Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 6, 2010 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

I've learned just enough Maya to exchange pleasantries with my friends. As such, I've developed some general impressions about the language you might enjoy knowing about. If you'd like a much more detailed understanding there are several pages just on Maya grammar at http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/grammar/.

My Maya friends are fond of saying that Maya is more like English or German than Spanish. What they're referring to is that in Spanish a preponderance of words end in soft vowel sounds, especially a, e, i and o, and you seldom hear the hard fricatives and stops of English and German. Maya does have those hard sounds, however.

The other day I was watching tadpoles with my friend Santos, who asked me what a frog is called in English. In Spanish it's "rana," a name a little girl would give her imaginary, pink-winged fairy godmother. When I told Santos it was "frog," after not speaking English for days, that word "frog" sounded so harsh and alien to both of us that as soon as the word was out we both had to laugh. But, in Maya, a frog is a "mutsh," which is just about as harsh sounding.

An important feature of spoken Maya is that, like French, a lot of words are contracted. Also like French, certain letters, especially the l at the end of a syllable, are dropped in speech. I've often thought that word contraction and the dropping of letters in French help make that language sound pretty and elegant to many ears, by smoothing it out. I suspect it's the same with Maya, though with the Maya my guess is that the thrust has been toward making the language sound dignified, not pretty and elegant.

For me one of the most disconcerting features of Maya is that certain pairs of letters in many words are basically interchangeable. The most conspicuous habitual letter exchange is between the n and m when they occur inside a word or end it. When I'm teaching English, my students are likely to call the moon the moom and the thumb a thun. In their minds it's completely irrelevant whether a word ends in an m or an n. They also habitually exchange the c and k, the a and o, the a and u, and the o and u.

In Maya there's no word for "yes." If you ask someone if it's raining, the reply will be a rephrasing of the question. If you ask "Is it raining?" the reply may be "It is raining," but there's just no way to say "yes" unless you slip into Spanish. Maya seems to be a language assuming that you have the time and will to spell out your replies. Maybe it also reflects a society that enjoys the details of everyday life so that it doesn't mind repeating what's said about them.

In fact, there's a certain feeling to Maya that to me evokes oriental philosophy. For example, each morning when my friends greet me with a "good morning," they say "Bix a bel," which literally means "How is your road?" A formal reply is "Hach toh in uol," which literally means "Very straight my spirit." An "evil doer" is a "lob u bel," or "bad his road." To be undecided is to be "ca ye ol," or "two-pointed spirit." To contemplate something you "nen ol," or "mirror spirit" it.

Habitually referring to their "road," the Maya at least rhetorically conceive of themselves as on a journey which, in an evolving Universe, we all are. By regularly referring to one's spirit, the role of spirituality in one's life is recognized, at least a little. Of course the Maya no more think of themselves as being on a spiritual journey when they speak everyday Maya than we really hope that the person we meet is having a good morning when we say to them "Good morning." Still, Maya consistently refers to people's "roads" and "spirits," while our Western languages don't, so there's something to think about there.

Maya strikes me as a profoundly more complex, richer and nuanced language than Spanish, maybe even more so than English and German. It's a shame that most young Maya are opting for Spanish with all those fleet-footed little words so predictably ending in a or o.