) in parenthesis?
For starters, the Mayan Language is very different from English, and many, many times there are no one-for-one, word-by-word translations between the two languages, so it’s best to learn Mayan as concepts and phrases rather than rigid translations.
For example, Mayan nouns change their endings to include information about that noun:
|Leti’ na’||Leh-tee nah||She is a mother|
|Teen na’en||Tehn nah ehn||I am a Mother|
|Teech na’ech||tehhch nah ech||You are mother|
|Te’ex na’ex||Teh-esh nah esh||Ya’wl are mothers|
Did you notice how the endings of "na’" changed to described which type of mother was used?
How about that “b”? The “b” in parenthesis implies that you don’t actually say the be “b” at the end of a Mayan word – kind of like the “h” in herb, but if there are other letters after the ending “b”, then you voice the “b”: ma’alob = mah ah-loh, while ma’alobi’ = mah ah-loh-bee.
What other ways will people also often reply to those “Howdy!” greetings above? They will likely also include a “and how are you?”
|Ma’alob, kux tu’un teech?||Mah ah-loh, koosh too oohn tehhch?||Formal: Good, and you?|
|Ma’alob, kux teech?||Mah ah-loh, koosh tehch?||Less Formal: Good, and you?|
|Mix ba, kux teech?||Meesh bah, koosh tehch?||Less Formal: Good, and you?|
|Ma’ax a k’ aaba’ **||Mah ahsh ah kaah-bah||Formal: What’s your name?|
|Bix a k’ aaba’ **||Beesh ah kaah-bah||Informal: What’s your name?|
|Reply: In k’aaba’e… (your name) **||Eeen kaah-bah eh…||My name is (your name)|
Yes, yes, our Canadian and Minnesotan friends are more than familiar with that “eh” at the end.
**”K ‘ ” is a fun k’h sound with no vowel: First, say the word “Kick”… Now, say just the “K ‘ ” , making a hard K sound, stopping the air but without the “-ick”. Now, say the “K ‘ , insert a small pause, and add the “aah-bah” to get “K’…-aahbah’.
Are we rolling now?
|Tu’ux siijech?||Too oosh seehech||Where were you born?|
|Reply: Siija’anen tu kaajil Tho||Seeha anehn too kaah heel Toe||I’m from Mérida.|
|Continued Reply: Kux teech?||Koosh tehch?||And you?|
|Yaan wa’a a paalal?||Yaaahn wah ah ah paahlahl||Do you have children?|
|Reply: Bey, yaan in paalal.||Bay, yaaahn eeehn paahlahl||Yes, I have children.|
|Reply: Ma’, mina’an in paalal.||Mah, meenah ahn eeehn paahlahl||No, I do not have children.|
|Tu’ux ka meyaj?||Too oosh kah may-yah||Where do you work?|
|Reply: Kin meyaj ti’ Tho||Keen may-yah ti Toe||I work in Merida.|
Hint: "Bey" does not mean yes. It appears that the sometimes enigmatic Maya do not have a word for yes, but they will answer in the affirmative, as in “I heard you”.
Here are some additional useful phrases:
|Ni’bo’olal||Nee boo ooh lahl||Thank you.|
|Ma’ uts tin taan||Mah! ooots teen taahn||I don’t like that.|
|Ma’ ts’u’u’uts’||Mah! ts ooh ooh oohts!||No Smoking or No Kissing!|
|Dios bootik||Dee-ohs booh teek||God go with you.|
|Yu’um bootik||Yoo oohm booh teek||(Mayan) God go with you.|
|Ma’alob xi teech yeetel utsil||Mah ah-loh she teehch yehtehl ootseal||Bye bye!|
A final tip: the Mayan Language is not standardized, and each pueblo has some of it’s own ways of saying things, so if “Bix a beel“ (beesh-uh-bell) draws only blank stares, shift to “Bax ka’wali“ (Bah-sch kah wah-lee ) but be ready for their “Ma’alob, Kux teech?” (Mah ah-loh, Koosh tehhch?)
Try it! You may be rewarded with HUGE grins, laughter and maybe even some excited rapid-fire unintelligble replies.