Aztec and Mayan are totally different languages. Sort of.

Aztec and Mayan are totally different languages. Sort of.


Mesoamerican quiz time! Aztec or Mayan? Aztec… or Mayan? Aztec or… Mayan? One more: Aztec or Mayan? Believe it or not, these are two totally different
languages. Well, almost. There are fundamental differences, but there’s
also one of history’s strangest linguistic mind melds happening here. So often I find “Aztecs” and “Mayans” mentioned
in the same breath or the same keystrokes. So I can almost forgive you for not knowing
the difference between the languages. Almost. But after we’re done here, no excuses! Ok, first, we’re not dealing with TWO languages
here. Hardly. See, Aztec, which usually goes by the name
Nāhuatl “clear” or I guess “clear speech”, is just one branch at the southern edge of
a much larger family tree. The Uto-Aztecan language family stretches
from Idaho in the US all the way down to El Salvador. Classical Nāhuatl is the language spoken
by the people you’re probably thinking of when I say Aztecs, but the modern Nahuan branch
actually includes a whole cluster of closely related languages and dialects. Mayan is another story. Actually, lots of stories, because it’s an
entire language family. Each one of these is a Mayan language. Just to keep you on your toes, speakers of
some of these individual languages call their own language “Maya”, even when we don’t. To linguists, this is Yucatec, but it’s really
“màaya t’àan”. This one here “Chontal” is just the Nahuatl
word chontalli, meaning “foreigner”. What do they themselves call it though? Well, usually yokot’an “correct language”. But also “Mayan”. To spot some differences between Aztec and
Mayan, compare basic words. My last video was all about the tactical use
of the languages in the Spanish conquest. Cortés, Aguilar and the star of the show,
Malintzin, used Nāhuatl and Chontal to turn an empire against itself. I’ll be pulling examples from these same two
languages to show off Aztec versus Mayan. Just a heads up though. I have a little more experience with Uto-Aztecan
than Maya. I once got into another rather different Uto-Aztecan
language, and I’ve spent more time with Classical Nahuatl than any one Mayan language. Hopefully that explains any glitches in pronunciation. Let me start by handpicking things that stand
out about their sounds. Nahuatl is known for that distinctive “tl”,
and for this saltillo “skip”, or glottal stop, that’s often between a vowel and a consonant. It’s awkward at first, but try tl-ing and
skipping to get a feel for it for yourself: mēxihcatl, tlahtoāni. Besides a couple affricates and a difference
between a regular “c” and a “cu” made by rounding your lips, nothing else is too scary in the
pronunciation department. Nahuatl only has four vowels (no “u”!) but
it does distinguish short ones from long ones: a ā i ī. Also, there’s this relentless second-to-last
syllable stress: pum-pum-PUM-pum. Te-nōch-TI-tlan. Yokot’an, on the other hand, has six vowels,
and its consonants include the ever-so-Mayan ejective stops that build up and release air
pressure. Call them exotic, call them aggressive – personally,
I like ’em – but they’re on full display in this Mayan language. So let me try this: chich versus ch’ich’. Pos and p’os. Basic nouns in Maya are a simple affair, often
just one syllable. So nouns like ch’uj and na’ are are ready
to use. No fanciness. No plural endings. Of course this makes compounding super common. Not necessarily longest-word-in-the-world
kind of compounding, but still: ch’ujna’. Nouns that refer to people are often prefixed
with aj “male” or ix “female”, even when that’s not information you’re used to including in
English: ixc’ay, ajc’ay, ajyocot’an, ixyocot’an, aj’chäme. What about Nāhuatl nouns? Well, I hope you’ve been practicing your “tl”
because you’re gonna need it! On their own, Nahuatl nouns have a base plus
an ending, like mēxihca-tl. Depending on the last letter in the root,
the noun’s suffix might take another shape, which is why “house” is cal-li not cal-tl. If the noun is alive, it has an animate plural. So one mēxihcatl, many mēxihcah. Inanimate calli stays calli. (Your house isn’t alive, is it?) Now comes the fun part. Nahuatl nouns love to be possessed… by possessive
prefixes. Knock off the ending, attach a pronoun prefix,
and the party’s at no-cal “my house” or mo-cal “your house” but definitely not at *nocalli. Similar pronoun bits are very valuable in
Yokot’an, but not in a way that’s so bound up with every noun and makes it change its
shape: na’, a na’, u na’. It’s possible to think of Aztec and Mayan
core words like nouns and verbs as sentence-builders in their own right. Check out what happens when you build a sentence
using just the noun, and adding the subject marker to it, like going from na’ and u na’
to u na’et in Maya, or mēxihcatl and timēxihcatl in Aztec. I spent some time with nouns and possessives
because this is an inkling of a similarity worth keeping in mind. We’ll build on it later. When it comes to verbs, both languages care
about transitivity. In Nahuatl, you take a verb like huetzi, maca
or cuā and tack on a subject. These are the same subjects we used to build
sentences out of nouns: timēxihcatl, tihuetzi, timaca. You can then add in your object: nimaca, nicmaca,
nicuā, niccuā or even nitlacuā with that fancy “unknown object”. I think transitivity is an even bigger player
in Mayan, beyond just the shape of the verb. In some tenses/aspects, Mayan displays something
called ergativity. The short story is this: if a Mayan verb is
