Monthly Archives: August 2012

Kab’lajuuj Ej – Part II – Summer 2012

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. 


Day 3-4:
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 :                                                                             (, 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’…

Tecpán Market

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…
* * *
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.
* * *
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.

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Filed under Kab’lajuuj Ej – Summer 2012

Kab’lajuuj Ej – Summer 2012 – Part 1

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. 

Day 0
Tecpan is located about halfway between Antigua and Lake Atitlán. The
drive was only about an hour and a half; much less carsickness than when we
drove up to the lake two years ago with my mother, Martina and Isa.
This could have been due to the good company in the car – six strangers,
gringos all, engaging in the chatter of subdued excitement when new groups
form. I’m sitting next to my future roommate, Danny. He seems to have a good
head start with Kaqchikel; he says he’d been living with an indigenous host
family for the last week or so. Nevertheless, I make a decent impression because
I can successfully pronounce (or parrot back) most of the cruel, impossible
articulations that populate the Kaqchikel sound inventory.
The rest of us in the van are at various stages of Kaqchikel proficiency. I
am at absolute zero, while others are even return students to the Wuqu Kawoq
program. I am more than a little nervous at being the baby in the group, so to
speak. What, is this language supposed to be hard to learn, or something?
* * *
Danny and I are the only boys in the group – and the girls are dropped off
first at their homestay once we arrive in Tecpan. I won’t lie, this isn’t a pretty
town. And even the prettiest of Guatemalan cities… So, I feel rather guilty at
shitting all over my new host-town in my current host-country – which I love –
but Tecpan does not make a favorable first impression.
It looks like many other urban areas in this country. It’s dirty, and dusty,
with basura strewn everywhere in the streets. I might’ve been expecting a quaint
little village in the highlands, but they tell me Tecpan’s population is actually
around 50,000. Mangy stray dogs. Buses deemed too old and with exhaust too
filthy for North America still rumble by with pride (I’ll never get over how deep
black that noxious exhaust is). Hand-painted signs advertise tiendas of all sorts
among the narrow streets, and pedestrians dodge passing cars with casual grace.
I’ve seen this sort of scene before; can’t say I missed it too much.

