Sunday, February 26, 2012

T'saan : Mayan for beginners

I had been waiting for a long time for a chance to attend one of the "Conversations with friends" nights at the Mérida English Language Library. They run for a couple of hours every Monday night. Conversaciones is for people who want to practice their Spanish or their English skills. I wondered how that would work, and which language would predominate.

We arrived late-ish (myself and friends Gail and Alfredo, also first-timers) and it was surprising to see about a dozen tables full of people, already in full gabfest mode. We were hived off to a couple of tables with people we hadn't met before.

There were no rules, the conversation just went back and forth from English to Spanish. More English than I would have preferred, though no doubt it varies from table to table, and week to week. One of our table-mates, Pablo, was pretty quiet, especially when the conversation was in English. But we got to talking about common Mayan words and Pablo was like a walking dictionary of the language.

I've been hoping to someday learn at least a bit of Mayan - it's spoken by half a million people here; in fact many Mayan people don't speak a lot of Spanish, so it is very useful to know some. Here are some of my first Mayan words, thanks to Pablo:

maquech - the beetles sold near the Plaza Grande, with tiny artificial jewels glued on their backs.
chan shipa - muchacho, boy
macachi-pek - shut up
purux - a fat person
dzao yan - skinny
mis - cat
ba oosh - how much?
hach ko - too much!
dios bo teek - thanks
chu huk - candy or sweet
choko kin - too hot

Of course these are missing the accents and apostrophes. I haven't noted the emphasis on syllables, and pronunciation - it is such a musical, percussive language. No doubt some of them are mis-spelled or just plain wrong. Corrections and clarifications are welcome.

When I scribbled these words on  my note cards I felt like I had been let in on some big secret. Many people I speak to here in Canada are surprised to learn there are still Mayan people around, or that the language is widely spoken. 

So a couple of months later on another trip back from Mérida I was surprised to find a Spanish/ Maya dictionary in an airport convenience store. Not such a secret after all, I guess. I'm hoping to give the little dictionary a lot of use in the years to come.


  1. My understanding is that it is more correct to say "yom bo tech" (phonetic spelling) which means "I thank you" rather than "dios bo tech" which means "God thanks you". Generally it doesn't make a difference but "dios bo tech" can be a snarky thank you implying that the speaker is sure that God has noticed what an asshole you are and will be sure to thank you for your lousy behavior towards your fellow man. In any case, just making the effort to speak Mayan will often get you a really big smile especially if you are out in the countryside.

  2. Here's one that Hammockman taught me:

    In Lak'ech (which pretty deep): I am another you, and you are another me.