A while back I reported on Mel Gibson’s new movie, Apocalypto, shot in Yucatec Mayan; now Ben Zimmer of Language Log provides an update with links to a video of Mel actually speaking the language as well as to A Grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan Language by David and Alejandra Bolles (a fine site, though frustrating in some ways—why on earth would you deliberately choose not to indicate vowel length or glottalization in a site intended for learners?). I also found a site that allows you to hear Mayans read sample phrases and sentences aloud, which is a real boon.
While I’m over at the Log, let me recommend a Berke Breathed Opus strip reproduced by Mark Liberman (involving an attempt by the chauvinist-pig character Steve to demonstrate his linguistic versatility: “I talk perfect woman”); and while I’m on audio links, here‘s a page where you can hear actual Belgians pronouncing the names of those wonderful beers (Maredsous is more or less mah-red-SOO).

Oh, one other tidbit: Ben says “the joke, such as it is, has Gibson speaking at length in Yucatec Maya, but the subtitles simply say ‘Not… …me.’ (The long-speech-with-short-subtitles gag was already getting tired when Mike Myers did it with Cantonese in Wayne’s World.)” This reminded me of an anecdote I read (by amazing coincidence) just yesterday, involving the very same dialect of Maya, as I was finishing Nelson Reed’s fascinating 1964 book The Caste War of Yucatan (the war began in 1847-48 and tailed off for decades); the author is making a trip to Yucatan in 1959 to round out his research for the book and interview anyone who might have personal knowledge of the events of the early part of the century, and he’s met an old gent named Don Norberto Yeh:

My next question, Did he remember the time of General Bravo [who conquered the independent Maya 1899-1912], brought a long, explosive diatribe (and Maya can be very explosive) which was translated, “The Señor says Yes.”

A more recent example is the Suntory scene in Lost in Translation (discussed here): “Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.”


  1. Andrew Dunbar says

    Since this is a Mayan topic, I’d like to ask if anyone can provide me pointers or information on the orthography of Tz’utujil, one of the languages of the Lago de Atitlán area in Guatemala, which I learned a few words of in my week there. None of the locals who taught me words knew how to spell them but I’ve heard there is an official orthography.

  2. Re Yucatec Maya on the web: For Spanish speakers, there’s also “Curso de Maya Yucateco” on the website of Universidad Autonoma de Yucatán. Sound files included.

  3. Hmm… Ethnologue mentions this book:
    Butler, James H. and Judy G. Butler. 1990. Verbos Tzutujiles. Serie gramatical = Grammar series, 4a. Guatemala: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano. 74 p.
    But it’s bound to be hard to come by. Wikipedia cites
    Dayley, Jon P. (1985). Tzutujil grammar. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
    which is probably easier to find.
    Huh. I just tried Google Books and came across this page, where I learned that speakers of Mayan languages generally don’t have specific names for different Mayan languages, just ‘our language’ for their own and ‘his/her language’ for others. Doesn’t help you, though.
    There’s a brief sample online of Eastern and a longer one of Western Tzutujil. Good luck!

  4. You can look for the Dayley grammar in a library here.

  5. It was nice to hear the American pronouncing Belgian beer names. Especially, “kriek” sounds funny from him.
    I found Mort Subite always somewhat wrongly named as compared with Delirium Tremens and Duvel, which are simply beers with a high percentage of alcohol. The Mort Subite-beers are more like subtle killers, I would say, because of their sweet taste.

  6. We’re off for our annual holiday in Brittany in May and the beer is always one of the high points of the trip for me. At last I’ll be able to pronounce them properly.
    It’s been quite fun this last 20 minutes pronouncing them as I’d say them, then comparing my pronunication with a native’s.

  7. Abbreviating greetings and eulogies isn’t exactly a new thing. From Yule, Burnell: Nobson-Jobson (first published in 1886): “A.C. (i.e. ‘after compliments’). In official versions of native letters these letters stand for the omitted formalities of native compliments.” (Native = of British India)

  8. As an ESL teacher dealing with Central American families, I have met a few Guatemalan immigrants who had non Hispanic last names and a strange, slow way of speaking the language of the other Central Americans. They also were unable to read in Spanish as well. Smart me figured out the obvious: they were Guatemalan indigenous, who told me they spoke Quiché and were in fact illiterate in Spanish, which they spoke as a second language and untaught in Quiché as well. In our bilingual program, their children learned to read and write Spanish as well as in English, making them trilingual.

  9. Andrew: Have you tried the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala? I’m pretty sure it’s they who established the official orthography. I didn’t immediately see anything about the orthography on their site, which is badly designed (and in Spanish, though I guess that’s not a problem for you) but they do have a page on Tz’utujil.
    Anyway, the Academia orthography is supposed to be standardised across Guatemalan Mayan languages. You can get brief details here, in the context of Classic Maya epigraphy. Hopefully this will at least give you enough information to better direct your own researches.

  10. Toby,
    Where do you teach? Here in Washington ESL teachers have been noticing the same thing for some years, though here it is mostly Mixtec and Zapotec people. BTW, if it’s supposed to be a bi-lingual ed program to help the kids learn grade-level stuff faster, why on earth are they doing it in Spanish, rather than say, Japanese or Chinese, you know – some useful language?

