¿La ütz awäch?

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¿La ütz awäch?

Introduction to Kaqchikel Maya Language

By R. McKenna Brown, Judith M. Maxwell, and Walter E. Little

An innovative language-learning guide that will help students, researchers, and professionals in many fields quickly develop basic communication skills in one of the four major Mayan languages.



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8.5 x 11 | 320 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71460-1

Kaqchikel is one of approximately thirty Mayan languages spoken in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and, increasingly, the United States. Of the twenty-two Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, Kaqchikel is one of the four "mayoritarios," those with the largest number of speakers. About half a million people living in the central highlands between Guatemala City and Lake Atitlán speak Kaqchikel. And because native Kaqchikel speakers are prominent in the field of Mayan linguistics, as well as in Mayan cultural activism generally, Kaqchikel has been adopted as a Mayan lingua franca in some circles.

This innovative language-learning guide is designed to help students, scholars, and professionals in many fields who work with Kaqchikel speakers, in both Guatemala and the United States, quickly develop basic communication skills. The book will familiarize learners with the words, phrases, and structures used in daily communications, presented in as natural a way as possible, and in a logical sequence. Six chapters introduce the language in context (greetings, the classroom, people, the family, food, and life) followed by exercises and short essays on aspects of Kaqchikel life. A grammar summary provides in-depth linguistic analysis of Kaqchikel, and a glossary supports vocabulary learning from both Kaqchikel to English and English to Kaqchikel. These resources, along with sound files and other media on the Internet at ekaq.stonecenter.tulane.edu, will allow learners to develop proficiency in all five major language skills—listening comprehension, speaking, reading, writing, and sociocultural understanding.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. ¡Ütz apetik! / Welcome!
    • the Kaqchikel language; learning less-commonly taught languages; using this text; the alphabet
  • 2. ¿La ütz awäch? / How are you?
    • greetings, names, your town; personal and possessive pronouns, asking questions; Mayan names, Mayan towns, Kaqchikel communities today
  • 3. Ri tijob'äl / The classroom
    • here and there, common activities, colors, descriptions, numbers 1-20; intransitive verbs, possessive pronouns, ordinal numbers, Mayan numerals, Mayan numbers today.
  • 4. Ri winaqi' / People
    • age and gender, common actions, clothing, body parts, whose is it?, under, over, etc., emotions and conditions; nouns plurals, transitive verbs, possessed nouns, relational nouns, expressing emotions, the backstrap loom.
  • 5. Ri ach'alal / The family
    • jobs and professions, parts of the house, events in the past; kinship terms, past tense, direct object pronouns, Mayan households, Kaqchikel families today.
  • 6. Ri q'utu'n / Food
    • animals, fruits and vegetables, flavors, meals, likes and dislikes, plural animal names, describing flavors, expressing preferences, milpa farming today
  • 7. ti k'aslemal / Life
    • the weather, morning and evening routines, household chores; reflexive verbs, relational nouns, market day
  • 8. Kemchi' / Grammar Summary (Judith M. Maxwell)
  • 9. Choltzïj / Glossary (Walter E. Little)
  • Sources Cited and Further Reading
  • Answer Key


Welcome to ¿La ütz awäch?, a gateway to learning about the Kaqchikel Maya language and its speakers. ¿La ütz awäch? is the first of its kind, a practical method to get you communicating in Kaqchikel quickly and effectively.

You are about to embark on a stimulating journey, one perhaps you didn't think possible, that of learning a Mayan language. You may have thought that a Mayan language was just too complicated and difficult to learn, but with this book and a few other resources, some time, effort, practice and patience, you'll be able to communicate in Kaqchikel!

Of course, learning Kaqchikel is not exactly like learning Spanish or French, languages that enjoy a wealth of teaching and learning resources, including abundant materials, trained teachers, and formal learning programs. In Kaqchikel, you will find a small (but growing!) number of written texts and native speakers with expertise in teaching their language to others.

Many associate learning another language with fear and frustration. This is partly due to unrealistic expectations. We can never replicate the ease and perfection with which we learned our native language as children and that language will likely influence how we express ourselves in another. We may also expect a new language to be similar to our own, and not appreciate differences. To learn another language well, we have to be open to the structural possibilities that a new language presents.

