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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:

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.

Interested readers can find more at Yucalandia: http://yucalandia.wordpress.com/
http://yucalandia.wordpress.com/living-in-yucatan-mexico/bridging-the-gaps-learning-maya/

Plus some Mayan vocabulary at:
http://www.mayas.uady.mx/diccionario/index.html
http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/o/o_oc_nal.htm
http://www.wordgumbo.com/pe/may/ermayeng.htm
http://www.wordgumbo.com/pe/may/erengmay.htm

Like this article? Read more about the Mayan Language by this author here:

Mayan Language for Beginners, Part 1
and
Mayan Language for Beginners, Part 3


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28 Responses to “Mayan Language for Beginners”

  1. Ni’ bo’ olal !

  2. I now know about 20 words/phrases, the most important of which are;
    let’s eat
    &
    I have to pee

  3. Denis,
    Ko’ox hanal: Let’s go … eat.

    Whee-shar is the verb for “whiz”, so, how do you say: “I have to… whee-shar?”

    (Hint: Non-Maya Yucatecans think that saying whee-shar is a bit naughty or crude.)
    Thanks, Dr. Fry

  4. One of the phrases the vendors in the market laugh at the most is when you say: mee na ah ta king – I don’t have any money.
    Also, it is interesting that out in the villages many of the older people will still refer to Merida as T’hó.
    Another good article by Dr. Fry.

  5. How very exciting! I will practice the basics, my name your name…that shoud last for up to a year…no need to ask who’s a mother I think I will look for the obvious baby or toddler. Gracias!

  6. The street Spanish you are talking about is a combination of Spanish words with Maya words…..similar to Spanglish.
    That’s my two cents! Thank you for everything you do – so we can keep our Mayan Language.

  7. no encontre nada de nada de lo que yo buscaba

  8. I was told by a Maya woman in Francisco Uh May that T’ho as well as being the Maya name for Merida, is also the name of a local bird. In Spanish I have heard it called a relojero and in my bird book it is a turquoise browed mot mot. Thank you for the help with the language. It’s still far too complicated for me.

  9. Oops, knowing a bit of q’eqchi’ Maya I hoped I would be able to understand some Yucatecan Maya in a pinch while driving through Yucatan. Not so, I see :-( ((

  10. Minerva,
    When you commented about this on Mexconnect, I suspected that they were different, just as the Maya language spoken in parts of Chiapas does not even share the greetings with Yucatec Maya languange. It’s good to see you doing your research for your planned trip.

    Hope your travels all go very smoothly,
    Dr. Fry

  11. Dr. Fry:
    At last, I can learn to spoken Maya. I will going to Disneylandia on Dec 1-15, probably Merida on Dec 15-22, and can’t wait to use the few phrases I have learned from your website. I also have John Montgomery’s Yucatec Maya Dictionary & Phrasebook.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
    Henrietta

  12. I am a MAYAN from Merida, Yucatan. My family is from there and they all speak Mayan to me. So I now know an official language :)
    So, I’m “uts” which is “I’m good”. Ma’Alob xi Teech Yeetel Utsil

  13. Hello, how can i learn the itzá mayan language? I need vocabulary and cd’s about the voice but where can i found it or download it? Thank you for your help. Have a nice day, Agnes from Hungary

  14. Hi Dr Fry,

    In Yucatan Maya, how would you say, “Here you are.” “Here you are” as if he is handing something to her. Maybe just, “here?”

    And what would a villager call an old woman to be respectful? Is there a name they might use?

    Thank you!

  15. I just got married in Riviera Maya, Mx. We had a Mayan Shaman do our ceremony for us and when he asked us to say I do in mayan we did but I am wondering if you could email me the spelling, translation and the hieroglyph for this as I would like to use it in our memory book.

    Thanks

  16. Ni’ bo’ olal – Wish I had learned a bit before our trip to Mayan Riviera…Great place, great people and excellent (Mayan) guide – Juan from Mayan Treasures in Coba. This is such a fabulous culture and I want to learn more about it.

  17. I got this phrase from a friend, but I don´t know what it means.”Taak sàamal ka´ansah” She said it is Mayan, but not which mayan. Hope you can solve it for me. Thanks.

  18. Dr. Steve? Any ideas?

  19. Ever since I went to Coba/Tulum, I have been fascinated with the Mayan culture. When on a tour of Tulum, the guide was Mayan and told us the name off the thatched roof in Mayan was shit/chit? how would you pronounce that?

  20. Rob, that word is most likely spelled “xit” and is pronounced the way you said…

  21. Hi Rob,
    I consulted with a group of 7 Maya men from the pueblos, all construction workers who personally know both Maya language and Maya constructions, as they were eating almuerzo on our jobsite. These guys also speak Spanish well, as a part of working in Merida. In Yucatec Maya, they said the most common term for the thatched roof on a nah (Maya hut) is: xáam (shAh-ahm), which refers both to the rood and the material. I pushed the issue, and pointed out that the palapa roofs can be made of one of 2 different materials (palmera or grass). They explained that the common roof of plamera is called xáam, and the grass roof is called tsuk (t-s oo k). I asked several times about variations of chit/shit/xit, and the all emphatically chimed in: No, this “xit” word does no exist (no existe).

    I suspect there may have been a little miscommunication for you. There is a verb for the act of making a roof on a nah, using palmeras: Tsíik (ts-EE ee k) .

    As a belt-and-suspenders guy, I confirmed all three of these terms with 3 different (Yucatec) Maya language dictionaries.

    Happy trails,
    Steve

  22. Thank you, Steve!!

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. Thank you. And what does “ma’ tulaka persona natik maya” mean??

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

  27. 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?

  28. 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.

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