intransitive, then its subject looks like an object. Take a transitive verb, a k’uxi, where you
are the subject. And you’re still the subject in the intransitive
verb wäyet, even though you look different. This sets Mayan apart from both English and
Nahuatl, since we use the same subjects for transitive and intransitive verbs. I am the same in I eat it, niccuā, and in
I fall, nihuetzi. Accusative languages versus ergative languages,
that probably just made your eyes glaze over! Let me resuscitate you with something easier:
prepositions. You know these guys, you’ve got them in English! Chontal’s got ’em too, and it uses them for
location and relation. So if you remember tak’in was money, we can
just say t’ok tak’in for “with money”. That’s not how Nahuatl works, though. It uses postfixes for these kinds of time
and place relationships. Like, the one for togetherness is -huān:
mo-huān “with you”. Or location, -co: calco “in the house”. These go beyond our prepositions though. Switch off your Indo-European mind and think
internationally for this one. Take a little word that seems atomic, unbreakable
even, like “and”. Yeah in Nahuatl “and” is a multi-part construction
built using a postfix: īhuān “its togetherness” or “with it”! Ok, you are officially a linguistic warrior
for sticking with me. That was just a random grammar sampling, but
you now have a jist of the differences between these languages. Time for the payoff! With your refined grammatical palate, let’s
rewind and play the game again. Aztec or Mayan? Aztec… or Mayan? Aztec or… Mayan? Hahah, there we go. But if you couldn’t tell them apart before,
I don’t think it was just sheer ignorance. You probably had hazy ideas of similarities
and no real understanding of the differences. But there was something to those similarities. Something deep. When you characterize a language, you probably
go straight for what we call the genetic relationship. What kind of language is Spanish? Why, it’s a Romance language! What about Classical Nahuatl? Uto-Aztecan, of course! Chontal/Yokot’an? That’s Mayan. All true. And we can go around breaking up Precolumbian
Mesoamerica into this patchwork of distinct, color-coded language families. If we stop there, though, we’ll miss out on
the best part of the story. There’s another factor that majorly influences
languages in an almost bizarrely stealthy kind of way. When languages, even totally and utterly unrelated
ones, live side by side for a long time, they start to exchange stuff. Not just can-I-borrow-the-sugar or can I have
your chocolate and chiles kind of stuff. Sure, a Mayan language might borrow Aztec
words, just as people all over the region were sharing goods and ideas. But that didn’t leave a huge dent. Instead of surface stuff like words and sounds,
the languages of Mesoamerica started to trade structure. I don’t want your nouns, I want the way your
nouns and pronouns work to influence my nouns and pronouns. Linguists call this phenomenon a Sprachbund,
a Language Area. Aztec and Mayan participated in one of history’s
greatest, the Mesoamerican Language Area. Show and tell time. What kinds of linguistic mind-melds were happening
here? First, a simple one: word order. Mesoamerica likes to keep verbs away from
the end of a sentence. Verb-subject-object is very Mayan, and, even
though Classical Nahuatl was pretty free in how it let you order words, it tended to like
verb-subject-object or even verb-object-subject. The languages that surround Mesoamerica though,
they totally disagree. They had no problem with a verb-final syntax,
with subject-object-verb being very, very common. And those possessives? They come back full force with the kind of
awkward Mesoamerican way of saying that somebody owns something. It’s like this: “her house the woman”, “their
bones the dogs”. In Aztec, I think you’d say īcal in cihuātl,
īnomiuh in chichimeh, but it works the same way all over. Of course that “core words build sentences”
concept from earlier comes back here, so have fun with examples like īcal in mocihuāuh. Back to Mesoamerican postpositions and prepositions. Those time-space references love to include
body parts. So instead of saying “inside”, why not īhtic
“its stomach”? For “around”, use ītenco “on its lips”. Or try Maya pam “head” for “in front”, like
pam otot “at head of house” for in front of the house. They even count the same way. Not with your decimal system. Their system is base 20. Aztec cempōhualli, 20, is literally just
“one count”. Units like 80 are easy, just count in scores:
nāppōhualli “four counts”. As a consequence, your major Mesoamerican
milestones weren’t hundreds or thousands, but things like twenty-squared and twenty-cubed. There are separate words for these, like the
old Mayan bak or Nahuatl centzontli. All of these and more are features of Mesoamerica. Some are even rare outside of it, even in
the very same language families! The way to explain them is to look at how
these languages converged around the very same traits. I find this fascinating. In a way, it’s like you can proudly keep the
look and feel of your language but behind the scenes we’ll all agree to work differently. Similarly! Not differently. Hehh. Well, thanks for making it through this grammar
class. I know it’s a bit of a switch, but I hope
it helps you appreciate the story from last time. Or, you know, the next time you study a modern
Mayan language. Modern Mayan language? Wait, didn’t the Mayans, like, disappear or
something? Yeah, and I think that happened when the world
ended back in December 2012. Hah, no. They didn’t. But that’s… a story for another time. Stick around and subscribe for language!