When English speakers first hear Kaqchikel, they often remark on the unfamiliar sounds that make the language seem difficult to pronounce. However, most of the sounds of Kaqchikel are used in English (or something close enough), and the handful of new consonants can be mastered, like all things, with a bit of practice and patience. You'll find an alphabet and pronunciation guide at the end of this section to get you started.

No textbook can completely teach you a language, and ¿La ütz awäch? is no exception. A solid grasp of the language requires extended immersion and some linguistic expertise to compensate for the dearth of prepared materials. This book, however, can give you a very good start.

The Kaqchikel Language

Kaqchikel is one of the approximately thirty Mayan languages spoken in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and increasingly, in the United States. Like the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, et al) that evolved from a common Latin root, Mayan languages spring from a common source language (called Proto-Maya) believed to have been spoken in the northwest corner of Guatemala about four thousand years ago. Kaqchikel belongs to the K'ichee' branch of Mayan languages (map 1), which also includes the K'ichee' language, as well as Q'eqchi' and Tz'utujil.


Of the twenty-one Mayan languages spoken today in Guatemala, Kaqchikel is one of the four "mayoritarios," those largest in terms of number of speakers. Exact numbers are elusive, but Kaqchikel speakers number about a half million, living in that part of the central highlands between the capital, Guatemala City and Lake Atitlán. Kaqchikel belongs to the K'ichean branch of the Mayan language family tree (Map 1) and shares various degrees of intelligibility with its branchmates, K'ichee', Poqomchi' Q'eqchi' and Tz'utujil (map 2). Kaqchikel enjoyed a brief reign during the early Colonial period as the Lengua Metropolitana for its wide usage as a language of evangelization and empire. Today the prominence of Kaqchikels in linguistics in particular and Maya cultural activism in general has led to its adoption in some circles as a Mayan lingua franca.

Kaqchikel is spoken in forty-four municipios (municipalities) in the departments of Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, Sololá and Suchitepéquez (Maps 3 and 4). Table 1.1 compiles analyses by Cojtí and López (1990), Lolmay (1993) and Patal, et al (2000) of data collected under supervision of Terrence Kaufmann while at the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín and includes the classification of towns into the 10 dialect areas posited by Kaufmann. Like many Mayan towns, most Kaqchikel communities were founded after the conquest and named by the Spanish or the Nahuatl-speaking allies who accompanied them from Mexico. For that reason, many communities have both official names used in Spanish in Guatemala, and Kaqchikel names, also listed in the table, which are used in the language chapters of this book

Learning a Less-Commonly Taught Language

Learning a less commonly taught language (LCTL) such as Kaqchikel is different in several ways from learning a language of global currency (LGC) such as Spanish or English. Many of these differences ultimately result from historic political and economic forces of colonialism and their contemporary offspring.

Because LGCs are languages of power and wealth, speakers of other languages are often compelled to learn them, but find full acceptance of their non-native fluency elusive. Adult learners of Spanish and English, for example, quickly discover that native speakers of these languages carry well-developed expectations of how non-natives speak, and may project these expectations on the learner, despite actual performance. Comedians in both English and Spanish have sustained careers by imitating and ridiculing non-native speech.

Because LCTLs often bear a stigma of low prestige, few learn them as second languages, so native speaker expectations of how the learner will speak are rare. Indeed, they may suppose that no one ever learns their language by choice. The student of Kaqchikel is likely to produce reactions of surprise and delight with their communication attempts. That someone who speaks a global language like English would take an interest in learning and speaking Kaqchikel subverts ever so slightly the established order and doing so helps establish trust and rapport, because the time and effort expended in crossing that linguistic divide is an act of recognition and respect.

Speakers of LGCs begin learning a standard written code at such a tender age that few question its logic, for example, using the same series of letters in English "-ough" to represent more than four distinct sound combinations. This broad consensus on what is correct and by what authority allows the learner to focus on other aspects of the language. Learning Kaqchikel, however, is a plunge into uncertainty. The past centuries have seen any type of Mayan authority beyond the local systematically targeted for elimination, so in language terms, almost every adult speaker is his or her own expert. Given that Kaqchikel varies from one town to another, controversy thrives about how to say or write a particular word or phrase among individuals and organizations, and even within organizations. The Mayan language revitalization movement of the past decades has made great strides, but the establishment of a recognized standard code linking all communities that has taken centuries for other languages has just begun in Kaqchikel. Accept that you will find variation in written texts as well as in the way people speak.

