Publishing Tzotzil.

Jessica Vincent writes for Atlas Obscura about the kind of development that warms my heart:

Taller Leñateros is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya book- and papermaking collective. Founded in 1975 by the Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop is dedicated to documenting and disseminating the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. And it does so environmentally, using only recycled materials (leñateros alludes to those who get their firewood from deadwood, rather than felled trees).

The project began when Past, escaping an unhappy marriage, traveled to the rural highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She wound up staying, and for the next 30 years lived among the indigenous women of San Cristobal’s surrounding villages. As she learned their language, she noticed that they spoke in couplets similar to those found in the Popul Vuh—the most famous and informative ancient Maya book yet discovered.

But none of these women could actually read or write Tzotzil. They used the historic, metaphor-riddled tongue in everyday conversation, but had never put their own words on paper. Inspired, Past got to work recording and translating their ancient Tzotzil poetry. Her hope was that, one day, they would publish the world’s first modern Maya book by the female indigenous community of Chiapas—and, in the process, grant us insight into both an ancient language and an ancient way of looking at the world.

Once 150 women agreed to let her record their poetry, Past bought property in San Cristobal. She set up a modest workshop there so that she and the women could collaborate. Past would transcribe and translate the recordings, and the women would produce the book using ancient Maya bookbinding techniques. […]

As Petra spoke, she turned the thick, grainy pages of Incantations: Songs, Spells, and Images by Mayan Women—the first book in over 400 years to be written, produced, and published by indigenous Mayas.

I’m guessing the “first in over 400 years” thing is an exaggeration, but still: great stuff. Thanks, Jack!


  1. Obviously, I knew what was meant, but the the suggestion of a “bookmaking collective” made me think of something else—as if, say, by pooling together as a community, the Maya women could afford to accept larger point spread bets.

  2. The Audubon Society published a story about a book published in Tzotzil just this past week, Slo’il xch’iel Chipilo Crisopario.

    An interesting linguistic tidbit from the article itself:

    De la Torre and his daughter Ana Guadalupe de la Torre Sánchez translated the children’s book to Tsotsil over four months. Some of the work was straightforward—the Tsotsil already have a name for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, for instance: K’anal ton sat Chipe. But in many instances they were starting from scratch. “It was very fun, but also very hard,” he says. “We had to come up with new terms quite often.” The Tsotsil people, for example, have only two seasons: vo’tik, the time of rain (April to October), and korixmatik, the time of lent (October to March). So they had to create names for the four seasons mentioned in the book: spring is Chk’ exp’uj yanal te’, the time when all the hills start to turn green; summer is Ch-och vo’tik, when the rainy season arrives; fall is Chlok’ vo’tik, end of the rainy season; and winter is Yora siktik, the coldest of times.

  3. I own a copy of Conjuros y Ebriedades: cantos de mujeres mayas with a wonderful paper mache mask for a cover. I suspect it’s the same book that Atlas Oscura is calling Incantations. I bought it on a trip to San Cristobal and other parts of Chiapas in 2003. (Bush was invading Iraq as we flew back to Mexico City.)

    I had my own minor linguistics hobby while there – I was attempting to learn “thank you” in each of the Mayan languages we stumbled into. I recall honish, bonish, and bocolish lavale, sometimes abbrevated to boco laval. Of course, this is my own transcription, based on an ear untrained in any such dialect, at a distance in time. I remember the ‘v’ being somewhere between b and the gu sound in Guatemala, where the G is barely present. I’d love it if someone here recognized the words I’m attempting to remember and write down, and would correct them for me.

    Nice to see the Taller mentioned here!

  4. I think “bocolish lavale”/”boco laval” is probably what is commonly found as “kolaval” for Tzotzil (which certainly has its fair share of underdocumented dialects, so I wouldn’t be surprised that there are variations). Most other Mayan languages that I know of have a variation on “-iyox” (iyosh): maltyox, tiyox, etc., so unfortunately drawing a blank on “honish”/”bonish”. Hopefully someone else recognizes those!

  5. Looking at the SIL dictionaries I find Ch’ol wocolix a wʌlʌ, wocol a wʌlʌ, and Tzeltal hocol awal.

  6. In Q’eqchi’, b’anyox, /ɓanjoʃ/. That’s probably your “bonish”.

  7. Wow! Thanks, PC and Y.

  8. Once again, I am staggered by the variety of questions that can get answered around here.

  9. Andrew Dunbar says

    Years ago after a few visits to Lake Atitlan I bought a dictionary and a grammar for Tz’tutujiil from the shop in Guatemala City of the government’s publisher of all the indigenous languages. I thought due to the language names Tz’utujiil, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal being so similar that they must be closely related. But now I see that though Tzeltal is closely related to Tzotzil, Tz’utujiil is on a pretty distant branch of the Mayan language tree and its closest relatives have totally different names.

