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Mayan Language for Beginners

7 September 2010 Culture, Yucatan Survivor 33

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:

Na’ Nah Mother
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.

Comments

  • Steven Fry 8 months ago

    il turco,
    Generally, Ka'an refers to a state that was part of the pre-Columbian Maya empire. The capital of the state of Ka'an was Calakmul.

    There may also be other meanings,
    steve

  • il turco 8 months ago

    Hello everyone,

    I'd like to learn the meaning of the phrase "Maya Ka'an". Does anyone have any idea regarding what it means exactly?

    Thank u very much in advance.

    Have a good day.

  • Patty 9 months ago

    Thank You so much!!!!! Part of my family is from Merida Yucatan, and unfortunately my grandparents didn't pass on their language. I have aunts and uncles that I would like to be able to communicate with (and surprise)!

  • Working Gringos 10 months ago

    Norma, as we understand it, Kiche is a language spoken in Guatemala, so you probably have to go there.

  • norma 10 months ago

    any ideas where I can learn how to speak KiCHE? Thank You :)

  • Felicita Cantun 1 year ago

    I live in Belize. Belong to a group that is making an effort to revive the Maya language. Will be having a two week course on the Maya Language.

  • Dr. Steve Fry 1 year ago

    mayanteacher: Good update on "chit". How does "chit" describe the big palm leaves or long grass used in the way Rob suggests as roofing material on a nah?

  • Working Gringos 1 year ago

    Thank you again! That is so cool that your abuela still calls it Th'o :-)

  • Working Gringos 1 year ago

    Thank you. And what does "ma’ tulaka persona natik maya" mean??

  • mayanteacher 1 year ago

    tene natik maya pero ma ctutanik mayalob. By the way, in northern Belize, Yucatec Maya exists but it is slowly dying. This site is great for a younger person to at least learn the basics. Going to Merida (I am from Belize) is fascinating, especially if you visit the Market. This coming April tene kat ximbal Th'o (I want to visit Merida). By the way, my grandmother still refers to Merida as Tho.

  • mayanteacher 1 year ago

    Well my friends the word "chit" exists. It is used to name a smaller form of leaf used for making brooms. ma' tulaka persona natik maya.

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