This text carefully respects the most recent conventions developed for writing Kaqchikel by leading Mayan authorities: The Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala and its Kaqchikel branch, Kaqchikel Cholchi'. Their work reflects on-going linguistic analysis and continues evolving. We point out some of the most debated issues when relevant in this text. You may find that when speaking some of the phrases learned in this book that the person you have addressed speaks differently, and has other opinions about how things should be said. Take this in stride as part of learning a LCTL. This book is the result of the longest-running Kaqchikel language program in existence, involving speakers from a broad spectrum of Kaqchikel communities. We will admit to a strong influence of the central region. Tecpán and Comalapa are home to the first Kaqchikel linguists and educators, and many of the teachers we have worked with. The further east one travels, for example, to Santa Maria de Jesús, or west, say, to San Lucas Tolimán, the more divergent the Kaqchikel from that found in this text. Nevertheless, this text will help you acquire the foundation needed to do further study.

There are also some similarities between learning a LGC and a LCTL. If you've done well at learning another language as an adult, your chances of doing well at Kaqchikel are much better. You never 'finish' learning another language, there is always more to learn, more skills to master. Your progress in the language will also reflect the degree of relevance it takes in your life. If you are lucky enough to form meaningful friendships with Kaqchikel speakers, your language abilities will be greatly enriched.

Using This Text

Our aim is that this book prove valuable to a variety of people interested in Mayan language and culture. Students, scholars and practitioners of diverse fields working with Kaqchikel speakers, both in Guatemala and in the U.S., will find a means to develop some basic communication skills quickly. Linguists exploring the structures of a Mayan language and students of related Mayan languages may benefit from it. English-speaking travelers and residents of central Guatemala seeking closer communication with all segments of the population will find this book useful.

¿La ütz awäch? will familiarize you with the words, phrases and structures used in everyday communications, presented in as natural a context as possible, and in a logical sequence. It contains three basic parts: six chapters presenting the language in context with exercises; the grammar summary providing in-depth linguistic analysis of these structures (and more); and the Glossary, both in Kaqchikel-English and English-Kaqchikel. Each offers a unique resource for learning the language and having the three together for quick cross-reference makes this book a unique and valuable language-learning tool. The consistent format of the first six chapters allows you to focus on the language as you move through each section. Kojtzijon (Let's talk) presents new content in a conversational context (including an illustrated dialogue) followed by Silonik, sequenced exercises to check for comprehension, and provide practice. Kojsik'in (Let's read) applies new content to written context, followed by K'utunik (questions) for comprehension and practice. Kemchi' (Grammar) offers clear, simple explanations with guided practice activities. Kojtz'ib'an (Let's write) weaves together current and previous chapter material in exercises progressing from yes/no questions to short compositions. Ri B'anob'äl Maya' (Mayan Culture) relates the language to its setting. Finally, at the end of each chapter Ri K'aslemal Kaqchikel (Kaqchikel life) offers short essays on how ancient traditions survive in the present, often by adapting to rapidly changing circumstances.

In the next six chapters we'll follow the members of the extended family of Ajpub', a young teacher from Comalapa (Chiq'a'l) and his wife,

Ixkaj, a market vendor from Tecpán (lximche). They have two daughters: Ixch'umil, who is ten, and Nikte', who is seven months); and a son, Ajchab', who is four years old.

Ajpub's parents are both from Comalapa. His father, Waqi' Kej is a carpenter in his mid forty's, and his mother, Ix'ey, is a weaver of about the same age. Ajpub's grandparents are in their seventy's: his grandfather, Jajuj B'atz' is a farmer and his grandmother, Ixmukane, no longer weaves, but often helps look after the grandchildren.

We will also meet the Ixkaj's younger brother, Kanek, a sixteen-year old student, and his girlfriend, fellow student Ixq'anil, from San Antonio Aguas Calientes (Meq'ën Ya').

More detailed kinship charts of both Ajpub's and Ixkaj's families are presented in Chapter 4.