  11. I’d rather not tell where I teach, but it is an east coast urban environment. Why I’m using Spanish and not another language is because the students speak Spanish and so do I. I use their native language when I need to clarify a point or provide instruction in a particularly taxing concept and the students’ English is not up to the task of comprehending it. When the students’ English is proficient, we transition out of Spanish, as this program is not maintenance-type bilingual program.

  12. Got it. I was just ragging on the tendency to default to Spanish when the kid comes from an officially Hispanic country.
    I covered an ESL teacher’s class for most of a semester – high school kids – and found that the Mexican kids who finally after much encouragement and gentle approach broke to being indigenous had an easier time with English than the kids who spoke only Spanish, perhaps because of they already had a second language and had the experience of second-language learning. They may also have been even more motivated; kind of hard to believe, but possible.

  13. I never taught huge groups of Mexican students, monolingual Spanish speakers or those speaking indigenous languages. We only have a modest Mexican influx in the area where I live. But I have had Peruvian and Bolivian adult students who spoke Quechua or Aymara better than Spanish. And I noticed the same thing as Jim. Especially on the phonological level, they had an easier time acquiring at least oral English. Yet they were so unaware that speaking their indigenous languages was a thing to be proud of, not ashamed.

  14. Andrew Dunbar says

    Thanks for the tips people. Thankfully I am now in Guatemala City and I discovered that Editorial Cholsamaj is only about 10 blocks from my hotel. This publisher specialized in dictionaries and grammars of Mayan languages among other things. Today I picked up a T’zutujil grammar by Pablo García Ixmatá as well as a book on the derivation of Tz’utujil words. I may go back for the dictionary before I leave but I’m already carrying way too many books.

  15. a book on the derivation of Tz’utujil words
    OK, I’m intrigued. Do they take them back to Proto-Maya?

  16. Michael Farris says

    When I was studying Aymara, we noticed the same thing. Even though all the Aymara in and around the program were at least as fluent in Spanish as Aymara (some actually Spanish dominant due to longterm residence in institutions of higher education) their accents in English weren’t remotely ‘hispanic’. Spanish monolinguals from the same areas (and with the same kind of distinctive Andean Spanish) did have more stereotypical hispanic accents in English.
    Interestingly, while the ESL unit of the university did well with lots of kinds of international students, it had a poor track record with ‘minority’ students (that is, people whose first language was officially or unofficially repressed in their home countries). I’ve always assumed the well-intentioned English-only policy hit all the wrong buttons for them in ways that didn’t bother students who were from their countries majorities.

  17. Andrew Dunbar says

    a book on the derivation of Tz’utujil words
    OK, I’m intrigued. Do they take them back to Proto-Maya?
    Jotaytziij tz’utujiil. Derivación de Palabras Tz’utujiil. only covers derivational morphology – no proto-Mayan. I don’t know if it’s deeper than that section of the full grammar but it was less than $2 and it’s where I got the publisher’s address from. Now the publisher’s bookshop did have a chunky comparative Mayan dictionary though.
    Googling, I find they publish this book which has some coverage of proto-Mayan:
    England, Nora C. Autonomia de los idiomas mayas: historia e identidad. Cholsamaj, Guatemala: 1994.

  18. “(some actually Spanish dominant due to longterm residence in institutions of higher education) their accents in English weren’t remotely ‘hispanic’. ”
    That “hispanic” acent is a moving target. Mexican Spanish is proverbially unSpanish sounding. But I meant something different. Various languages happen to be closer or farther phonologically and that can give their seakers different “set points’ for getting English sounds. Mandarin is an example of one with a lot of gratuitous sound similarities, at least to North American Standard. But I was talking about learning morphological mehanisms and vocabulary. I just was observing that the third language always comes more easily than the second.

  19. Andrew Dunbar says

    Hat, I dropped by Cholsamaj again and this is the book I mentioned:
    Cú Cab, Carlos Humberto, Maya’ Choltzij – Vocabulario comparativo de los idiomas mayas de Guatemala. Guatemala: OKMA, Cholsamaj, 2003.
    It doesn’t seem to cover proto-Maya or Mayan languages beyond Guatemala, but it was shrinkwrapped so I couldn’t look inside. You can read a bit more here.

  20. Thanks!

  21. The thead above is quite interesting, but I wished to remark upon your mention of the Berk Breathed cartoon, in which Opus sees his friend fail to speak proper woman, or rather, he speaks “pidgin woman.” I saw and enjoyed that one, and still chuckle inwardly at your mention of it.
    On another subject altogether, does anyone have any links or suggested titles to learn Niyaanja? I happened upon that one when the neighbouring Gujarati merchant let me know he had lived in C.A.R. for many years. I queried him a bit more tonight, and found out it’s not the Malawi or the Zambia (ChiChewa) dialect.

  22. I could have sworn I had a book on Nyanja, but apparently not. Anyway, the best site I can find on chiChewa = chiNyanja is here. Good luck!

  23. Steve @ language hat: I read today a very old posted comment you made circa 2006 on the patron of Chan Veracruz,Q. Roo: Don Norberto Yeh was mentioned in Nelson Reed’s 1964 book. Reed told American anthropology students that the prophecy of an emissary mentioned by Don Norberto Yeh was written in the Books of Chilam Balam and the holy books of Juan de la Cruz. It was in neither. After many decades, I have located the prophecy and translated it into English.

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