Beneath the Majestic Ceiba: Q’eqchi’ teachers explore the ancient script in San Juan Chamelco, Guatemala
This month, as we are all mostly confined to our homes, we bring you good tidings from Leonel Pacay Rax and Byron Rafael Xi Tot in San Juan Chamelco, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Leonel and Byron facilitated a three-part workshop on Maya writing from April to December, 2019 with 21 local Q’eqchi’ teachers.
Among the approximately 30 languages in the Mayan language family, Q’eqchi’ is the second most widely spoken Mayan language (after K’iche’) with well over a million speakers, and it has the distinction of having the highest rate of monolingual speakers who do not speak other languages. In addition, although Q’eqchi’ belongs to the K’ichean subfamily of Mayan languages, which are mostly found in the Highlands of Guatemala, it contains a large number of loanwords from the Ch’olan and Yucatecan languages that are typically associated with the Classic period Maya script. Though Q’eqchi’ speakers are found in the relatively remote area of the Alta Verapaz, there has been a longstanding contact between Q’eqchi’ speakers and speakers of the Lowland Mayan languages (see Soren Wichmann and Kerry Hull 2009
“Loanwords in Q’eqchi’, a Mayan Language of Guatemala’ in Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook. Martin Haspelmath, Uri Tadmor, eds. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.)
This brings up an interesting and complex issue in our collective work to revitalize the Maya script for all Maya people. Namely, linguists have carefully classified the 30 different Mayan languages as all related to single ancestral tongue that most likely existed over 3,000 years ago, referred to as proto-Mayan, since we do not know the original name. Interestingly, the name “Mayan” itself derives from the name Maaya’-T’àan, or the Yucatec language, which was the first Mayan language that was documented by the Spanish, and then the term was used by archaeologists to refer to the Ancient Maya, as well as by linguists to refer to all speakers of Mayan languages.
As the decipherment of the Maya script progressed in the late 20th Century, clear evidence emerged that the lingua franca of the Classic Script was most closely related to an extinct but documented language called Ch’olti’an, which was part of the Eastern Ch’olan branch of the Mayan language family. The highly endangered language of Ch’orti, spoken in Honduras and in Chiquimula, Guatemala, is apparently the next closest relative, though neither one of these languages is identical with the script from the Classic period, just as Spanish is different from its ancestral Latin. Much as Latin was used in the Roman Empire, the language of the Classic script was an elite, prestige language that was apparently quite standardized. However, there is clear evidence that the Maya script was used to write Yucatecan languages, as well as Tzeltalan, and possibly K’ichean. We likewise see examples of even non-Mayan Nahua words in the glyphs (see Kettunen and Helmke, 2020: 13). Wayeb Resources-Kettunen and Helmke
The extent to which speakers of other Mayan languages used hieroglyphic writing is not fully known, though scribal languages are typically used by diverse language speakers. Tragically, all but four of the codices have been destroyed, yet even the K’iche’ Popol Vuh itself was apparently transcribed from an original written version in some form. With advances in the decipherment of the Maya script, speakers of many different Mayan languages have taken a great interest in learning this ancient writing system which was used to write a language related to their own languages, and they invited epigraphers to teach them what they knew, which is how MAM first developed as an organization. As our Maya colleagues have learned to read and write in this ancient script, they have recognized their common Mayan heritage, including the very familiar calendars still kept by living Maya people, and they have taken great pride in valuing their own languages and cultures in the face of enormous pressures to assimilate. Insights gained from living Maya traditions in both the Highlands and Lowlands have helped archaeologists and epigraphers to interpret the Ancient Maya past. Imagine how many more insights may be gained by having Maya people participate more fully in this effort as Aj Tz’iibob, epigraphers, and archaeologists themselves.
Living writing systems naturally change and adapt, and our Maya colleagues have each adapted the Maya script to write and record their own living Mayan languages, sometimes necessitating the need for a few new syllabic glyphs to represent sounds in the Highland Mayan languages that do not exist in the lowland script, such as /q/, /q’/, /r/ and /r/. Even modern Ch’orti uses the /r/ sound that did not exist in its close cousin in the Classic script.
In a very real way, this script is again a living connection that brings together all Maya people with a common heritage that have suffered under colonial rule, much as the European Renaissance emerged following the Dark Ages, after which Europeans of all different languages and nations looked to the Greek and Roman cultures as their common cultural heritage, inspiring great works of art, literature, science, and culture.
Now, all European languages are written using descendants of the Greek script, which gave rise to both the Roman and Cyrillic scripts we see today. No longer are these scripts confined to just writing Greek and Latin. They allow us to learn about our ancient history and our ancestors who preceded us, but they also allow us to write our own histories, and to be a part of making history ourselves.
What we are seeing now with the interest in the Classic Maya script among Maya people of all different languages is very much a Maya Cultural Renaissance, and it is a great honor and privilege for us to be a part of this at MAM as we witness history in the making, and as we celebrate the achievements of Maya cultures, past and present.
Our hearts go out to all of our greater human family who are suffering in this current pandemic, and especially to our many Maya colleagues at this difficult time. We stand with you and send this message of hope, health, and more life as our planet begins to heal. This is not the first pandemic humanity has endured, and Maya people suffered greatly when the diseases of Europe ravaged native populations many centuries ago. We look forward to emerging from this pandemic with strength, more dedicated to our cause, and with great resolve for making the Fifth International Congreso on Ancient Maya Writing next year a powerful, historical event.
To all of our generous supporters, thank you all for being a part of making history.
Michael Grofe, President
Epigraphy Workshop Report
Accomplished thanks to the support provided by Mayas for Ancient Mayan–MAM
Where the activity took place
San Juan Chamelco Parish Hall
Dates: April 16, December 23 and 27, 2019
Participants: 11 Women 10 Men
Language Group Q’eqchi’
Facilitators: Leonel Pacay Rax and Byron Rafael Xi Tot
San Juan Chamelco, founded in 1558, is located in the department of Alta Verapaz, only 7 km from the departmental headwaters. Upon arrival, you can see its majestic ceiba, which is located in the park of the central Catholic church, which is very old. On the side of the church is the former headquarters of the municipality and the market. Continue reading