Maya Multilinguals?

by Stephen Houston

The story of Malinche tells us that, in some places, at some times, Mesoamericans spoke several languages: Malinche’s control of Nahuatl and Chontal [Acalan] Maya (and eventually Spanish) provided the conquistadores with essential information in their wild journey to dominance.

Malinche’s tale leads me in turn to reflect on what the Maya called their languages. The Paxbolon papers in Acalan refer to t’an [than] when describing the sum totality of a language (Smailus 1975:173), a term found across the Maya lowlands, including colonial Yukatek (Cuidad Real 2001:559) and as reconstructed in Kaufman and Norman’s valuable study of proto-Ch’olan (1984:133)[Note 1]. Colonial Tzotzil follows a similar line by calling “language” k’op (“word”) or, in the case of itself, batz’i k’op, “real,” “fine,” “true” or “pure word” (Laughlin 1988, I:162, 234-235; II:415). This accords with the common perception that all other languages — i.e., those spoken by people other than my own! — have some suspect or degraded quality. The linkage of these terms to broader notions of reason or sense, equally attested in these sources, and to social congress (including sexual relations) places such words squarely in the realm of meaningful and socially bonding vocalization. T’an represents the essence of what it was to be human.

The emphasis, then, was not on Ferdinand de Saussure’s langue, an abstract notion of language distinct from utterance. Rather, it stressed parole, the ordered, sensible vocalizations themselves. For this reason, the “mouth” or even “lips,” ti’ in Tzeltalan and Ch’olan languages, chi’ in Yukatekan, plays and played an unavoidable role in their formation. And hence, of course, labels for languages like Ch’olti’, “mouth [utterance] of the milpa,” or its descendant Ch’orti’. The former is known by at least in the seventeenth-century as a reference to the language of such crucial importance to Maya decipherment (Robertson et al. in press). Further, as has been known for some time in Maya epigraphy, words for “mouth” are documented syllabically with ti-i and as a logograph first identified in the early 1990s by David Stuart: TI’, a sign of a human face that became progressively stylized through time.

It is the latter glyph that interests us here. The Museo Príncipe Maya in Coban, Guatemala, contains a fragmentary panel showing a bound captive, with clothing perforated in the manner usual with such figures (Figure 1). He is probably kneeling, but his legs are concealed behind what appears to be an architectural element. His face is hacked away, too, like so many other Maya sculptures. The text to the bottom right captions the figure, u-KAN-na YAX-to-ko BAHLAM, “his guardian [?], New/First/“Grue”-Cloud Jaguar.” The inscription to the top, of less certain referent, reads: u-KAN-? AJ-?-TI’-‘i…K’AHK’-*AJAW-wa.

When shown my photograph of the panel, David Stuart pointed out its similarity to a sculpture I had drawn at Dos Pilas back in 1984—this is Panel 2, to the south side of Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 (Figure 2). (At many sites in the Pasión River drainage, hieroglyphic stairways display such panels to either side of their outset steps.) Panel 2 had the same kind of caption, the same captive theme, and approximately the same dimensions. Moreover, as I recall, a more eroded panel nearby, Panel 3, suggested a more elaborate tableau, stretched across several sculptures. I have little doubt that Dave is right, and that the Museo Príncipe Maya panel was extracted from near Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, perhaps from its northern side, and from a building I mapped in 1986 and designated Structure L4-35. To my knowledge, the structure was never excavated by the later Dos Pilas/Petexbatun Project. It deserves far closer study.

There is more, taking us back to Malinche. With a credible connection to Dos Pilas, the Príncipe Maya panel presents the opportunity to scan for related names of historical personages. It is highly likely that such a name occurs to the top of the panel, in the area reading u-KAN-? AJ-?-TI’-‘i…K’AHK’-*AJAW-wa. The final title (or a linked one) has been studied by Dave and separately by Marc Zender as a courtly, even priestly epithet employed by secondary lords at sites like Palenque. The recognizable sequence, however, is that between a captioned secondary figure on Dos Pilas Panel 19 (Figure 3) and the Príncipe Maya panel. The latter example is eroded or chipped in part, but enough remains to discern what is probably the same name, “guardian [?] of he of the nine [or many] mouths,” followed by a title consistent with secondary status. Even the style of the glyphs is similar, especially the “snake” version of the “guardian [?]” expression. The Príncipe Maya panel must date to the approximate time of Ruler 4, the final known ruler of Dos Pilas and the king who commissioned Panel 19.

When Panel 19 was excavated in 1990, Stuart and I commented on its intriguing content. In this instance, “guardianship” (the term has remaining ambiguities) seemed to relate to two figures attending the heir of Ruler 4. On Panel 19 they hover protectively as the heir undertakes what is presumably his first bloodletting. Thus, guardianship was not always about war captives, as elsewhere on the Príncipe Maya panel, but rather about “governorship” or “tutorship” of a key figure at the royal court. Moreover, the other “guardian” seemed from his title to come from Calakmul, by this point a long-standing ally of Dos Pilas. Notably, that figure is described as the “guardian [?] of the youth [ch’ok].”