The backyard of my host family;s home

We pull up to our host family’s house. We are greeted by a smiling family of
five. Don Eliseo, Doña Hilda and three kids (two boys and one eldest daughter,
aged 6, 8 and 11 is my guess). The inner courtyard past the gates is picturesque:
I saw a cat, a bunny, three (or more) chickens with three (or more) trailing
chicks, the mandatory guard dog (a cur, of course); an old car; a pila, nexus of
many a Guatemalan home; some corrugated sheet metal saved for future roofing
and thus stacked to the side; and various odd and ends strewn about, much like
the streets outside (but admittedly tidier).
Danny and I are shown our room. It’s approximately 9 feet by 9 feet, with
two cots, a night table between them, and a pitiful three-legged stool. Danny
calls it a prison cell. That sounds about right. But our hosts are gracious and
serve a delicious dinner of tortillas, eggs and black beans as we get to know the
family. I tried something new that night: a hot beverage made from the water
used to soak the corn that goes into tortillas. It tastes like liquid corn flakes…kind of like a corn tea. I
liked it. Every one else, including the kids, were drinking coffee at 9:00 PM.
Our North American summer is the rainy season here. It
monsooned during our first night for a good hour, and Danny’s bed was
somehow dripped on… that must’ve sucked. Ten straight days of intensive
classes begin at 6:30 in the morning.
Let the games begin!
Days 1-2
Breakfast is served at 6:30 for the rest of the family, but they are kind
enough to let me sleep in until 7:00 for mine. Don Eliseo works at his carpentry
shop, the kids go to school, and Danny and I are off as well all by 7:30, leaving
the Doña at home to do the house chores.
The first morning session is a blur – four straight hours of full-immersion
Kaqchikel lessons, and I am lost. Really lost. Apparently, we were meant to
review that day’s chapter the night before; I didn’t know because the schedule is
in Kaqchikel (and neither did Danny). I struggle through the greetings – Xseqër
k’a (“good morning”), Xqaq’ij k’a (“good afternoon”), etc. I know my phonetics,
or should I say my phonetics theory, but it’s a different story altogether to hear it
in action. In the field. Identifying plain stops from ejectives, and velars from
uvulars, is going to take a lot of practice.
We are all given Mayan names, since this is a full (actually more like
90%) Kaqchikel immersion class. Mine is Waqi Tz’i’, “Six Dog”. I rather like it.
All Mayan (men’s) names are generated by two interlocking wheels of Mayan
cosmology: one with twenty months, and one with thirteen days. Apparently,
January 27, 1985 fell on the sixth day of the Dog month. I have a feeling my
next D3 character will be named Six Dog. A witch doctor perhaps…
Lunch is served at school, and then a lighter afternoon session lasts until
four. By two in the afternoon, the brainsponge is full – it can’t hold a drop more.
I anxiously look at my phone every ten minutes for the last hour because I just
can’t focus anymore. So this is what an intensive course is like.
I refill my pay-as-you-go phone for 50Q after school, then it’s right back
home to study – I feel like I’m already behind on the very first day. Dinner is
delicious as ever – black beans, tortillas, some local sausages called longaniza
(meat is a luxury, and we realize we are being treated), and the ubiquitous
Picamás green chile sauce. The kids are quiet at dinner for the first few nights.
They look at us foreigners with their big eyes – Danny in particular is a big man
with an imposing frame. Ex-marine, he kind of looks like a less ugly Danny Trejo
(of Machete fame). At times scary-looking, but a deep thinker, Danny represents
exactly the kind of eccentric, likeable character that finds his or her way to
* * *
After a decent night’s rest, and having actually prepared for class the next
day, the morning of day two goes much better. Not to say that I don’t
understand a single word of entire sentences on a regular basis, but it’s getting
better. I’m even feeling…confident, sometimes. I made myself some lovely charts
to organize the verbal paradigms the night before – score! My linguistics training
is good for something outside of the classroom.
Vocabulary is my weakest lesson type – the others have months of
experience in the slow, daily accrual of Kaqchikel words – but I feel competent
in my pronunciation, and I actually enjoy the more “hardcore” grammar lessons.
More and more often, I am referred to “the linguist” around here. I don’t know
how I feel about that – it entails high expectations and therefore it’s a lot of
Intransitive verbs, complicated kinship terms, adjectives, positionals,
more intransitive verbs. Some of it sticks on the spot, but it’s most effective for
me when I draw up my charts at night, after dinner. Also, a study session after
class at the girls’ homestay was quite helpful. They helped me with my
assignment for tomorrow: to present three new words with three accompanying
sentences. The girls, four in all, are all American, and they all study a
combination of Women’s Studies, Anthropology and/or Medicine. A very likeable
group, but I’m glad to represent the other half of humans here… as one of the
(female) organizers said to me yesterday, not enough men are involved in these
kinds of volunteer/outreach programs.

Doña Hilda, Juan Diego and Nati

Dinner was the same as always, but the kids are warming up to their new
guests. Little Francisco had spotted my computer and immediately asked if I had
games on there. Oh I do, little buddy, but I’ll hold off on showing him Minecraft
for a little while methinks. Juan Diego (or JuanDe as we call him) is crazy for
futból, and squirms at the table while the game is on TV in the other room. The
eldest, Nati, was working on her catechism homework: an arts and crafts project
on the thirteen names of the Virgin Mary. My host parents ask me what Canada
is like: I do my best in basic Spanish, with a coast to coast description, and I
finish by telling them that the single most important element of Canadian
culture is our universal love of hockey (“they skate on fields of ice!” was Don
Eliseo’s explanation of the sport to his children, as they nodded, smiling).
Xoq’a k’a, good night


Filed under Kab’lajuuj Ej – Summer 2012