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Linguistics: K’iche’ FAQ

Guatemala is like a candy store for linguists. With only the population of the U.S. State of Illinois, the place packs in at least 21 different Mayan languages. The granddaddy of Mayan languages, i.e. the one with the most speakers, is also the one most common right here in Xela – K’iche’. So what is this K’iche’ language all about? Always here to serve you with a smile, XelaWho answers questions you never knew you had about this fascinating cultural aspect of Guatemala.

Q: How many people speak K’iche’?
A: Around 1.5 million.

Q: Where is K’iche’ spoken?
A: In Xela and surrounding cantones, as well as in nearby municipalities such as Almolonga, Cantel & Zunil, It is also spoken in seven different departamentos throughout the Western Highlands. In many rural areas, K’iche’ is more common than Spanish.

Q: The news on indigenous languages is typically awful. What are the prospects for K’iche’?
A: According to local K’iche’ instuctor, Gregorio Torres, the language remains quite vibrant compared to other Mayan languages.

Q: Do kids learn K’iche’ in school?
A: In many schools, classes are taught in K’iche’ in the first three grades. Thereafter, the language of instruction is Spanish. Despite a dearth of opportunities to study K’iche’ and other Mayan languages in schools, there is a trend towards bilingual education.

Q: How can a slob (er, eager world traveler) like me learn K’iche’?
A: Besides private tutors, some of the language schools in Xela also teach K’iche’, such as Celas Maya and Casa Xelajú. The public can also take courses at the Centro Universitario de Occidente. An online program can be found at www.avatarlanguages.com/kiche.php.

Q: So is this other name for Quetzaltenango, i.e. Xelajú, a K’iche’ word?
A: It’s close. The K’iche’ name for Xela is Xelajuj Noj’, which comes from Xe’ (below), lajuj (ten), No’j (spiritual guides). Ten mountains surround the valley where Xela is located, and thus we are: below the ten spiritual guides.

Q: Why are there apostrophes in ‘odd’ places in K’iche’ words?
A: That’s because K’iche’ has what are called “glottal occlusions”, i.e. voiceless sounds produced by an interruption of the flow of air to the lungs and of the sounds of the vocal cords. The apostrophe is the way to represent this unique sound with the Latin alphabet.

Q: Does K’iche’ have a written form or just an oral one?
A : A long time ago, the Proto-Mayan language that predated today’s modern Mayan languages had a written form, only in hieroglyphics. Today, K’iche’ and other Mayan languages have a written form based on the Latin alphabet.

Q: Is K’iche’ pretty similar in all places or are there variation?
A: The most common dialect is called Central K’iche’, but six other small dialects exist, all of which are generally mutually intelligible. There is also some regional variation regarding word usage and pronunciation.

Q: What are some interesting aspects of K’iche’?
A: K’iche’ does not have words for the following:

Zero
No – you must conjugate the sentence with a particular preposition to demonstrate refusal
Blue – there are five colors: red, yellow, green, white and black. All other colors vary from these
Time, Second, Hour, Minute
Happy Birthday
Mirror (and most technological objects)
Fruit/Vegetable: there is a word for plants (k’yes) but there are no categories for fruits and vegetables
Diet

Also, mothers call their sons and daughters a different name (al) than fathers call their sons and daughters (k’ojol/maya’l); men have a different name for older brother (atz) than younger brother (chaq’); the same words are used for women and their sisters.

Q: How do you greet someone in K’iche’?
A: Buenos dias: Saqarik (usually followed by sir, madam, boy, girl etc.)
Buenas tardes: Xe’q’ij
Buenas noches: Xokaq’ab’

Final cool factoid: The literal meaning of the word k’iche’ is “many trees,” with k’I meaning “many” and che’ meaning tree.

XelaWho would like to thank two scholars for their contributions to this article. Gregorio Torres is a K’iche’ teacher who lives in Xela and offers classes online at the above link and offline, as well. His e-mail is mgtson@gmail.com.

Emily Yates-Doerr is a graduate student in anthropology at New York University and is writing her dissertation on the culture of food in Guatemala.

Maltiox to you both!

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