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Maya for Travelers and Students

Maya for Travelers and Students
A Guide to Language and Culture in Yucatan

Written in nontechnical terms for learners who have a basic knowledge of simple Mexican Spanish, the book presents easily understood, practical information for anyone who would like to communicate with the Maya in their native language.

Note: The supplemental audiocasette, Spoken Maya for Travelers and Students, is now available as a free download.

March 1995
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251 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 map, 18 b&w illus. |

The Yucatan Peninsula draws many North American and European travelers each year to view the ruins of the pre-Columbian Classical Maya civilization and the abundant native flora and fauna. For these travelers, as well as armchair travelers and students, Gary Bevington has prepared the first general English-language introduction to Yucatec Maya, the native language of the people indigenous to the region.

Written in nontechnical terms for learners who have a basic knowledge of simple Mexican Spanish, the book presents easily understood, practical information for anyone who would like to communicate with the Maya in their native language. In addition to covering the pronunciation and grammar of Maya, Bevington includes invaluable tips on learning indigenous languages "in the field." Most helpful are his discussions of the cultural and material worlds of the Maya, accompanied by essential words and expressions for common objects and experiences. A Maya-English-Spanish glossary with extensive usage examples and an English-Maya glossary conclude the book.

Note: The supplemental audiocasette, Spoken Maya for Travelers and Students, is now available as a free download.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. Learning Indigenous Languages
  • 2. Maya and Spanish
  • 3. Pronunciation and Spelling
  • 4. Grammar
  • 5. How to Talk about Things
  • 6. Some Final Thoughts
  • 7. Further Reading
  • Glossary
  • Maya-English-Spanish Vocabulary
  • English-Maya Vocabulary
  • Index

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The ascendancy of tourism on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico in the past fifteen years has been nothing short of phenomenal, and with good reason, because it is simply a place which offers almost unlimited opportunity for an almost unbelievably wide range of tourist activities. With the spread of high-glitz, flash-and-trash tourism of the type associated on the peninsula with Cancun, some people have begun to worry about what the consequences of such tourism are both for the persons and places hosting the tourism as well as for the tourists themselves. The outgrowth of these concerns in the past couple of years has been a movement toward encouraging a kind of tourism that respects the natural and social environment of the places being visited and gives tourists the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of and respect for the places which they visit. The movement toward such tourism has come to be known informally as "eco-tourism," and it is in the spirit of eco-tourism that the present guide to the Maya language and its speakers is offered to you.

The idea for it grew out of conversations with my friend Carl Franz, author of The People's Guide to Mexico and other works supporting low-budget, close-to-the-people tourism in Mexico. Carl and his partner, Lorena Havens, had been touring Yucatan with small groups and by themselves for some time. Despite a lot of contact with Maya speakers and a real desire to learn some of the language, they hadn't really made much progress. I asked Carl what materials he had been using, and he told me none because the only thing he knew of in print was Alfred Tozzer's Maya Grammar and he couldnt make any sense out of it. This I could certainly understand, and so I offered him a copy of what I considered the most accessible sketch of the language, a chapter from an unpublished grammar by Manuel Andrade. Carl took it with some hopes but reported to me that he couldn't make sense out of that either. Carl is a very intelligent person with a lot of experience in Mexico and particularly in Yucatan. He has learned to speak very good Spanish from limited adult-education classwork and a lot of practice in Mexico and Guatemala. He is a concerned and enthusiastic leader of the eco-tourist movement and was, in fact, an eco-tourist long before there was a name for it. I decided, therefore, to use Carl as my standard for intelligibility, and I have profited from his responses to the various parts of this guide as I was writing it.

Let me outline here the assumptions that I make in this guide about you, the user. First, I assume that you can read and understand the English text, which I have attempted to write at a level which would be appropriate for college undergraduates. Second, I expect that you will remember basic terms from school grammar, such as "noun," "verb," "clause" and so forth. I introduce some necessary technical terms to describe the language, but I give a brief definition or explanation at the outset. Finally, I expect you to know some Spanish. It doesn't have to be good Spanish (in fact, if you are fluent in Castillian or educated Mexican Spanish, this may turn out to be a disadvantage; see Chapter 2), but it has to be basic, usable, get-along-in-Mexico-type Spanish. If you don't know any Spanish for traveling, then you don't have any business starting Maya yet. Put this book away and take a Spanish course or get a travelers' guide to Spanish and travel with it until you feel that you can get along o.k. in that language. You need to have some Spanish to learn Maya for several reasons that will become apparent as we continue here.

