Maya Glossary: Jump into The Reality of Another Language
Mexico’s native tongues, among them Maya, aren’t just languages, but a different and vital way of looking at the world.
Language is one of the most fascinating manifestations of human communication. Articulated through sounds, or other sign systems, it’s a way for people to enunciate their existence and, therefore, their identities.
When a large or small community shares such a system, and with a writing system, it’s known as a language. A universe of words, of course, it’s full of symbols and meanings, and these provide people with the possibility of interpreting, translating, and sharing a myriad of things.
Mexico’s linguistic landscape is immense. In addition to Spanish, 364 linguistic variants are spoken. These come from 68 groupings or languages. That means that there are 68 separate ways to put the world together and 364 nuances to doing so. Each one is its own dimension. Each allows us to continuously encode and decode reality. On its own, that fact is frankly beautiful.
Within this universe, rich in possibilities for thinking, feeling, and transmitting knowledge, we find the Mayan language. Known too as Maayat’aan by its speakers, it’s the second most spoken linguistic grouping in Mexico after Nahuatl. According to the Atlas of Indigenous Peoples, 795,499 people are currently Mayan speakers. In principle, that fact would seem to indicate that Mayan is not at risk of disappearing, but a sea of prejudice persists against native languages. In general, the number of speakers decreases year after year, or the number of speakers remains the same despite the fact that the population continues to grow. Thus, all languages are in danger of disappearing, if only to different extents.
The Maayat’aan language is concentrated, geographically, in the states of Yucatan and Campeche. Fortunately, there is an initiative that does invaluable work: to recognize its relevance and value as a way of honoring the current culture and its future generations.
Revitalizing the Mayan Language
Baktún Pueblo Maya is an initiative that, for more than 10 years, has worked on the Yucatan Peninsula to promote the transmission of knowledge, generation to generation, of the living Maya culture. In the project’s own words, “to honor the wisdom, knowledge, and Maya Cosmology is a contribution to the humanity of today,” and this positioning includes, of course, the work of revitalizing the language of the region.
Baktún does this directly and indirectly through comprehensive programs developed hand in hand with communities. They promote the “celebration, conservation and transformation of biocultural heritage, catalyzing cultural projects that contribute to social, economic, and natural regeneration and to individual and collective well-being.”
Since one of the best ways to revitalize and value a language is to know it, below is a brief list of words which are otherwise untranslatable, and which invite us to see the world through new eyes.
The expression in Mayan means “joyful spirit.” It’s a way of expressing emotion and refers to a state of physical, mental, and spiritual fullness intrinsic to all people.
This word means literally, “first fruit.” Within Maya culture, the first corn harvest represents a gesture of gratitude to the Earth. Thus, the Waji Kool ceremony is held, and food and the fruits of the corn harvest are shared with the entire community. It’s an act of solidarity and an offering to the mastery of nature.
The word means “to work together.” To Maya people, collective work is fundamental, as it’s a basic tool for living in a community, exchanging knowledge, practices, and culture.
The word means “sacred bee” and refers to the melipona bee species. The bee is easy to recognize as it has no sting and because the honey has profoundly medicinal properties.
This word is used to designate healers who master chemical and medicinal knowledge of herbal medicine. Such people may be herbalists, midwives, bonesetters, or others.
Language has an indisputably magical quality: it’s possible to conjure other worlds. One, for example, in which humans cease to be alien to their environments and understand themselves as part of that environment – as the Mayan language does. Perhaps the British writer John Milton was right when he described language as a device capable of restoring the link with the sacred, that which is worthy of veneration and respect.