A Quick Primer On Q'anjob'al And Other Mayan Languages

Sep 10, 2019

A group of Lake Worth high schoolers who call themselves the “Mayan Girls” have been working to translate important information — everything from vaccination information to hurricane awareness — into Mayan languages.

The girls mostly translate into Q’anjob’al, a language spoken primarily in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. It’s the most common Mayan language in Palm Beach County, where Guatemalan Mayans make up a sizable portion of Jupiter and Lake Worth’s immigrant populations.

Here’s high schooler Ramona Francisco reciting the information from a Spanish flyer on domestic violence in Q’anjob’al.

She sometimes uses Spanish “loan words,” words or phrases borrowed from another language — mostly numbers, in this case. For example, at about 0:33, you can hear her say “veinticuatro horas,” or “24 hours,” followed by the Spanish numerals for a phone number.

Ryan Shosted, a professor in the linguistics department at the University of Illinois who’s worked with Urbana-Champaign’s Q’anjob’al-speaking community to research the language, said one feature of Q’anjob’al and most other Mayan languages are what are called “glottalized sounds.”

“They’re produced with kind of this sharp popping sound,” he said.

Here's Shosted giving a general idea of how a glottalized sound differs from a non-glottalized sound. 

They’re not clicks, like in Khoisan languages from Africa, but they do similarly involve drawing air into the mouth rather than expelling it.

Here’s Francisco again, reciting the last few lines in Q’anjob’al of a reminder to make sure children are vaccinated against measles.

Q’anjob’al and other Mayan languages are separate languages, not dialects.

Shosted, the professor, pointed out that the “language” label is often a reflection of power — as one adage says, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” — rather than a reflection of its difference from other languages.

“People get to call the thing they speak a language if the have socioeconomic and political power,” he said.

The consensus among linguists, though, is that Q’anjob’al and other languages are just that — languages.

And while some Mayan language speakers may also speak Spanish, they aren’t related. The more than 20 Mayan languages spoken today form a distinct language family. It’s separate from the Indo-European language family, which includes Spanish and English but also languages as varied as Persian and Russian.

Languages in the Mayan family are similarly varied, Shosted said.

“You can’t understand Russian just because [it belongs] to the same language family as English does,” he said. “In the same way, you can’t anticipate that people who speak one Mayan language will understand and be able to converse with speakers of another Mayan language.”

That variation is why the Mayan Girls are trying to recruit other students to help them translate into different Mayan languages — their Q’anjob’al recordings can’t reach speakers of K’iche’ or Mam.

When Hurricane Dorian was approaching South Florida, they worked with the Guatemalan Consulate to provide translated audio about shelters, evacuation zones and other information in several other languages.

For those who want to add a little Q’anjob’al to their repertoire, though, high school junior Lorena Felipe Sebastian offers a couple useful phrases.

An added fact for people who are better-versed in linguistic structure: the Mayan languages are ergative-absolutive, rather than nominative-accusative, like English and other Indo-European languages.

To oversimplify, that means the subject of sentences in Mayan languages behave differently depending on whether they’re paired with a transitive (can have one or more objects) or an intransitive verb (doesn’t allow direct objects).

Here’s linguist Ryan Shosted explaining some of the basic differences.

For more information, read Notes on Language Creation.