Las Americas

Guarded Language


It’s a couple of days after Mel Gibson’s Mayan fantasy Apocalypto opened in the United States, and my wife and I are following a young Mayan man, Agosto, through the Yucatán jungle. A tour guide and biologist, he’s showing us a group of spider monkeys that live on the Punta Laguna preserve run by his village. It’s late afternoon, and while rain clouds gather, Agosto offers to show us around so the other guides can go home. As we walk down the slippery paths, he tells us about the place in a Spanish that’s remarkably easy to understand, probably because, as for us, it’s his second language; his first language is Yucatec Maya, the language that’s notoriously used for what little dialogue there is in Gibson’s bloody confection.

Yucatec Maya (or simply “Maya” if you’re in the Yucatán) is spoken by a million or so people on the peninsula, in Belize, and in northern Guatemala. As we travel, we notice it everywhere: in the markets, the hotels, even written on the plaques at Mayan ruins along with Spanish and English. (In other parts of Mexico, the signs appear in Tseltal or Nahuatl, other local indigenous languages.) Because we’re traveling for nearly a month, I figure wouldn’t it be cool to learn some words of Maya, to be able to bust it out while buying fruit or asking directions, not out of necessity—we can do everything we need in Spanish—but because of all the things one encounters as a traveler, language leads to some pure, real connections. Buying something? In my mind, handing over currency always reinforces who’s a tourist and who’s not, who has money and who doesn’t. Simple greetings and politenesses? That’s real, but anyone can do it. Kissing? Out of the question—this is my honeymoon.

I ask Agosto the Maya word for monkey; it’s something like maax (pronounced “maash”). I ask the word for “howler monkey,” and he says something else. Which is when I encounter the first of several difficulties in my adventure in Maya: I didn’t bring a notebook, and I have a memory like a sieve. Ten feet down the path I’ve forgotten the word for “howler monkey.” And if I did have a notebook, now’s not the time to whip it out, as wet limestone ridges and tree roots block the path we take with our eyes to the trees, hoping to see a monkey chuckle across the sky through the branches.

A lot of the Apocalypto press describes Yucatec Maya as an “ancient” language, which isn’t accurate. Though it’s a descendant of the Classic Mayan spoken by the inhabitants of the empires whose ruins we admire, it’s a very contemporary language, beset by all the problems faced by indigenous languages in Mexico and elsewhere in the world: Young people opt to speak the dominant language; the government doesn’t support indigenous-language education; the indigenous language carries a stigma. This is the next set of obstacles I encounter in my Mayan learning plan: It’s not a language that native Mayan speakers seem to be happy to have outsiders speaking.

At one museum bookstore, I found Maya For Travelers and Students, a remarkable book published in 1995 by the University of Texas Press and written by linguist Gary Bevington. When he describes how to learn Maya—not in classrooms, but in the field, where everyone’s a teacher and no one will cut you slack—he knows what he’s talking about. He set out over multiple summers (many of them in a camper) to learn Yucatec Maya. The book is a lucid guide to the language itself, its grammar and its sounds, which include some interesting consonants pronounced with a popping sound. Because no Yucatec Maya word has a dominant stress on any syllable, speakers have a fluid, singsongy, swishing quality—it’s attractive sounding to my ears, a language you want to hear more of, not less.

Mayan sculpture

Culturally, Maya speakers tend not to go for big, empty promises, Bevington explains, unlike Mexicans or Americans do, so if you want to learn Maya, it’s not enough to say, “I’m really interested in the language.” You have to show people that you’re not just gawking. “Remember,” Bevington writes, “that from the native perspective you are an odd thing that dropped from the sky into the middle of their well-ordered and busy world. You are disruptive and confusing because people of your ilk are expected to be remote and generally disdainful of their world.”

Even if we were planning to return to Punta Laguna, it turns out that we need much more experience in how invested a person is in his or her indigenousness, and what situations will call it forth. Bevington warns against trying to speak Maya with hotel help at tourist resorts, and “anyone who sees himself or herself as official or important or sophisticated” should always be addressed in Spanish. Because Agosto also speaks English and Italian, and works for an Italian primatologist, we assumed we were dealing with someone Western and metropolitan. Someone like us. A person, that is, who understands that pimping out one’s tourism with some words from the language poses no threat.

