A Brief Introduction to Yucatec Maya

Copyright  D. R. Shreve, 1999


Also see English-Maya dictionary and a more extensive version on FAMSI



Note:  Yucatec Maya is spoken among the indigenous people of the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.  Some interesting aspects of the language are that it has no word for yes, there is no word for please and the way of saying "thank you" literally means "God pays." Also the Maya word for fine or okay sounds almost like malo, the Spanish word for bad. It is easy to imagine the early encomenderos/slavers problems in understanding this subjugated people. 

My favorite Spanish loan word is chinga'an, which means broken and came about from the Spanish overlords saying "chinga" when something broke.



Relatively little time has passed between the current way of spelling Mayan words and how they are pronounced. For that reason alone, there has been little opportunity for the oral to diverge from the written, and so, it is usually important to pronounce each letter shown. Commonly contracted word combinations will be spelled as such.

Most letters shown here are pronounced as in English, except that the following are always pronounced as follows:

a, like the a in father.

b, silent if at the end of a plural noun or verb. It becomes voiced when it is no longer at the end of that  word. For example, in referring to towns (kaho'b) the b is silent. When referring to those towns (le kaho'obo), it is voiced.

e, as the a in lake.

i, as the ee in feel.

o, as the o in bowl.

x, the sh as in shoe.


Two vowels in a row are longer than a single vowel. In any situation, this tends to give the syllable they are in an emphasis. For example, beetik (to do) has more accent in the first syllable.

Two vowels with an accent on the first one slightly emphasize that first vowel. Note that this does not create a second syllable in the word, just a slight shift in emphasis.

Some consonants have an accent mark after them and are another matter. These are glottalized letters and are pronounced with a quick expulsion of air, for example:

ch’, k’, p’, t’ and ts’ .


One way to hear these letters glottalized is to go to your library and get a recording of Stephen Hawking speaking. When his artificial voice pronounces these letters at the end of a word, it glottalizes them. Barring this, the p’ is easiest to describe. Pretend you are disgusted with something, and spit out "Pah." Spit toward the ground and away from the wind. Now be a bit more amiable, and less explosive and try it in the word p’aak, or tomato, which is far different in meaning from paak, a verb meaning to double.

With ch’, k’, t’ and ts’, what you need to do is to form the letters in your mouth as you normally would, but at the very beginning, force them out quickly. The k includes a clicking sound.

Remember that in Yucatec, as far as pronunciation goes, the only difference between some words, such as kaax (a chicken) and k’aax (jungle) is the way you say the glottalized sound. This may not be a problem, since you are much more likely to refer to fried chicken (kaax tsaabil) than to talk about felling some jungle (luubsik k’aax), but it could be confusing if you are trying to say k beetik (or, we do) instead of k’abeetik (it is very necessary to...).


Vowels with an apostrophe following them indicate a glottal stop, such as when a person quickly says "oh oh," though the actual stoppage may seem barely noticeable, and may, at other times, be better described as a glottal pause. At the end of a word you cut the vowel in two by shutting it off with your windpipe.

In any word of more than one syllable, the stop will tend to emphasize the preceding portion of the word. For example, waye’ (here) pronounced wa-YEAH, though with the glottal stop it is more like wa-YE, because you must cut it short.


Once you realize that most Mayan place names seem to be heavily accented in the last syllable, it is easy to assume the same for the other words, but that is not the case. One situation is when the word is normally a one syllable word that you have added to, the root word will still be accented. For example, when bel (road) is plural, as in belo'ob or you are referring to that road, as in le belo or even those roads le belo'obo, the accent will normally remain on bel. There will be the slight emphasis caused by a double vowel or a glottal stop, but, other than that, the best bet with a word of more than one syllable is to pronounce them all with equal emphasis.


What about the Verbs ?

Yucatec verbs normally come in pairs, with one intransitive and the other transitive. For example, the word bin, to go, in its transitive form becomes bisik, to take. When you bisik, you are still going somewhere, but you take something with you.

