OK, there’s not actually an exclamation mark after the name of Mel Gibson’s new movie, but it sounds so apocalyptic! that way. As you may have heard, it will be filmed in “a Mayan dialect”; now Ben Zimmer reveals that the language in question is Yucatec Maya (Wikipedia article, brief introduction: “My favorite Spanish loan word is chinga’an, which means broken and came about from the Spanish overlords saying ‘chinga’ when something broke”). Go to Ben’s post for a good analysis of the linguistic situation; go here for some interesting speculation on the possible apocalyptic content of the film. I’m just going to point out that Gibson’s “translation” of the Greek word ἀποκαλύπτω as “new beginning” (I assume it’s Gibson’s) is ridiculous. As you can see from the Liddell-Scott link, it’s a verb meaning ‘uncover; disclose, reveal’; the last book of the New Testament is called Αποκάλυψις Ιωάννου ‘John’s revelation,’ and the over-the-top nature of the things he revealed about the future (beasts with ten horns and seven heads, blood to the height of the horses’ girdles, etc.) gave rise to the modern meaning of apocalyptic, which I expect will be fully exemplified in the sanguinary Mr. Gibson’s film.


  1. I just added this update to the Language Log post
    [Language Hat says the translation of Greek apocalypto (ἀποκαλύπτω) as 'new beginning' is "ridiculous," since it is a verb meaning 'uncover; disclose, reveal.' That was the gloss given in the Los Angeles Times article, while the AP article provides some more context:

    The film’s title, "Apocalypto," a Greek word for an unveiling or new beginning, "just expresses so well that I want to convey," Gibson said. "I think it's just a universal word. In order for something to begin, something has to end. All of those elements are involved. But it's not a big doomsday picture or anything like that."

    Gibson's "new beginning" interpretation seems to resonate with certain New Age readings of the Popol Vuh and other Mayan sacred texts. One popular theory, as mentioned on the apocalyptic page linked above, is that a great cataclysmic event will occur on December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendrical cycle is said to end. There is a whole body of mystical New Age literature on this subject, as a Web search on 2012 quickly reveals. One blurb for the book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 says that in the year 2012 "a new age is expected, one in which humanity will mutate spiritually into a new relationship with space-time and the material universe." Whether Apocalypto relates to these fanciful theories is perhaps known only by Mr. Gibson himself.]

  2. I’m no expert on these various strains of crackpottery, but I think there’s some potential overlap between Gibson’s sedevacantism and Mayan-based apocalypticism. Both seem to rely heavily on conspiracy theories involving Jews, Freemasons, Communists, the Illuminati, et al., whose evil ways will usher in the End Times. Or something like that.

  3. aldiboronti says:

    I’m sure you’re right, Ben. I made the error of thinking that the Sedevacantists were simply traditional RCs yearning for the good old days pre-Vatican II, but I see they’re far more than that.
    BTW checking this out on the net I came across this order: Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Wonderful name!

  4. Chinga is a word of american origin and chingar is form caló ” cingarár “. Rae

  5. Ben Zimmer’s account of Mayan languages is not correct. Yucatec Maya is not a direct descendent of Classic Maya, nor is it the modern Maya language most closely related to Classic Maya (often referred to as Ch’olan). The Yucatecan languages (Yucatec, Itza, Lacandon) are part of a northern branch that split off about 3000 years ago from the lines that formed the southern Mayan languages. Ch’olan was part of the southern branch. The descendents of Ch’olan are Cholti (extinct), Chorti, Chol, and Chontal. These are the languages most closely related to Ch’olan/Classic Maya; closest of all is possibly Chorti, spoken today in a small area near the Guatemalan/Honduran border.

  6. Gordon Barlow says:

    Why do those who can read Greek letters insist on bragging about it? Nobody gives the original letterings of words in any of the native scripts of Asia. Instead, words of languages written in non-English scripts are transliterated into our English script. Writing “… the Greek word ἀποκαλύπτω” is too precious by half!
    So please, chaps! We are impressed with your learning, we promise: but give us a break, eh?

  7. This is irrelevant to this topic but I’m posting it here in order to make sure that you read it. In an arrogant criticism that you once made against Greek dramatists and scholars you mentioned:
    ”I once thought only uneducated people believed this, but then I read an essay by Seferis, one of the most cultured men of the twentieth century, in which he furiously attacked foreigners who pretended that the ancient Greeks used some sort of strange pronunciation, made up out of whole cloth, rather than the authentic speech of the Greeks! I sadly reflected on the ineluctable pigheadedness and vanity of human nature and closed the book with a superior snap.”
    There is no such thing as “Modern” Greek pronunciation. There are only ‘Ancient’ and ‘Hellenistic’ pronunciations. The Attic phonology is by no means the default pronunciation of the Greek language like most amateur classicists think. Hellenistic Koine (from 323 BC) adapts a pronunciation that is significantly different from Ancient and yet survives intact until the 21st century. Famous Greeks and Romans of the post-classic periods who spoke Koine (e.g. Gallen, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus etc.), spoke it with the “modern” phonology that you arrogantly criticised. So before you so childishly ask criticism on people like Seferis, make sure your accusations are not the result of your own ignorance. Regards.

  8. No offense, Scipio, but you’re exhibiting exactly the same blind refusal to acknowledge reality that I was talking about. Of course there is modern Greek pronunciation, just as for every other language. If you seriously think a language can remain unchanged for two thousand years, that if you were transported back to ancient Alexandria Greek would sound just like it does in modern Athens, you need to take a linguistics course.
    Gordon: Sorry, it’s apokalypto. I usually do transliterate, but I guess I got lazy.

  9. And I think you’re verifying the Greek quote “Imperfect education is worse than ignorance”. I never said that the Greek language remained unchanged, I was specifically talking about its PHONOLOGY that you previously mocked. It changed significantly in the 4th century BC from Classic to Koine and then that’s it, it’s been almost the same for at least 2000 years. I don’t know where do you get your “of course there’s modern Greek pronunciation”, but in any book you open on the history of the Greek language you’ll read what I’ve explained to you. Phonology changes from Classic Greek took place with the Hellenistic colonisation by Alexander the Great. The only exception to this is the letter Ypsilon which was pronounced as the French ‘U’ up until the 10th century AD. Of course there are dialects that broke off and preserved Archaic characteristics even from Doric and Ionic, but we’re talking about the ‘Koine’. This is what a linguistics course would teach you. By the way “ἀποκαλύπτω” does means ‘to reveal’, from the verb “καλύπτω” (= to cover). For that you didn’t need a course, you could have just asked any random Greek. You would have got it right if you knew that the Greek language was never stopped spoken.

  10. Check out a merge of the trailers from Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ:

  11. For more Apocalypto news & rumors:

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