    This makes me wonder whether we know the etymology of these languages’ names.

    The only Tz’utujiil word I managed to remember is “maltiox” for “thank you”.

  10. @Andrew, I took a gander:

    * Tzotzil, per the OED, from tsots’:bat (or sots’, soć in OED) + il:attributive suffix. So “of the bats” (though the dictionary also gives “vampires”, which gives a much cooler demonym meaning.)
    * Tzeltal, per the OED, past Spanish, “ulterior origin uncertain”
    * Tz’utujil, per Wiktionary, from tz’utuj:cornfield flower + il:attributive, thus “of the cornfield flower”

    There is also a preliminary Mayan etymological dictionary from FAMSI, but its data entry format is a bit weird. You can see the entry for bat, with a multitude of other language’s variations, on page 570.

  11. Wow, that’s great. Weird format, yes, but I’m glad it exists, and the introduction makes great reading if you’ve ever hankered to do field research. A random excerpt:

    In Summer 1967, I went to Chiapas to work on Mocho*, which I then knew as Motozintleco. I drove a station wagon that I had borrowed from the UC motor pool. In San Cristo*bal I came across Ray Freeze, a graduate student from the University of Texas who was there working on Lakantun of San Quinti*n, and we rented living and working space in the same building. He accompanied me to Motozintla, and we contracted with two speakers of Mocho* to work for me that summer, and we drove back to San Cristo*bal. I worked with the two speakers for 50 days. I collected a large vocabulary, including a monosyllable dictionary, and about 200 pages worth of transcribed texts. This was the first time I worked on a language with the aim of producing a dictionary. That summer, four friends of Ray’s, one of them being Peter Keeler, came to visit him for a few days, and we decided to visit Chicomuselo to see if we could find any speakers of the probably dead Kabil, then known as Chicomuselteco. We spent five days at this and did not find any speakers.

    In Dec 1967, at winter break, I went to work on Mocho* in Motozintla itself. Ray Freeze came down from Austin to help. I worked on the semantics of verbs and he worked on ethnobiology. In order to be able to help account for the results of linguistic borrowing, we decided to find out what the nearby Indian languages were in SE Chiapas, and recruited informants from nearby towns. In the process we discovered that in the neighboring town of Mazapa de Madero there was spoken a previously unknown Mayan language (most closely related to Mam) that was also spoken in Amatenango de la Frontera and in Tectita*n across the border in Guatemala.

    This latter point was established by interviewing a woman living in Motozintla who had been born in Tectita*n. This “new” language I called Teko because that was how local people referred to it, although in Mazapa itself locals called it “Cakchiquel” because that was what an ignorant local Ladino schoolteacher had told the people there that its name was in Spanish.

    After two weeks I went to Huixtla, Chiapas to work on Tuzanteco, the sister language of Mocho*. My wife came down to Chiapas, and she and I both collected data on Tuzanteco.

    In Summer 1968 I worked for a few days in Motozintla collecting grammatical information about the derivational possibilities of verb roots, then spent about a month in Huistla and Tuzanta*n working on building up a lexical and text collection for Tuzanteco.

    In 1968 I made a second mailing of the Mayan Vocabulary Survey. Results:
    Chontal: Keller 1968
    Chontal: Walker
    Ch’ol Tumbala* & Tila: Viola Warkentin 1968
    Ch’ol Tumbala*: Wilbur Aulie 1968
    Northern Mam: Canger 1968, Sywulka 1968, Lansing 1968
    Ixil Nebaj: Elliott 1968, Kaufman 1968

    Since I had no results of the MVS for Wasteko, Lakantun, Itzaj, Ch’orti7, Tojolab’al, Q’anjob’al, Southern Mam, or Poqomaam, I decided in 1969 that I would have to collect such material myself, or commission someone to do it. This began a period 10 years of work on documenting as many as possible of the Mayan languages, in the process establishing a research and training program that not only created large lexical databases of 19 dialects of 12 Mayan languages, but also trained more than 60 Guatemalan Mayan speakers to do linguistics, and provided several graduate students with dissertation topics in linguistics. The research program and infrastructure of the Proyecto Lingu”i*stico “Francisco Marroqui*n” was created in 1970 by me, Bob Gersony, Jo Froman, and David Drake. My trips for work in Guatemala ran from Dec 1969 to Aug 1979.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Re Tzotzil, Tseltal, these seem to be exonyms, i.e. speakers call their dialects Bats’i(l) k’op .
    Are you sure the OED is right and some (native) informant has not been telling porkies?
    There is at least (Tzotzil) tzotz = hair = (Tzeltal) stsots(el)/stsots(il)
    I think the il is a suffix, so the words may be identical in the two dialects (or differ by sts/tz).

