The Subtle Etymology of the Mayan Language

IIK'NAJ foto: Haizel De la Cruz

The first rain of the season has just fallen in the community. Five days had passed since they had finished doing the meeyjul Yuum iik‘[1] known as Ch’a’acháak.[2] The farmers could not help but smile as they looked at each other. The women looked as though they were watching someone in their kitchen revealing a present for them, their eyes and lips unable to mask their excitement at the scent of damp earth wafting around the house.

The oldest Mayan farmer brought several ears of corn, well-conserved in their shrouds and ready to sow, from his ka’anche’[3].  Before removing the first one’s jolo’och[4], he looked towards the east and said, “ja’alibe’ Yuumtsile’ex ts’o’ok u k’uchul u k’iin a bine’ex tu ka’téen yáanal lu’um, ich naj tu’ux péeknaje’ex, a wiik’e’exe’ bíin suunak junkúul chan ya’ax nalil, ¡Yuum iik’naj, bíin wíinikchajakech tu ka’téen tu méek’ x ki’ichpan lu’um!”[5]

It is noteworthy that the words uttered by this nojoch wíinik[6] are addressed to the corn cob, to the corn cobs. He calls them Yuumtsile’ex,[7] that is to say, father creators. He tells them about their next stage in life, prepared for them by the fallen rain, that is, they have to go back underground where they came from to renew life, take a new shape and a new color. But he also forebodes good, wholesome, and healthy growth, to the point of greatness, when stroked and cradled by the beautiful earth’s bosom. There is no Christian framework in this scene, no prayers for a  god or the virgin, nor any Indo European deity. Instead, there is a dialogue between seeds, the first in human form and the second in maize form, both born from the earth and returning to her to be renewed once the rain has moistened and lauded the atmosphere. This is a scene from a Mayan belief or philosophy.

This old man who was preparing his corn seed to sow his milpa at the break of dawn, is himself a granary of the Mayan language. He is a granary of our culture, each wisdom imparted a grain of corn. Between his flesh and the flesh of the maize, seeds, spirit, and life converge. Their bodies are each home for iik’[8], each an iik’naj[9] that prepares the other for their return to the earth, determined to germinate as authentic energy, that is, an iik’.

The word i’inaj[10] is commonly translated to seed in Spanish. According to the Mayan nojoch wíinik (the community’s culture and language granary), this word has apparently suffered a loss like many other Mayan words that are economized or contracted in day-to-day usage by the community, where the important thing is communication instead of language analysis or taking care of the correct word pronunciation. This elder is the community’s nojoch wíinik and said iik’naj[11] not i’inaj. The latter is a  word that has been mutilated through its day-to-day usage, as well as others, such as, e’joche’en instead of eek’joch’e’en[12], e’same’en instead of eek’same’en[13], and ok’ol [14] is another example. When we say táan in wo’tik, we understand perfectly that we mean “I am mourning [him/her]” by it, although the correct form is táan in wok’tik [15]. Notice the mutilation of the (k) by means of a contraction to economize this term. One loses the meaning or the root of the term in the first expression, whereas in the complete or correct form, the origin is clear in the way the word splits into eek’+joch’e’en = dark black place. Eek’+same’en = dark light atmosphere. Ok’+óol to cry, which most likely comes from ok’om and óol, would mean “sadness of my being”. These words present a challenge to study them, find their roots and thoroughly decode them.

I’inaj does not  have a clear meaning, we only know it is a noun that is translated into Spanish as “seed.” By making a light analysis, based only on its linguistic composition without taking into consideration its cultural aspect, it could be broken down as i’+naj, which can be understood as sparrowhawk-house or the house of the sparrowhawk. However, if we carry out a cultural analysis and recover the part that has been mutilated, and we make use of the nojoch wíinik (community seed) prepared for maize planting, then we would say iik’naj. That gives it a new meaning,  iik’+naj (wind-energy-life+house). For the Mayan corn grower, for the campesino, for the Mayan community, the seed is a house of energy, a house of life.  A seed is similar to us, to our living bodies, we are houses of energy, breath, and life. That is why we spring from the earth and sprout like maize; our brothers also prepare us for sowing when the land offers its moist scent.