In the same way, taal, to come, becomes taasik, whereby you will bring something when you come. Also, ximbal, to go for a walk, becomes ximbaltik, to (walk and) visit someone. The difference is that the transitive verb has a goal in mind, and the intransitive is just doing something in general.

Let’s look at the verb maan, meaning to buy or shop. This is intransitive and very general. However, if you plan to buy something specific, you had better use its twin, maanik instead.

The following will give you an idea of the use of pronouns:

In maan, I buy

K maan, we buy

A maan, you buy

A Maane’ex, you (pl.) buy

U maan, he, she or it buys

U maano’ob, they buy

You can show a difference between doing something, doing it right now and always doing it, all in the present tense.

Add a "t" at the beginning of the pronouns in, a, or u, and you show that whoever it is is doing it right now. Thus, tin maan means I am shopping."

Instead, add a "k," as in ku maan, and you are saying that he or she normally does it.


Meeting, Greeting and Departing

Very happy to meet you -  Hach ki’imak in wo’ol in kaholtikech.

Happy to see you - Ki’imak in wo’ol in wilikech

Me, too -  Bey xan teen.

Hello - Ba’ax ka wa’alik? (Literally, what do you say? (There is no Mayan word for "Hello."

What’s up? (What do you do?) - Ba’ax ka beetik? How are you doing? - Bix a bel (literally, how is your road?

How are you? -  Bix yanilech?

Fine, okay -  Ma’alob

And you? -  Kux teech?

So so -  Chen beya’

What is your name? - Bix a k’aaba ?

Carlos in k’aaba - My name is Carlos.

Until tomorrow - Taak saamal

Until later - Taak tu lakin

Good luck to you - Ka xi’ik teech utsil.

The same to you - béey xan teech


In the Marketplace

How much ? - Bahúux (Point to the object)

Thing -  Baaxal

How much is this thing? -  Bahúux le baaxala’?

How much is that thing? -  Bahúux le baaxalo’?

How much is it? -  Bahúux leti’?

This -  Lela’

That - Lelo’

Expensive -  Ko’oh

Very expensive -  Hach Ko’oh

Not expensive, cheap -  Ma’ ko’ohi

I am only looking -  Chen tin wilik.

Perhaps -  Wale’

One -  (just a number) Hun

One -  (inanimate item) Hun p’el

One -   (person or animal) Hun tul

Two -    Ka, ka p’el, ka tul

Three -  Ox p’el, ox tul

Four, etc -  use Spanish, such as  Cuatro, cinco etc.

I am only looking for -   Chen tin kaaxtik…

I am looking for - Tin kaaxtik…

one hammock -  hunp’el ka’an

two hammocks -  kap’el ka’ano’ob

machete -  maskab

shoes -  xanab

nothing -  mixba’al

No -  Ma’

Yes -  No such word. A Maya will rephrase

 what was said positively. Use sí if you need to.


In a Basic Restaurant

Ba’ax yan? - What is there (to eat)?

In k’áatik -  I want…

Ki’ -  Tasty

O’och - Food, meal

Hach ki’ in wo’och - My food is very tasty.

Elel in wo’och - My food is burnt.

Yaan cheeba waye’ ? (or just yaan cheeba)- Is there beer here?



Baked chicken - Kaax pibil

Chili peppers  - Iik

Coffee - Boxha, kaape

Corn  - Xiim

Corn gruel - Sa’

Ear of corn - Tziibil nal

Fried chicken - Kaax tsaabil

Juice  - K’aab

Papaya  - Puut

Pork, grilled - Poc chuc (this is a rather recent dish).

Rabbit - T’uul

Sweet potato - ‘iis

Tomato = P’ak

Tomato sauce  - K’utbe p’ak


Getting Directions

Where - Tu’ux (tu’un, rare) 

Where is your village? - Tu’ux a kah?

your house? - tu nail?

the plaza? - k’íiwik ?

This way - Beya’ 

That way - Beyo’ 

Thank you -  Dios bo’otik (literally, God pays).

You are welcome -  Mixba’al.

You are very welcome - Hach Mixba’al.



Yucatec dictionary