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    They might simply be folk etymologies. In the world in general, I would guess that the great majority of autoethnonyms don’t have transparent etymologies for the people who bear them (and that half the rest mean “real people.”)

    Kʋsaas “Kusaasi”, for example, has no evident etymology in Kusaal, which has led some of the linguistically more imaginative Kusaasi to derive it from the Hausa kusa “near”; as far as I can see, there is no actual basis for this at all beyond the chance similarity of sound.

    In fact, the only ethnonym in that whole region that looks even potentially analysable is the Western Oti-Volta name for the Fulɓe, represented by e.g. Mooré Silmiisi, which could be derived from a word originally meaning “Muslims.” Maybe.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I suppose there are a fair number of ethnonyms derived from toponyms (at least in those cases where the toponym isn’t actually derived from the ethnonym in the first place.)

    Mind you, most of the toponyms involved aren’t etymologically transparent either … there don’t seem to be all that many groups that just call themselves “the Mountaineers” or “the Plainsmen” or whatever.

  15. Per Mr. Internet (I’m too lazy to track down the source): “Zinacantan is one of twenty-one Tzotzil-speaking municipios in the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. The name Zinacantan derives from the pre-Columbian epoch when Aztec traders named the region and its people Tzinacantlan, meaning ‘place of bats’ in Nahuatl. Zinacantecos refer to themselves as Sotz’leb, meaning ‘people of the bat’ in Tzotzil.”

  16. @PlasticPaddy/@David, you’re both likely right. I just had time to look in the usual places, no further analysis done.

    I think the il is a suffix, so the words may be identical in the two dialects (or differ by sts/tz).

    I agree that it’s a suffix. -Vl can have a few different meanings in Tsotsil/Tseltal. For example, one also uses it to indicate an “alienable” version of a normally “inalienable” noun. Ex. “s-tat” (his/her father) versus “tat-il” (the father). As well as, abstract noun possession — muk’:big –> smuk’al:its bigness. Plus, the aforementioned attributive suffix.

    Polian uses tsots in his phonological description, but only as an example of a word that undergoes o~a alternation. Thus, tsats-al, a marked possessive form. I don’t see any other mutation described (or dialectical variation) that would account for the l in Tseltal (nor do I see one in Polian’s dictionary). That said, tse(h)l does mean hill, which to David’s point about people being “the Mountaineers” could make the Tseltal “the Hillistines”.

    All of this to say, I’m not totally sure, but this is the information I have on hand. Perhaps someone else with a more historical linguistics/etymological eye can pull something from Polian’s chapter from Routledge’s Mayan Languages, which is where I got some of the examples above.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    an ancient language and an ancient way of looking at the world

    Harrumph. Like French, then?
    This is the linguistic equivalent of calling a woman “feisty” or an old person “spry.”

  18. David Eddyshaw says


    Good catch. I forgot about the Aztecs. They seem to have been fond of etymologically transparent place names, including the place names they assigned to areas outside the Nahua linguistic zone in their charming linguistic imperialism (if you didn’t speak Nahuatl you could hardly be said to be speaking at all, just gibbering. Bad as the Greeks.) It would make all kinds of sense for a Maya placename (and derived ethnonym) to be translated from a Nahuatl original. Come to that, this could easily just be a feature of the Mesoamerican culture zone in general, so there’s no need even to invoke Nahuatl. Not so much “bat people” but “people of the bat place.”

    Nobody really seems to know what Mexico really means, mind. “Navel of the moon” my … navel.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal place names are usually etymologically transparent, too, unlike ethnonyms. The difference is that there seem to be no ethnonyms at all derived from place names, only the reverse. In Mesoamerica, with town life going back a great many centuries, it must naturally have been a quite different matter.

  20. “Ancient navel of the ancient moon”, if you will. Ancients will ancient. It is their ancient way.

  21. I suppose there are a fair number of ethnonyms derived from toponyms (at least in those cases where the toponym isn’t actually derived from the ethnonym in the first place.)

    Well, the “ethno”nym of Americans (who are not really an ethnos) can be traced back to the Germanic name Emmerich, but what this means is a question: it may be a variant of Ermenrich ‘universal ruler’, Amalric ‘work-ruler’, or Heinrich ‘home-ruler’, or a combination of two or three of them.

