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When you visit the local towns, museums, and awesome Mayan ruins on the Riviera Maya and the rest of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula (or for that matter in Honduras and Guatemala) you’ll see and hear all sorts of strange names and phrases – chaac mool, popol vuh, k’atun, kukulkan, and so forth.
Well… strange to you, maybe.
Millions of people in Mexico and Central America today speak variants of that same language, including around a million in the Yucatan. There are actually more than 20 dialects of Maya, sometimes very different from each other; the version spoken in Yucatan is referred to as Yucatec Maya. Though it’s not remotely what you’d call an international language, you might be surprised to hear that English has borrowed a couple of familiar terms from Maya; for example, “shark” is thought to derived from xoc (fish), and “cigar/cigarette” from zikar.
Apart from the occasional exception, though, Maya is pretty much unrelated to any language you might speak even a smidgeon of. If you know Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, or any other language spoken in Europe, Asia, and Africa, unfortunately it ain’t gonna help at all with this guttural language where verbs come first, followed by object and subject, and the meaning of words can change depending on whether you give them a rising or falling tone.
Obviously, you won’t need to learn Maya if you’re visiting Maya-speaking areas of Mexico, Guatemala, or Honduras, but if you’d like to elicit a big smile from the locals you may encounter on your visit, a “hello,” “goodbye,” or “thank you” in the local lingo should do the trick very nicely. Here are a couple of phrases to help (based mostly on the variant spoken in the Yucatan). BTW, those apostrophes you see represent popping sounds called glottal stops, like the sudden silence between syllables in “uh-oh!”, but don’t sweat it too much.
B’ix a beel? (b-eesh-uh-bell?) ”How are you?”
Ni’bo ‘olal (nee-boh oh-lahl) ”Thank you.”
Ma’alob xi teech yeetel utsil! (mah-ah-lohb she teehch yeh-eh-tehl oot-seal) ”Bye!”