As a term, iik’naj is the brother of the word ik’ilt’aan [16], which is translated in Spanish as “poetry.” Presented as iik’(il)+t’aan, it would literally mean wind-energy-life+word-voice-tongue. That is, the word of energy, wind, or life. But if we look more closely, the word ik’ilt’aan, it is composed of iik’ (energy) + il (infix locative and gentilic marker) +t’aan (voice, word, or tongue); meaning, the word that is the house of energy, wind, and life.  Iik’+naj is, therefore, energy-house or house of energy.

Iik’naj is a word that transforms to help us think, provide us with new meanings and semiotics. As such, when the corn plant begins to glean, in Mayan we say táan u wáach’al u yi’ij[17], which literally means its y+i’ij is spilling. The (y) prefix accompanies many Mayan words that begin with a vowel to give them an aesthetic sound. If we split it, we are left with i’ij which is the same term we find in i’i+naj. If i’ij is equivalent to iik’ in its construction iik’+naj, then what we are saying is: the tassel of the corn plant is its breath, its wind, its source of life.

We can follow the same logic with niik[18], translated into Spanish as “pollen.” If we split the (n) from iik, as in n+iik, we are left again with the term or root iik or iik’, which means wind-energy-life. So when the tassel releases its pollen or spills its dust, in reality, it is spraying life, breath or energy onto the small ears of corn so that they become wíinik, mature beings. That is, it provides them with breath of life. Similarly, if we break down the term wíin+ik or wíin+iik’, it could be translated into a body of energy-wind or life, or a seed in Spanish. We need to remember that wíinik is the word used to refer to a person, man or woman, who has attained a level of moral transcendence, recognized and respected by the community for the examples they set in their personal, family, and community life.

I’inaj is iik’naj. The voice iik’ in Mayan thought cannot be reduced to a simple translation of “wind,” as it has been done often. It can be translated into at least fifty different ways, but that is not the subject matter of this brief text. We want to highlight here, for those who dare to practice archeology of our words and of our language, how this term is so meaningful to our beliefs, our way of thinking, our memory, and our history.

[1] Community or collaborative work with the wind or creative energy.

[2] Ritual celebration that seeks rain.

[3] Barn.

[4] Cornhusk.

[5] Well, father creators! Time has come for you to return to the soil in the underground house from where you came, your breath will become a small green corn plant. Father Wind-Home, you will become the most respected person again in the embrace of the beautiful earth!

[6] An important person with a moral transcendence who is recognized as a community granary for their relevant knowledge

[7] Father creators.

[8] Wind, energy, and life to be alive.

[9] House of life.

[10] Seed.

[11] Wind-energy-life+house. Energy house or house of energy.

[12] Dark, black the place.

[13] Darkening. Light dark atmosphere.

[14] To cry. The sadness of my being.

[15] I am crying.

[16] Poetry. Wind-energy-life+word-voice-tongue, or word of energy, wind, or life.

[17] It is casting off its tassel (wind).[18] Pollen. Wind-energy-life, to imbue with life.

Pedro Uc Be

Pedro Uc Be

Pedro Uc Be es un defensor maya del derecho a la tierra y el territorio, escritor en lengua maya, traductor, docente, promotor cultural y defensor del territorio maya. Como integrante de la Asamblea de Defensores del Territorio Maya Múuch’ Xíinbal y el CNI (Congreso Nacional Indígena), se ha dedicado a proteger las tierras de los pueblos mayas afectadas por mega-proyectos, incluidos la soya transgénica, las granjas porcícolas, las plantas de energía renovable, el turismo de alto impacto y el Tren Maya, el cual pretende ser un tren turístico y regional que atravesaría los estados de Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán y Quintana Roo. Mediante su trabajo como defensor de los derechos humanos, Pedro Uc Be invita a las comunidades a reflexionar de manera crítica y a revalorar la cultura y la legua maya,  y sobretodo les informa sobre sus derechos a la tierra como pueblos originarios.

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