  22. The tsots morpheme may be best known in the English-speaking world from Camazotz, the name for the death bats of Xibalba. (In the Popul Vuh, they bite the head off one of the Hero Twins, when he peeks out of his blow gun to see if the Camazotz have departed, so that the brothers can leave the house of bats.) Madeleine L’Engle, in turn, used Camazotz as the name of the shadowed planet where the climactic events of A Wrinkle in Time take place.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Amerigo would seem to be rather hard to derive from Ermanaricus.

    Emmerich can hardly be from anything with H-!

  24. This may all be folk etymology. Emmerich is a locational surname from Emmerich-am-Rhein on the German-Dutch border, which began as a Roman colonia named Villa Embrici . There is no Latin name *Embricus, but the name may well be Celtic rather than Germanic, given its location. Of course its Dutch name Emmerik looks like ‘amber-rich’, which is at least superficially plausible despite the geography.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    The town Emmerich gets its name from the river Eimer. This may indeed be a Celtic name but it may also be something else (there are a lot of Ambra/Ammer type river names in Europe, many in (formerly) Celtic areas but some not). I was unable to find a source linking the male name Emmerich with the town.

  26. I found no such source either, but … what river Eimer? The “am Rhein” part wasn’t added until 2000. The arms of the city show a bucket, but canting arms are a common thing everywhere.

  27. there don’t seem to be all that many groups that just call themselves “the Mountaineers” or “the Plainsmen”

    Dagestanis are literally “people of the Mountain Country”.

    And Dane means “flatlander” (the word related to English “den”).

    I am sure more examples can be found.

  28. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think there are competing theories about *daniz, but a number of them do describe their lands and don’t just mean “the people.” Except in the words Danmark and dansk, danne-, the tribal designation was dead for half a thousand years give or take and was necromanced by the romantic revival in the early 19th. So not even a vague sense of what it may once have meant is accessible to modern danes.

    (And the noun Dan /da:?n/ = ‘dane’ that was introduced is dead again, the modern language uses dansker. The eponymous (mythological) King Dan should probably have a long vowel and stød as well, but until I was writing this I had his name conflated with the modern boys’ name shortened from Daniel that has a short vowel).

  29. Dagestanis are literally “people of the Mountain Country”.

    But that’s not a self-designation; they “call themselves” that because that’s the official term for someone from Dagestan, but they actually call themselves Avars (аварал), Dargins (дарганти), Lezgins (лезгияр), etc.

  30. David Marjanović says

    de:WP says it’s not clear where the bucket comes from, and controversial whether the arms (known since the 1247) are canting. It cites this newspaper article from 2008 that treats the question, which apparently comes up very often, as a funny mystery without any hint of a solution beyond saying it’s not related to Embric(-). There’s no mention of a river (even though “bucket” wouldn’t be a weirder river name than “lip” or “leash”).

  31. But that’s how they call themselves – Dagestanis (дагъистаниял, дагъусттанлувтал, дагъыстанлар, etc).

    Saying that Dagestani is just an official term seems terribly offensive thing to say.

    It’s like claiming that “Indian” is just an official term, because they call themselves Hindustanis, Panjabis, Telugus, Tamils, etc.

    Yes, they do. But they also call themselves Indians, who are we to say which identification is real and which is just an “official term” for someone from India.

  32. January First-of-May says

    But that’s not a self-designation; they “call themselves” that because that’s the official term for someone from Dagestan

    In other words, the Dagestanis “call themselves” Dagestanis in much the same way as how the Belgians “call themselves” Belgians – they kind of do, but only because it’s the closest thing they have to a generic term for all the groups involved.

    (A vaguely similar situation happened with the Mordvins, but at least the Mordvin languages are fairly closely related; the Dagestani languages, IIRC, are less closely related than the Belgian ones.)

    etymologically transparent place names

    As I understand it, place names are supposed to be etymologically transparent; the problem is that they’re also very prone to getting borrowed by the next culture to come in, and/or just worn down by language change, making them effectively unrecognizable if you don’t happen to know the origin.

    It doesn’t help that every so often said next culture to come in reinterprets the name in their own terms; this infamously happened multiple times to the town of Eburakon/Eborakum “yew rowan place”, aka Eoforwic “boar town”, aka Jorvik “horse bay”, aka Yorwick “the town on the river Ure”, aka modern York (which no longer means anything).

  33. Yes, they do. But they also call themselves Indians, who are we to say which identification is real and which is just an “official term” for someone from India.

    You’re missing the point. This isn’t about theoretical justifications for nomenclature, it’s about traditional ethnonyms and their derivation. You might as well say “Well, my dog is called Sparky” when Indo-European ‘dog’ words are being discussed.

