In June, my son Justin came to Guatemala for a month. Some of that time was dedicated to studying Kaqchikel in Tecpan. Justin is working on his Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Delaware and he has been showing a real interest in Mayan languages.
He allowed me to post some of his notes from his Kaqchikel learning experience.
Kaqchikel is an enchanting language. Even though I’m not much of a believer in Sapir-Whorf*, I can’t help but marvel at some of the phrases and expressions in this fascinating language. Fruit are not fruit, they are ruwech che: ‘the eyes of the tree’. Vegetables are not vegetables, they are ruwech ichaj: ‘the eyes of the ground’ (or plants, I’m not sure yet). Except this latter expression includes more than just vegetables: it includes annoying things like legumes and
gourds, and most of us students are convinced that dividing edible plant life into a straightforward binary of tree vs ground is quite sensible after all.
There is no word for fingers: instead, it is the ‘hair of the arms’. The front door is the mouth of the house, the roof the hair, and the bathroom, for some reason, the ears (?). The Parque Central, center of urban life in Central America,
is naturally the heart of the village. And so on…
Grammatically, Kaqchikel is any (adult) language learner’s worst nightmare. Not only are the phonetic articulations subtly fiendish themselves : (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaqchikel_language#Phonology), but right now, it’s the verbal morphology that’s kicking my ass. These last two days we have been learning transitive verbs, which a teacher here described as la gran lucha in Kaqchikel. Allow me to explain. The template for Kaqchikel transitive verbal morphology is as follows: Tense + Object + Subject + Root.
The word yinato: ‘you help me’ breaks down into y+in+a+to. Y indicates present tense, in– a first-person singular object, a– a second person singular subject and to simply means ‘help’. Change any participant in the sentence and you need to substitute a different subject and/or object prefix.
Fair enough, is the rejoinder, lots of languages work like that. However, each Kaqchikel subject or object prefix has two different forms based on whether it attaches to a consonant or a vowel. The possible permutations seem overwhelming; it sometimes takes a good ten seconds to build a single frickin’ verb in my head before I say it. A weird observation occurred to me today, too: you utter the word ‘left-to-right’ in real time, but you have to build it ‘right-to left’ in your head due to the allomorphy I alluded to above. And that’s just for the verbs. That’s saying nothing about the syntax, which I hopefully would like to study one day. Word order by and large seems quite free. Vamos a ver…
This 11-day intensive program seems grueling, at times. Early mornings, long days, late nights studying to catch up. But it is also rewarding: in leaving the bubble/playground of Antigua, I can learn about the Mayan culture of Guatemala. By the way, here’s another one: in Kaqchikel, Guatemala is Ixiumulew – literally ‘land of corn’. Indeed, for families like the one I am staying with, corn is interwoven into everyday life. It is served in some form at every meal (usually as tortillas). As my host father said jokingly, a Guatemalan family
that does not serve tortillas is not a good family at all. Every part of the plant is used too. The husks serve as wrappings for tamales, the cobs for firewood.
After every meal at my language school, the entire table must go through the ritual of matyox chi nuway. Literally ‘thanks for my food’, every single participant at the table must thank every other in turn. Matyox chi nu way, Waqi’
Tz’i’. –Ri ajaw xya’on (the Lord provides) is the reply. Seeing as how there are 6 students and 6 teachers at the table, my basic math skills tell me that’s 144 utterances. It takes a good 5~10 minutes. The first time I heard that we do this
after every meal, I couldn’t believe it. But by now I’ve gotten used to it…
The other day I learned about the huipil that Mayan women wear. I had seen it before even in Antigua. But out here in Tecpán, nearly half the women wear the complete traditional outfit, which is pretty good compared to other
Kaqchikel-speaking towns. Each huipil takes the weaver around two months to complete; and each town has its own pattern associated with it. Nowadays, it is common for women to wear another town’s huipil. My host father tells me that the tradition comes from the colonial days when the Spaniards forced the locals working on their land to wear identifiable colours in order to distinguish their labourers from other landowners’…
Thursday is market day in Tecpán. My roommate Danny went at the crack of dawn with the grandmother of the house to check it out. This grandmother is always smiling, missing a few teeth, and probably 4 ft. 10, no joke. Off they went, and Danny tells me the town center was 100% Mayan. Every woman donned a huipil, he said, and business is conducted in Kaqchikel at every stall. Is he exaggerating? I know he’s a big indigenous culture enthusiast. I’ll check it out next Thursday before I leave, I was too busy ‘sleeping in’ until 7:00 this morning
after another late night studying…
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Before I wrap this up, I’d like to straighten something out for some of my friends back home. Most of Guatemala is not a jungle. It’s highlands! Temperate and hilly; Tecpan itself is 7500ft in altitude. And even though it is summer in the northern hemisphere, it’s ‘winter’ right now in Guatemala. It is very cold at
night – even colder if your room’s only window has cracks in it you could put your finger through. And the Guatemalan winter is also the rainy season. This time of year, we get a good downpour at least every day. I hope this dispels the
myth, once and for all, that when I travel to Guatemala I spend time in some humid jungle with monkeys howling and poisonous snakes aplenty.
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Progress is steady, but this Kab’lajuuj Ey program is hard. There are many ups and downs. Intense study reminds me of the semester from hell that I just had at UD. My homestay is… authentic. But it’ll all be worth it in the end.
We have the weekend off thankfully, and on Saturday morning we’re going to visit the Mayan ruins at Iximche. A modern-day Mayan priest – the title is actually ‘day-counter’, so more like a calendarian – will conduct a ceremony.
I’m just glad I don’t have to conjugate hellish verbs that morning. And all I want is to sit down and enjoy one Euro 2012 game in full this weekend, and have a beer.
*The hypothesis that language strongly shapes a community’s world view.