But Punta Laguna didn’t make that so easy. It’s also an “alternatour” destination for ecotourists from Tulum and Cancun, who are attracted by monkeys, descriptions of ruins (indeed, there’s a small temple on the preserve), and the chance to see and meet real, live Mayas in their houses. One feature of the tour is talking to a Mayan shaman in the jungle who will, under the sacred ceiba tree, demonstrate traditional rituals. Unlike the ecotourists, we camped in the preserve. Early the next morning, Agosto came to wake us so we could see the monkeys moving. As soon as we popped our heads from the tent, we saw two male howler monkeys swing on branches over the road. He promised more spider monkeys, so we followed him on another trek through the jungle, and under the ceiba tree we bumped into the shaman, a man in his 50s with a deeply creased face, sitting near a fire. He also turned out to be Agosto’s father. Agosto introduced us and pointed out the altar, and we talked about the sack of copal, the aromatic tree resin, that he burns for ecotourists.

After we walked away, realizing that we’d just seen a sacred aspect of Maya life tricked out for tourists, I should have just said, in Spanish or English, thanks for introducing us to your father and showing us the altar and the ceiba tree, we’re honored by that. Instead, wanting to compensate for having seen a sacred aspect of Maya life, I said in Spanish to Agosto, “I’d like you to teach me how to say in Maya, ‘I’m pleased to meet you.'” (Because I should be prepared to meet a shaman in the jungle, right?)

Agosto stopped, turned to me, and quickly rattled off a long string of words, what sounded like 20 or 30 syllables. I lamely repeated a few syllables, left in his verbal dust. He rattled off the string again, just as quickly, then gave the Spanish translation. I shrugged. There was no following what he’d just said, and he wasn’t repeating. It occurred to me he might have been annoyed: It was 7 a.m., he’s a biologist, not a language teacher, and the question is ill-timed, a distraction. I was still confused, though. We thought we’d been having a genuine interaction with him. But the dark waters of the tourist sphere, in which the real and authentic are performed and sold, lay closer than we thought. People in Punta Laguna charge admission to their houses, so why not to the language, too? Or was the language where they drew the line? Agosto became chilly and left us behind to look for monkeys on his own.

We talked about Agosto for days, puzzling over what we’d encountered, even once we had reached Tulum, a Caribbean coastal city, to spend some time on the beach. I was going to take a few days off from asking about Maya; once we got back on the road, I’d resume. I still listened, and thought I heard someone say something in Maya that could have been “thank you,” but I wasn’t sure. Later that night, in a group conversation under a darkened palapa that served as the lobby of the hotel, the clerk, a young man named Jesús, asks me if I speak Spanish.

Yes, I say, then joke: “Do you?”

“Sort of,” he says. “I speak more Maya.”

I perk up—this is my chance. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Maya?”

He whirls around. “Who are you? Where are you from? Why do you want to know?”

I’m from Texas, I say, and I study languages, and we’re traveling in Mexico for a month, so I’ve been picking up some Maya words. He explains that his grandmother taught him that he should guard his language, because it was a secret. Then he tells a story about his uncle, a farmer, who had found a Maya ceramic that he had to hide: If the government knew he possessed it, they’d take it away.

I’m not a missionary, I say, and I’m not looking to buy artifacts, either. I’m just interested in the language. After he’s stated his position and I’ve stated mine, he says he thinks there are powerful intelligences on the planet that we don’t know anything about, and that he believes he is a holy man. He’s a little crazy, but the air seems to clear as far as Yucatec Maya is concerned, and a few words dribble out of him. He’s sitting with a stray puppy on his lap and offers that the word for “dog” is peek’.

Peek’,” I say. Where’s my notebook? It doesn’t matter. Somehow, I think that one will stick.

“Yes, peek’,” he replies.

Now, I think to myself, we’re getting somewhere.

Observer contributing writer Michael Erard lives in Austin and blogs at