The term "Maya" (or "Mayan"—that's just an adjective form) has been used for a long time in two distinct but interrelated ways that can be confusing. One way the term is used is to refer to a family of genetically related but distinct languages (theoretically, they came from a common ancestor language) and their speakers. The geographic area inhabited by speakers of these languages extends from northern Honduras in the south to the mountains of Guatemala and the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico in the west to the Yucatan peninsula in the north and east. There are also a couple of Maya languages spoken outside this geographic area (the technical term is "isolates") such as Huastec spoken north of Veracruz. Exactly how many such languages there are and their relationship to one another are technical questions that we won't pursue here. In the highland part of the Maya area, i.e., Guatemala and Chiapas, the geographical area of the individual languages is often quite small, and so the speakers there have names for their particular language and its speakers, such as Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Quiché, Mam, etc. In Yucatan, the language of the indigenous population has a fairly wide geographic distribution, and the speakers of this anguage call it simply "Maya." Hence, the ambiguity arises between the family of languages called "Maya" and the language of the Yucatan peninsula also called "Maya." There are various devices that have been used by scholars to disambiguate the term. One such attempt, which failed, was to introduce the term "Mayance" for the family, keeping "Maya" for the language. The current accepted terminology is to call the language "Yucatec" or "Yucatec Maya," saving "Maya" for the family. The problem with this, though, is that it is confusing because, from the native perspective, the Spanish equivalent, yucateco, means a person from or living on the peninsula whether or not she or he is Maya. Since we are concerned here only with the language spoken on the peninsula, we will use the term "Maya" to mean the indigenous language spoken there and the culture group of its speakers. When you look at other sources, however, remember that "Maya" or "Mayan language" probably means the family or any member thereof, and the languages can be as different from "Yucatec Maya" as English is from Swedish.

Who Speaks Maya?

To start geographically, the indigenous (non-European or other immigrant) population in the modern Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and most of Campeche are Mayas. Obviously, to be racially a Maya is not to be equated with being a Maya, however. Those persons in this area (and the rest of Mexico, for that matter) who have culturally and linguistically moved away from the traditional life (see Chapter 1) are called mestizos (roughly, 'racially mixed'). Despite this term's obvious racial origin, the practical use of the designation today in Mexico means a person who no longer identifies himself or herself as indígena but rather as a cultural Mexican. There are therefore plenty of people who are almost pureblood Indians in Mexico who are not identified as such, and conversely there are people with a substantial amount of white blood who are Indians because of the way they live and the culture that they identify themselves with. Furthermore, on the peninsula mestizo has come to have another meaning; namely, it is used as a term for a social class, roughly 'working class', rather than as a racial or ethnic term.

At this point, a word of caution is in order about Spanish ethnic terminology. The Spanish equivalent of the English word 'Indian' is indio, but even more than the English word, it is now considered inappropriate. Calling someone an indio in Spanish may be taken to be a real insult. The official euphemism is indígena, an indigeneous person. There are, however, plenty of indígenas in Mexico who always use the word indio just as most Native Americans in the United States use the word 'Indian'. Although I use 'Indian' with my Native American friends and associates in the United States who use it themselves, the best advice is probably to avoid the use of indio, even if the indígena you're talking to uses it. There may be an element of self-deprecation in its use. With others in Mexico, always use indígena to avoid any hint of being taken for a bigot (on ethnic terminology in Maya, see Chapter 5, People). Anyway, the long and the short of it is that one who lives, acts, and speaks like a Maya is a Maya. In western Campeche, there are indigenous people who speak another Maya language, Chontal, and are therefore, by our working definition, not Maya.

Certain general principles tell whether a person is likely to speak Maya. First, with respect to lifestyle, a rural person who lives off the land by making a milpa (Spanish term borrowed into English, see Chapter 5, Work, for Maya equivalent) is the most likely to speak Maya as his dominant language. In fact, the Maya monolinguals (i.e., those who speak no Spanish) are almost exclusively from this class. Agricultural workers and day-laborers (and their families, obviously) are also fairly likely to know and use Maya. At the other end, business and professional people are the least likely to know and use Maya, except where geographic factors enter in. The colonial cities such as Mérida, Campeche, and Valladolid are the places where Maya is less in use than in other places. In the modern tourist centers such as Cancun and Cozumel, Maya is known only by people who would probably rather forget that they do know it. In the rural areas as one moves east and south from Mérida, the use of Maya increases. In the central and particularly the inland part of Quintana Roo (the center of the So-called Zona Maya is the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto) Maya is used almost exclusively, and here is where the largest population of Maya speakers knowing little or no Spanish is to be found. These are the general principles by which one can determine the likelihood of a person's speaking Maya. After a while one develops a pretty good intuitive sense of whether or not an individual uses Maya in daily life. You should also be aware that for a long time many white people in Yucatan also spoke Maya, making it one of the few places in the New World where an indigenous language became the medium of communication between native people and the conquerors. Today there are still people who don't look or live like traditional Maya yet who can speak the language. Often they learned Maya as kids playing with Maya children. Many such people as adults use Spanish, however, with the Maya who speak it, and so you can't even tell from the language of address. Typically, I learn that such people speak Maya because they hear me speaking with my Maya friends, and they want to try speaking Maya with me as a matter of curiosity.

