Cakchiquel Lessons

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A few notes about your word usage

Let me begin by saying that this was an interesting article and I am glad to have found it. However, as an American-born white person who has studied Peninsular Maya as well as a bit of K'iche', Kaqchikel, and Mam, I must address an uncomfortable but important topic with you. First and foremost, what needs to always be remembered is that, as an (I assume) non-Indigenous person operating in a non-Indigenous-centered world, your voice will be listened to and believed more by whites over that of a native person. With that said, it is vital that when you say anything regarding a language and culture that (again, I assume) are not yours, it be 100% true and that your mentioning it is relevant to your own voice and experience. When you say things that are not necessarily true or lead your audience to generalized or simplified conclusions, you can do harm to the image and stories of Indigenous people, even if these instances arise from misconceptions or simple errors. For example, the word is either saqar/saqarik/xseqer in modern orthography (comes from the root saq=white), or sakar/sakaric/xseker in colonial orthography, definitely not sakariq or xsequer. My mentioning this minor error may seem petty or know-it-all-like but I bring it up only to show that it demonstrates an unhealthy power imbalance between you and the people whose language and culture you are presenting to the non-Indigenous world: you are unable to accurately present how their language is spoken, yet for some reason are taking on the responsibility of dissecting Kaqchikel sentiments about their own language. In another direction, using exotifying language, like when you say: "The greatest challenge faced by the learner of a Mayan language is not the mouth-contorting pronunciation, but the degree of local variation..", is demeaning and white-centering because, firstly, you are assuming that your audience is not Maya, and secondly, that Mayan languages are more "mouth-contorting" in nature due to their exotic phonology in relation to Indo-European languages (It is also worth mentioning that what you said in that sentence is not even necessarily true for all Mayan languages). In the same vein, "quaint"-ifying or over-poeticizing aspects of Indigenous languages is also a form of exotification, like when you say: "A tortilla is weij, while bread is kaxlen weij—“white people’s tortilla.” Kaxlan way means "Spanish tortilla." This is a common way in all languages of naming something foreign, see English "Swiss cheese" or "Italian ice". In the Anglosphere the concepts "cheese" and "ice" existed previously, but when new foods entered the Anglosphere, they were named based on where they came from/who ate them. What you say may be true, that some Kaqchikel speakers think of bread as the "white person's tortilla" (I have never discussed this topic with a Kaqchikel speaker) but that is different from saying that the word kaxlan way means that. I hope that you will take to heart my criticisms.

Zander Buchlaw more than 2 years ago


Mr. Buchlaw's attempt to cast my use of "mouth-contorting" as "white-centring"—what a hideous term!—is superficial and disingenuous. My column was written by a non-native speaker for non-native speakers. Cakchiquel speakers don't need a column like this.  Non-native speakers—a group which may include many people who are Mayan by descent—will find pronunciation "mouth-contorting," just as the pronunciation of English, French or German will be "mouth-contorting" for someone whose native tongue is from an unrelated linguistic tradition.  The New York Times of 11 June 2017 quoted an ethnically Haida actor, who was trying to re-learn correct Haida pronunciation for a role in a film, as reporting, "If you don't speak it, you lose the hollow in the side of your cheek."  There's nothing racist or "demeaning" in this practical linguistic observation.

In 2017, when I interviewed the Maya-Cakchiquel folksinger Sara Curruchich, I asked her about the variant dialects of Cakchiquel spoken in Patzicia, Chimaltenango, Antigua or her native Comalapa. Her reply was that we must see the different words used in different places as part of the richness of Cakchiquel rather than trying to regiment Mayan languages into a European ideal of uniform usage. To insist, as Mr. Buchlaw does, on the Western empiricism of statements that must be "100% true" is to distort the Mayan cosmovision. Rigoberta Menchú has pointed this out, as have major scholars of contemporary Guatemala such as Arturo Arias and Greg Grandin. Pedantry about spelling, when referring to a language that is largely unwritten, is misdirected. I wrote "Sakar" because that's how my teacher, a native speaker from a mountain village near Antigua, wrote it.  That's her variant, her truth. If Mr. Buchlaw thinks that he is right and the native speaker is wrong, I would invite him to rethink his relationship with Indigenous languages.  Likewise, my use of "kaxlan" reflects the way the word is used in conversation as a disparaging—though not always entirely hostile—reference to white people or outsiders, regardless of whether they are perceived to be "Spanish."   That's why I use it that way in my novel The Path of the Jaguar (2016), and, far more importantly, why this usage of "kaxlan" proliferates in one of the major works of contemporary Guatemalan literature, Rodrigo Rey Rosa's novel, El país de Toó  (2018) (forthcoming in English translation in 2022). As linguists tell us, the spoken language propels usage and language change, whatever the philological history may be.

Stephen Henighan more than 2 years ago

aprendiendo kaqchikel

Interesante tu experiencia sobre el aprendizaje del idioma maya kaqchikel. No logré comprender en toda su dimension las dificultades que enfrentaste, pero percibo tu impresión por el rechazo de algunas gentes a hablar en sus idiomas mayas. En la Antigua Guatemala, el pragmatismo de la gente propicia que incluso algunos mayas se inclinen por aprender inglés para poder vender sus productos a los turistas extranjeros. Por otro lado, las diferencias dialectales se dan en todos los idiomas, en Guatemala el problema se da a la hora de escribir. Esta es una de las preocupaciones de la Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala que está tratando de unificar las estas diferencias que se dan a lo interno de cada idioma. No obstante, y en mi opinion debo decir que va a ser bastante dificil realizar esta unificación, debido a que los idiomas mayas tienen un origen cultural y cada pueblo interpreta y transmite los fenómenos sociales de acuerdo a su realidad circundante. De ahí que las diferencias dialectales se acentúan de pueblo en pueblo aún cuando pertenezcan al mismo grupo etno-lingüítico. El idioma mam de Huehuetenango difiere del que se habla en las comunidades de San Marcos, y estos a su ves de que se habla en Xela. ¿Cómo crear un diccionario único que englobe toda la terminología del idioma mam, k'iche, kaqchikel, q'ekchi, etc?. Como dicen los mejicanos, "ta cabrón". Definitivamente no ocurre lo mismo con el frances, el alemán...

azarías perencén more than 11 years ago

Muy buen articulo!

La transculturacion en nuestros pueblos acompañados con las necesidades economicas han forzado a muchos hablantes de diversos dialectos, a adaptarse -para sobrevivir.

Seria una lastima que la riqueza de nuestra herencia cultural se pierda... Gracias por compartir este articulo!

Jose Figueroa more than 11 years ago

Art 101, Central LA

Read this with interest after teaching Americas chapter in Art 101 at LA Trade Tech College last night. One of my students, fluent in Cakchiquel, pointed out that there are many Mayan dialects, not just "Glyphs." I consulted web to figure out how modern Mayan languages are written and stumbled on your illuminating account.

Carolie Parker more than 11 years ago


Qa chabel e jabel. yin ninwajo ri tzij pa qa chabel. Patzicia es mejor lugar para aprender Cakchiquel que Antigua. Mejor todavia en las aldeas.

Margaret Blair Young more than 11 years ago