A NY Times story by Randal C. Archibold describes Baktun, a Mexican soap opera of a new sort: for one thing, there’s no kissing, and for another, it’s in Maya.

Baktun (pronounced bak-TOON) refers to a megacycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar and was deliberately chosen as the title in light of the attention it received last December, when widespread misinterpretations fanned on the Internet led people to claim that the end of the world was nigh. In reality, one cycle ended and another began.
In the telenovela’s case, the cycle is a metaphor for life’s ever-changing chapters.
“We wanted to show you could still be proudly Mayan even in this modern world with mass media and digital communication,” said Bruno Cárcamo, the veteran film and television producer who made the show and previously oversaw a documentary on fading indigenous languages in Mexico. “Telenovelas are popular in the Mayan communities, too, but they are not presented in their language or their reality.” […]
“Parents often say, ‘Learn Maya for what? It’s better to speak English,’ ” said José Manuel Poot Cahun, 26, who plays the role of the scheming brother and grew up speaking both Maya and Spanish. “But many of my friends are wondering why they didn’t learn Maya as children.”

You can hear a lot of the language (subtitled) in this two-minute trailer. I got the links from this MetaFilter post, which sparked this excellent comment by a linguist studying Mayan linguistics; here’s an excerpt:

The language this telenovela is being broadcast in is called Maya or Maya Than by its native speakers (also spelled Maaya T’aan, Màaya T’àan, etc, depending on which spelling system you use). Historically and traditionally, that was just a name for the one language, and not a name for the whole family. It is still the name for the language that’s in common use in Mexico.
But then linguists needed a name for the whole language family. So they borrowed the name of this language, and coined the term Mayan languages. (This is like how we’ve got a family of Germanic languages named after German.) Similarly, they coined the term Mayan peoples to refer to all the speakers of all the Mayan languages. (This is like how historians will talk about the Germanic tribes who spoke all those Germanic languages.) These are not traditional terms — speakers of K’ichee’, Q’eqchi’, Mam, etc etc etc did not used think of themselves as “Mayan.” But they’ve caught on in the past few decades, so that younger K’ichee’- and Q’eqchi’- and Mam-speaking people definitely do now self-identify as “Mayan.”
But now what if you want to refer unambiguously to The Language Formerly Known As Maya Than? If you say “Maya” around a bunch of linguists, they won’t be sure whether you’re talking about that specific language, or about the whole family, and that’s inconvenient. So linguists made up another term for that language — since it’s spoken in the Yucatan, they started calling it Yucatec Maya, or Yucatec for short, to specify that they meant that specific language and not any of the others in the family.

That’s what I call good populist writing, clearly explaining some fairly technical stuff to people who know nothing about it. And the comment goes on to discuss how language activists are trying to replace Spanish loanwords: “Think of it as cultural resistance. If your language is dying out due to pressure from Spanish, and you want to fight back, it’s gonna be really tempting to go all the way with it, and try to stamp out the Spanish influence altogether.” No condemnation, just explanation. Good stuff.


  1. “Germanic” wasn’t named after German, but after the Germani, right? I mean, it’s only in English that they’re similar (which no doubt contributes to the mistaken notion that English is descended from German). In other languages there’s a clear distinction: germanisch/deutsch, germaans/duits, germánico/alemán, germanique/allemand, germanico/tedesco.

  2. I assume there are already many (Yucatecan) Maya language baseball broadcasts. Sunday baseball is a longstanding village tradition in the Yucatan.

  3. Keith: Which is why Teutonic was historically used instead, though the name Teutones is Latinized Celtic in form and the specific tribe may well have spoken a Celtic language (the Greeks and Romans were never good about sorting out the Celts from the Germanics). The history of Germanic in English makes it clear, though, that it has often been applied to modern Germans and German things: in 1602 we have “The invention [of printing] was Germanike” and in just four hundred years later we have “Knodeln are big in Germanic kitchens.”

  4. I assume there are already many (Yucatecan) Maya language baseball broadcasts. Sunday baseball is a longstanding village tradition in the Yucatan.
    Very likely—I learn from Wikipedia that “Yucatec-language programming is carried by the CDI’s radio stations XEXPUJ-AM (Xpujil, Campeche), XENKA-AM (Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo) and XEPET-AM (Peto, Yucatán)”—but radio is hardly the cutting edge of modern popular culture.

  5. The naming of the Germanic family has been a bit contentious. Today there might be a clear distinction in German between Deutsch and Germanisch, but Grimm of course wrote ‘Deutsche Grammatik’. The link between the family and modern German was pretty strong there, but also caused a backlash, with some (including, if I remember right, a lot of Scandinavians, such as Rask) preferring to refer to the ‘Gothic’ languages.
    Anyway, there is history there, but I wouldn’t say the article’s comment about ‘Germanic’ was particularly wrong. The choice of names was far from a purely antiquarian quibble, and even if it’s not particularly political today, it was definitely once very much tied up with contemporary identity politics.

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