Better preserved detail would deepen the story. Yet, plausibly, a guardian figure at Dos Pilas described his young charge as a “person of the nine [many] mouths.” Or, to extend that meaning, a “person of many languages.” (In the inscriptions, “nine” might have communicated a good plurality, without the overwhelming, nearly “countless” connotation of “8,000,” more properly applied to gods.) Could this have been one of the duties of a tutor from a distant capital, to impart several languages to his charge? I propose this mindful of other readings, such as “he of the many words,” a suitable description for an orator…and many a windbag professor!

Despite the proviso, this may be a unique allusion in Maya inscriptions to the very concept of multilingualism in the Classic world, and to its role as a particular accomplishment of elites.

Note 1. I follow John Robertson in preferring a label like “common Ch’olan,” in that it captures the hypothetical derivation of the “language” from what is held in common among its descendants, with due regard for shifts over time. As an adjective, “proto-” may be too assertive in implying an existential integrity beyond the limits of reconstruction.

Figure 1. Museo Principe Maya panel, with detail (Photograph by S. Houston)
Figure 1. Museo Príncipe Maya panel, with detail (Photograph by S. Houston)
Figure 2. Dos Pilas, Panel 2 (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 2. Dos Pilas, Panel 2 (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 3. Figure from Dos Pilas, Panel 19, with detail enlarged (drawing by David Stuart)
Figure 3. Figure from Dos Pilas, Panel 19, with detail enlarged (drawing by David Stuart)


Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001 Calepino maya de Motul, ed. R. Acuña. Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 31. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Robertson, John, Danny Law, and Robbie Haertel. In press Colonial Ch’olti’: A Translation and Analysis of the 17th Century “Morán Manuscript”. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Smailus, Ortwin. 1975 El Maya-Chontal de Acalan: Análisis lingüístico de un documento de los años 1610-1612. Centro de Estudios Mayas Cuaderno 9. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

3 thoughts on “Maya Multilinguals?

  1. Laz Tic Laz February 16, 2009 / 6:55 AM

    Hello i just wanted to commend the publisher of this website, it’s very interesting, in fact i speak a language of Maya origin and it’s interesting to find a website about the Maya,
    My language is called Kanjobal, or ko ti’pal,
    thanks for your interest in Maya history,
    I’ve wanted to publish a website to promote the practice of the Mayan languages that still exist.
    Unfortunately I’ve met a lot of people that refuse to teach their kids to speak or practice their native language.

    Very Tragic!

  2. Robert Kiss May 26, 2009 / 9:13 PM

    Hi Laz,

    I agree with you. Ancient & rare languages (and cultures) throughout the world must be taught by parents to their children. These root languages contain knowledge & culture barely found in modern languages. My family are Hungarian (Magyar) which is considered one of the root languages along with Basque. As can be found in Mayan, the agglutinative Magyar language also contains thoughts, feelings, and ancient concepts. Not only is it similar to Sumerian but I have even read that there are connections to the South American languages (river & place names). Ancient culture is disappearing fast as children learn modern/western ways so time to save whats left of the living past is unfortunately limited. I hope linguists compare the ancient languages around the world to find their common root/s.

    SIR JOHN BOWRING, English traveler and writer, visited Hungary and published an anthology in English of the work of Hungarian writers and poets. „The Hungarian language goes far back. It developed in a very peculiar manner and its structure reaches back to times when most of the now spoken European languages did not even exist. It is a language which developed steadily and firmly in itself, and in which there are logic and mathematics with the adaptability and malleability of strength and chords. The Englishman should be proud that his language indicates an epic of human history. One can show forth its origin; and all layers can be distinguished in it, which gathered together during contacts with different nations. Whereas the Hungarian language is like a rubble-stone, consisting of only one piece, on which the storms of time left not a scratch. It’s not a calendar that adjusts to the changes of the ages. It needs no one, it doesn’t borrow, does no huckstering, and doesn’t give or take from anyone. This language is the oldest and most glorious monument of national sovereignty and mental independence. What scholars cannot solve, they ignore. In philology it’s the same way as in archeology. The floors of the old Egyptian temples, which were made out of only one rock, can’t be explained. No one knows where they came from, or from which mountain the wondrous mass was taken. How they were transported and lifted to the top of the temples. The genuineness of the Hungarian language is a phenomenon much more wondrous than this.”

  3. liainfolo February 16, 2010 / 8:30 PM

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
    And according to this article, I tottaly agree with your opinion, but only this time! 🙂

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