In paradigms of nouns and verbs, we've elected to gloss the second person plural forms in English as "y'all". While we recognize this is a markedly regional usage, it is probably the most widely used and recognized mechanism in English for handily distinguishing between singular and plural.

In vocabulary lists, verbs are presented in their uninflected roots preceded by a hyphen (-) indicating an incomplete form in need of tense/aspect and person markers. The infinitive marker "to" (as in "to swim") is not given in the English gloss, since the hyphen and context suffice to indicate it's a verb.

This textbook will lend itself to individual study (with and without native speaker consultants), individualized and group instruction. In an academic setting, a possible schedule would be three hours of class time a week for a fifteen-week semester or four hours per week for a twelve-week quarter. The Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University has developed a web-based application to facilitate learning and maintaining Kaqchikel language skills at ekag.stonecenter.tulane.edu . Users of this book will find useful sound files and other media allowing you to hear chapter content spoken by native speakers.

So, what are you waiting for? Kojsamäj! Let's get to work!

The Alphabet


Kaqchikel has thirty-four distinctive sounds (phonemes). During the Colonial Period Fray de Parra developed a writing system based on the Latin alphabet, which represented twenty-nine of these sounds. In the early Colonial Period, Kaqchikels and priests of the Dominican and Franciscan orders used this alphabet extensively. Documents from this period include four dictionaries, church documents, catechisms and hymns written mostly by clergy; and wills, land titles and claims, Mayan calendars and almanacs, and family histories by Maya authors. During the 1700s use of Kaqchikel for such documents decreased as Spanish spread as the language of literacy. By the early 1900s little was being written in Kaqchikel and the Parra alphabet was no longer used. However, new initiatives by the Wycliffe Bible Translators and government bilingual education programs drove would-be translators and educators to develop orthographies for writing and teaching Kaqchikel, as well as other Mayan languages. Rather than return to the Parra system, which represented all the phonemic distinctions except that between long and short vowels, new systems were devised. Each institution used its own set of conventions. In 1948, the government called for the First National Congress on the Alphabet. A resolution emerged to use the writing conventions of Spanish, adjusted to include a few of the special sounds of Kaqchikel. The Summer Institute in Linguistics (SIL), sister organization and Guatemalan representative of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, was appointed as linguistic advisor to the state, and was charged with unifying writing practice.

Nonetheless, institutions tended to continue with their own practices. And each community served by SIL or another organization developed its own materials and protocols. New organizations grew up dealing with literacy and language in Mayan areas, among them the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín (PLFM). Linguists working for the PLFM adopted the following orthographic principles: (a) each language should be represented according to its own structure and composition, and (b) "one phoneme, one grapheme". As the PLFM worked with fourteen of the 21 Mayan languages spoken in the country, this writing system spread quickly and was soon rivaling older alphabetic practices. In 1986 the Second National Congress on the Alphabet was held, but this time organized and controlled by Mayas. Maya and non-Maya linguists, educators, and writers attended; all present could speak and participate in discussions, but only Mayas voted. This time a unified alphabet for all the Mayan languages was proposed, so that one sound would be written the same in all languages. This alphabet, largely based on that developed by the PLFM, eschewed Spanish derivative spelling conventions, and adopted the principle of "one phoneme, one grapheme".

The specific inventories of each language were written out and presented to the national legislature in 1987. Two years later the Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG) was created and charged by the Guatemalan government to protect and promote the Mayan languages. The ALMG replaced the SIL as the adviser to the State on Mayan languages.

The alphabet ratified for Kaqchikel includes these graphemes:

', a, ä, b', ch, ch', e, i, 'i, j, k, k', I, m, n, o, d, p, q, q', r, s, t, t', tz, tz', u, ü, w, x, y.

Subsequent work by Kaqchikel linguists indicated that a tenth vowel ë should be added to this inventory.

R. Mckenna Brown, Judith M. Maxwell, and Walter E. Little are experienced Kaqchikel teachers who founded and direct the Oxlajuj Aj Intensive Summer Program in Kaqchikel Language and Culture sponsored by Tulane University and the University of Texas at Austin. Brown is Professor and Director of the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Maxwell is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics, at Tulane University in New Orleans. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Albany, State University of New York.