The most beautiful Mayan words in the Spanish language

Mayaisms add a poetic side to everyday conversation

Street art at the Mercado Principal in Campeche, Mexico. Photo: Getty
Street art at the Mercado Principal in Campeche, Mexico. Photo: Getty

Can a word be beautiful? A linguist at INAH thinks so, especially Mayan words that have crept into the Spanish language in Yucatan.

“My favorite Maya word that is used in Spanish and that I think is the most beautiful is “chamaco,” says Fidencio Briceño Chel, who coordinates the linguistics department at the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

“Chan” in Peninsular Maya means small, while “maák” means person.

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{ Related: The Modern Yucatan Dictionary, fifth edition, is a fun-to-read guide to the language as it’s spoken on the Yucatan Peninsula. }

And so “chamaco” is a friendly term for boys. The word is popular not just in Mexico but also El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

What most people know as the “Mayan language” is actually a linguistic family of around 30 different languages. They are used in the Mundo Maya, which covers the southeast of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Although part of a linguistic family called protomaya, they are completely different.

BBC World spoke with Mayan linguistic experts to share some Mayisms, or Mayan words that are commonly used by Spanish speakers.

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For Briceño, another of his favorite Mayaisms is “cachito,” meaning a small part of something.

“It’s an onomatopoeia. When something breaks, for example a piece of wood, it sounds like ‘cach,’ which is a Mayan language classifier for broken things, and from there the word ‘cachito’ was formed,” says Briceño.

“And once I was surprised when in Argentina I heard someone said that I was going to give him a patatús,” he says.

Patatús is a set of Mayan words that means a fake death, or fainting.

Campeche is the name of a state and its port city on the Yucatan Peninsula. But in Mayan, it means “four ticks.”

“The region was known as the four kingdoms of the Peech, which means tick, and was a surname,” explains the Maya linguist.

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Spanish dictionaries list “campechano” as “affable, simple, showing no interest in ceremonies and formalities,” which is how the natives of Campeche define themselves.

In addition, a “campechano” dish is a sampler of different foods and a “campechana” drink implies a mixture of liquors.

For Miguel Güémez, author of a Yucateco Spanish dictionary, the Mayaism that he likes the most is “cacao.”

The word is of Mayan origin, although for many years it was thought to be Nahuatl.

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“Thanks to archaeological works in different places in Mexico and Guatemala, the glyph of the word ‘cacao’ was found, so experts had to accept its Mayan origin,” says Güémez, a member of the Mexican Academy of Language.

“The food of the gods,” as it is known, is an expression used in almost all languages ​​of the world, with a few variations.

Continuing with food, the expert cites “pibil.” In Mexico it is immediately related to the “cochinita pibil,” a pork roast. More precisely, “pibil” refers to “roasting underground, and it can be any food,” says the academic. This pre-Hispanic technique is still used today.

He also cites the word “cenote,” which is now a word known worldwide, especially by tourists who visit the Yucatan Peninsula. The name comes from the Maya “tz’onot,” which means “well” or “cavern with water.”

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One of the first recognized Maya contributions to the Spanish language is the verb “anolar,” which means to dissolve something, such as a candy or a pill, slowly in the mouth without chewing. The word was incorporated into the dictionary about 50 years ago.

The Mayan language is very beautiful, said Fidencio Briceño Chel. He says that Yucatecan accent in Spanish comes from the Mayan, which is a tonal language.

“For us the tone is very important and can change a lot,” he said.

For example the aforementioned “cach” means that something broke, but “caach” implies that it’s nobody’s fault that something broke.

“It’s something that we linguists call a passive voice,” explains Briceño Chel. “That’s how it happened or that’s what fate wanted, you’re not guilty, neither you nor me nor anyone else.”

It is typical of the Maya culture to want things to be quiet, in peace. It’s in the language and in the culture, he said.

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