In general, initiating speaking Maya with someone who might not speak Maya as a main medium of communication is to be avoided. Service personnel in Cancun, for example, should never be addressed in Maya without judicious inquiry in Spanish first. The best rule is save your Maya for when you're away from the flash and trash of the resorts and the hustle and bustle of the cities. Anyone who sees himself or herself as official or important or sophisticated, such as a cop, civil administrator, or government employee, should be addressed in Spanish everywhere. Don't force your Maya on anyone; if they want to speak Spanish or even try their English on you, go with the flow. This is not an issue for militance in Mexico, as language rights are in, say, parts of Europe or Asia. Everyone accepts the idea that Spanish is the language of Mexico and should be used unless the parties speaking agree on using some other language, just like English in the United States.

Finally, it should be added that Maya is also spoken outside of Mexico in Belize and in the Peten area of Guatemala. The party line among modern scholars is that the form of Maya spoken in E1 Peten is a distinct language which they call "Itza Maya." It doesn't make any difference to us, however, because there is but a handful of speakers left there. The same is largely true in Belize, although in northern Belize around Corozal Town there are descendants of Maya refugees from the Caste War (see below) who still know Maya.

Historical Background

Maya has been spoken on the Yucatan peninsula for a very long time, certainly for a long time before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. A high civilization developed in this area in the early part of our era (from the third century on) which counted among its achievements the development of a writing system, which we now call "Hieroglyphic Maya." An important question is what was the spoken language on which Hieroglyphic Maya was based. For a long time, scholars agreed that Hieroglyphic Maya was a purely logographic system; i.e., each symbol represented a word. This meant that the question of the language was relatively unimportant for the real problem of deciphering the glyphs, and it became the custom to name the glyphs using a Yucatec Maya word that corresponded meaningwise to the interpretation of the glyph. The view that the hieroglyphs were strictly logographic, however, turned out to be incorrect. In the past fifteen years a major breakthrough in the interpretation of Hieroglyphic Maya was achieved with the recognition of numerous phonetic elements in the system. This means that the question of the spoken language is indeed crucial to interpretation. There has been a shift away from seeing Hieroglyphic Maya as simply the immediate predecessor of our Maya, but a real consensus on what the language base of the hieroglyphs was has yet to emerge. Whatever it was, however, it was close to the Maya of Yucatan, and so with a bit of generalization that ignores some details, we can say that Maya has a longer written history than either English or Spanish.

At the time of the conquest, the use and knowledge of the hieroglyphs were apparently in decline, and so when the padres taught some of the Maya to read and write using Latin letters, this writing system was converted by them for their own use as well. A fairly extensive collection of written documents in Maya from the sixteenth through nineteenth century survives, and the language represented in these colonial documents is sometimes called "Classical''or "Colonial Maya." The most interesting documents from this period are the books of Chilam Balam. There are a number of these books which were discovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are preserved either in the original or in copies. The Chilam Balam books were kept secretly by the Maya in various settlements of colonial Yucatan and recopied as the earlier copies disintegrated in the climate. The copies were imperfect and new material from the colonial Christian tradition was introduced, but the books are clearly the maintenance of a precolonial indigenous tradition of record-keeping. The language of the Chilam Balam books is very obscure, and speakers of the modern language find them unintelligible without the kind of help that English speakers need reading Old or Middle English. The works are usually referred to by the town the manuscript was found in, e.g. "The Chilam Balam of Chumayel."

After the collapse of the Spanish colonial empire in the early nineteenth century, Yucatan vacillated between being an independent state and a part of Mexico. The shift in the economic base of the area after the collapse led to intensified oppression of the Maya by the white population. As a result, a race war known as the Caste War (La guerra de castas) engulfed the peninsula in the second half of the 1840s. During the time of Mexico's war with the United States, the white population was nearly driven from the peninsula by the Maya, but then the tide shifted in favor of the whites. Beginning in about 1850 those Maya who were still in rebellion against the whites formed independent states of their own design in the eastern part of the peninsula. The most important of the states was centered around a town which the rebels built called Chan Santa Cruz. The Cruzob (as the rebels called themselves) established a theocratic state based on their cult of talking crosses.

Remarkably, the Chan Santa Cruz state existed for half a century until a Mexican expeditionary force was sent in to crush the rebels. Rather than face certain annihilation in the face of the overwhelming firepower of the Mexican army, the rebels simply abandoned the town of Chan Santa Cruz and melted into the surrounding forest. The official date for the pacification of the rebelling Indians is 1937, when the most beloved of modern Mexican presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas, made peace with the Indians. In fact, the military theocracy of the Cruzob is still maintained in a few villages around the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, which is the modern name of Chan Santa Cruz. The importance of these historical events for the language is that some Maya lived completely outside Mexican authority until comparatively recently. This has given the 1anguage a political base which is unique among the indigenous languages of the New World, for the Caste War and the subsequent establishment of the Indian states must be considered the only successful Indian rebellion against the Europeans in history.