  34. Don’t see much difference. Plenty of traditional ethnonyms used to be politonyms.

    Anyway, Avars (“МагIарулал”). Ma’arulal means “inhabitants of the top grounds, mountaineers”.


  35. Excellent counterexample!

  36. Stu Clayton says

    You might as well say “Well, my dog is called Sparky” when Indo-European ‘dog’ words are being discussed.

    His name is Sparky. What he is called depends on his behavior at a given moment. Not unlike Haddocks’ Eyes.

  37. Trond Engen says

    Nawatl Scholar has a post where he reconstructs the name of godess based on a reconstructed image from a wall in Teotihuacan. Speculative, but very interesting.

  38. John Emerson says

    There are at least 120 distinct languages in the Caucasus, from at least 4 distinct major groups (Turkish, Indo-European, N Caucasian, and S Caucasian. )

    I recommend Ron Wixman’s “Language aspects of ethnic patterns and processes in the Northern Caucasus“ . He mentioned an area within which there were many minor languages, but the local lingua franca was a major language, Avar. The national language there was Azeri IIRC, but when the book was written also Russian. Everyone was necessarily multilingual except, I suppose, sequestered women in isolated villages.

    The degree of identification with language group ranged from none to intense (the Ossetes, as we know from other sources. ) in general marriages were regarded as endogenous if they were within the same religious group.

  39. Five, with NE and NW Caucasian. N Caucasian is not universally accepted.

  40. in general marriages were regarded as endogenous if they were within the same religious group.

    Johanna Nichols on matrimonial practices in the NE Caucasus:

  41. David Marjanović says

    N Caucasian is not universally accepted.

    Still not? I thought even Johanna Nichols had given up.

    Conversely, nobody seems to use the term “S Caucasian” for Kartvelian anymore.

  42. As far as I know, no one since Nikolaev and Starostin has done anything to advance the N. Caucasian hypothesis, and their work was questionable, so no news there.

  43. John Emerson says

    All Caucasians look alike to me.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    They’re all just so ergative.

  45. Ergative in the north, to be sure; but ughative in the south. (Non-rhoticity, y’know.)

    His name is Sparky. What he is called depends on his behavior at a given moment. Not unlike Haddocks’ Eyes.

    I think you mean Snowy. And it’s not Haddock’s eyes that are unusual, it’s his epithets (nicely deranged).

    N Caucasian

    As far as I know, it’s only the huge consonant inventories that are similar. In languages with monophonemic roots, distinguishing between loanwords and cognates is hopeless. Finally, NEC noun morphology is batshit insane, with 126 locative cases, whereas NWC nouns have only two or three cases altogether.

  46. I found the 200-page introduction to Starostin and Nikolayev’s dictionary, explaining all the sound laws claimed to act from PNC to the present-day languages. Unfortunately, there are practically no examples illustrating the reasoning behind these supposed sound laws. Even if there were plenty of examples and a clear exposition, it would be very tough to read and critique this material. Without them, it’s plain impossible.

  47. Trond Engen says

    John C.: Finally, NEC noun morphology is batshit insane, with 126 locative cases, whereas NWC nouns have only two or three cases altogether.

    Locative cases don’t have to be old. A language can add as many of them as it has postpositions to agglutinate. The interesting thing to compare is the underlying morphological template. Not to be a splitter where no splitting is asked for, but I may well imagine languages in close contact becoming syntactically and phonotactically similar as an areal feature and adding morphemes and syncopating vowels in parallel. We may imagine this happening easier to a subset of a family, i.e. with languages that are somewhat similar by nature, be it a branch by descent or an areal group of related languages.

  48. Case Systems
    A related problem concerns the number of cases. For example, a simple question such as “How many cases are there in Russian (Hungarian, etc.)?” will yield very different answers depending not only on the definition of case, but also on other factors, both formal and functional. To take one example, on some counts, Daghestanian languages of the Caucasus, feature hundreds of cases, which is due to a very elaborate system of locative relations. This view was shown to be untenable (Bernard Comrie, a famous typologist, humorously refers to it as “Daghestanian case hoax”). Indeed, the alleged case markers are actually combinations of two different categories, and only one of them is related to cases, whereas the other is related to localization, and would be expressed by spatial prepositions (like English on, in, under, etc) or postpositions in other languages. On this analysis, the form χula-qas [house-PostElative] ‘from behind the house’ in Agul (a Daghestanian language) should be properly represented as χul-a-q-as [house-obl-post-elative], with the location marker -q- ‘behind’ and the elative case –as ‘from’. On the other hand, markers of localization when expressed through affixes (rather than adpositions) may indeed fuse with case proper, as happened in some Finno-Ugric languages.

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