B’ix a bèel? Ma’alob’, utz tèech? B’ey xan tèen. ****
Sounds Greek to me, the old saying goes. But, to almost one million people on the Yucatán Peninsula this conversation sounds normal – it’s Yucatec Maya, the indigenous language they speak at home.
How are you? Good, and you? Same with me!
Each Tuesday and Thursday evening, I greet my teacher at Mérida’s Academia Municipal de la Lengua Maya Itzamná with these same words. Named after the creator god of Mayan mythology, Itzamná, this publicly funded school attracts hundreds of students, most of them locals but also a few foreigners like me.
Imagine this: almost five centuries after the Spanish enslaved the Maya and burned all their books, this beautiful language endures!
I have wanted to learn Yucatec Maya ever since I spent three weeks volunteering in the village of Ek Balam near Valladolid. Three times a day I went to the homes of different families with whom I shared my daily meals, which were always prepared by the grandmothers – las abuelitas. More often than not, they didn’t speak Spanish, only Maya. We couldn’t communicate directly, and smiles and nods only get you so far, I am sad to say. Their children translated for us because the middle-aged generation is fluent in both Spanish and Maya. I hated this barrier and said to myself, Some day I will learn Maya!
Native speakers call the language Màaya t’àan, which means “Maya speech.” Linguists added the tag, Yucatec, to distinguish this Mayan tongue from the 27 other ones found in the Mesoamerican countries. All together, 6 million indigenous Maya in the Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas, and in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras speak a Mayan language.
B’ix a k’àab’a'? (What’s your name?)
In k’àab’a'e’ Jorge. (My name is George.)
Uts teech? (And yours?)
In k’àab’a'e’ ixka’ansaje Maria Josefina Citom Pool. (My name is teacher Maria Josefina Citom Pool.)
Jach ki’imak in wóol in wilikech. (Pleased to meet you!)
With each passing year, fewer and fewer young Mexicans of Mayan descent speak the language of their ancestors. My school, which stands south of the Main Square near the Church of La Ermita de Santa Isabel, is attempting to reverse that trend. Among the other 15 students in my class are a group of university students. Actually, I’m not the only foreigner in the beginners’ class: Raphael is from San Francisco, California and plays the viola in the Yucatán Symphony. Married to a Yucatecan, he’s as eager to learn Maya as I am. Already, he answers questions confidently and quickly.
If you saw Mel Gibson’s movie, Apocalypto, you also heard Yucatec Maya. Native speaker Hilario Chi Canul from the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo state translated the script from English into Maya and served the actors as language coach. Whatever your opinion is of Gibson and this film, it has served to bring the Mayan language to a wide audience.
Yucatec Maya sounds nothing like Spanish and in some ways shares “hard sounds” like “ch” with Germanic languages such as English. My brain aches by the end of each class – I’m learning a foreign language in a different foreign language; all of Maestra Maria Josefina’s explanations come first in Maya and, if we don’t understand, then in Spanish. English doesn’t enter the picture unless Raphael secretly explains our assignments to me.
Want to hear what Yucatec Maya sounds like? Click here.
Do I really think that I will speak Maya after completing this class? No, I’m afraid not. But, I’ve begun to recognize words that I hear on the street and this is progress.
I look forward to the day that I can return to Ek Balam, walk up to the house that Doña Celestina shares with her family and say,
Ba’ax ka wa’alik? Ko’ox hana! (What’s up? Let’s eat!)
**** Pronunciation Guide:
B’ix a bèel? (Beesh ah bell?) How are you?
Ma’alob’, utz tèech? (Mah ah loh. Ootz tay etch?) Good, and you?
B’ey xan tèen. (Beh eh shan tay ehn.) Same with me.
Ba’ax ka wa’alik? (Bah ash ka wah ahlik?) What’s up?
Ko’ox hana! (Koh ohsh hah nah!) Let’s eat!
Academia Municipal de la Lengua Maya Itzamná
Address: Calle 64-A No. 536 between 77 and 79, Ermita. Mérida, Yucatán, C.P. 97000
Tel: +52 (999) 924-0841
Tuition: MX$500/US$50 for two two-hour classes weekly for five months.
Additional Information: Classes are taught in Maya and Spanish. The instructor is unlikely to speak English.