I replied in Cakchiquel, the old man said in Spanish: “Don’t talk like that. That won’t do you any good in the world.”
Cakchiquel, the third most widely spoken of Guatemala’s twenty Mayan languages, is understood by more than 400,000 people. It is blessed with a larger population base than most Native American languages but is cursed by its location. Cakchiquel territory embraces the Westernized tourist towns of Antigua and Panajachel and most of the two-hour drive between them, a region of Guatemala where tourism, satellite television and the sweatshop economy have frayed traditional life. As I learned Cakchiquel, I found I was absorbing a language of which many Cakchiquels had grown ashamed.
I studied Cakchiquel in the colonial town of Antigua. Most of the surrounding villages are Cakchiquel-speaking, but many Cakchiquels prefer to speak Spanish when they go to town. The women fruit sellers in the raucous Antigua market are an exception, speaking in Cakchiquel on their cellphones to set prices for avocado or sapodilla fruit. Yet when I tried to bargain with these women in Cakchiquel, I received mumbled rebuffs. In their eyes, each word I uttered in their language was a slap at their “backwardness.” Later, hiking in the hills above town, I ran into an elderly couple who were speaking Cakchiquel together. They asked me in Spanish where I came from. When I replied in Cakchiquel, the old man said in Spanish: “Don’t talk like that. That won’t do you any good in the world.”
The disdain for their language that some Cakchiquels display internalizes the racism that has ruled Guatemala since the Spanish conquest in the 1530s. The 1996 Peace Accords that ended the country’s thirty-six-year civil war were supposed to change this. The systems for writing Mayan languages in the Latin alphabet, consolidated by Mayan intellectuals during the 1980s (the original hieroglyphic writing died out in the sixteenth century), became the basis for textbooks from which rural children could learn to write in Mayan languages as well as in Spanish. Poor funding, chauvinistic, corrupt governments and the ambivalent attitudes of many Mayan communities, torn between cultural preservation and the lure of modernity, have prevented most of the programs from being implemented. Maya who care about their languages decry this impasse. Many fear that without a presence in the school curriculum, the Mayan languages spoken by nearly thirty percent of Guatemala’s population could melt away. A written language, a language that appears in books and on billboards, they argue, is a language people want to pass on to their children. One night when my Cakchiquel teacher, a woman in her thirties, was preparing my lesson at home, her mother peered at her books. “If I’d known our language could be written,” she said, “I would have taught it to you better.”
To study a Mayan language is to bump your toes against the threshold of a universe that is local, specific, conservative yet ritualized. There are small, rewarding revelations. The fact that the same expression, käk winaq, describes both “foreigners” and “Spanish-speaking Guatemalans,” exposes Mayan marginalization. A tortilla is weij, while bread is kaxlen weij—“white people’s tortilla.” There are sumptuous idioms such as xepolpotijkï, “they flipped out,” used to describe people who have converted to born-again Christianity. Idealists seeking evidence of egalitarian pastoralism or New Age mysticism are doomed to disappointment. Traditional Cakchiquel speech, rich in agricultural concerns, was also obsessed with social rank and possessions. Cakchiquel contains a surfeit of words for “boss” or “leader,” and every noun is brutally possessed. One rarely says “the bread”; it is “my bread,” “your bread,” “her bread.” A large lexicon referring to the Mayan calendar and its rituals survives among shamans, but although Mayan spirituality is enjoying a revival, many Maya have lost this religious vocabulary.
The greatest challenge faced by the learner of a Mayan language is not the mouth-contorting pronunciation, but the degree of local variation. “Good morning” is sakar in my teacher’s village, sakariq across the valley and xsequer farther north. Never having become state languages, the Mayan languages have not been standardized. Each new textbook I studied used unfamiliar vocabulary, or spelled familiar words in unrecognizable ways. Frustrated, I longed for a fixed set of words to learn. I felt I could not learn Cakchiquel because what constituted “Cakchiquel,” unlike French or Spanish, changed shape even as I struggled to organize it in my mind. I almost gave up. Then I realized that Cakchiquel had a different lesson to teach me: the artificial nature of all language; the fact that systematizing speech and writing to make it generally comprehensible loosens the clasp between word and concept in which human speech originated. The language that serves the nation misrepresents the locality and distorts the intimate personal experience. In Cakchiquel’s parochialism and fragmentation lay the roots of its value. Ren ninjo yintamaq Cakchiquel jub’a chik: I want to study more Cakchiquel.