25 thoughts on “Aztec and Mayan are totally different languages. Sort of.”

  • I recently met a girl named Xochitl, and this is such a helpful and interesting breakdown of this language her name comes from!!!!!

  • I Know all OF TIS I'm Mexican Ok plus I have ancestors from both cultures though I have larger routes To the Aztecs
    Papanontzino=Good Morning
    Keshqli=Whats its value (value)

  • My father's side is Nahua (my mother is purepecha/chichimeca and they lost their language but that's not the point) but from different places. I know a few words. My grandfather from Guerrero for example says "cajli" instead of "calli." Hopefully people can now know the difference between Mexica and Mayan. Where my father is from, there are endless nahuatl words! Tlazocamati!

  • Do Sumerian next! I can't wait for you to try to solve Sumerian's attribute chains and ergativity. Ab é dumu šeš Enlu-ak-ak-ak-ak!

  • Hey, @NativLang, if you want another interesting one, look at Ojibwe's tendency to divide nouns into animate and inanimate rather than masculine and feminine.

  • Just an interesting thing, Yucatec Mayans, or at least their descendants, have an easier time learning English than other people in Mexico.
    No kidding, Math and English are the subjects Yucatecans lucky enough to get a full education excel in.
    Unfortunately not much is done to encourage these students further or else Mexico would be launching rockets.

  • 4:44

    Read the words at the bottom like an English speaker would if he knew nothing about Aztec or Mayan. It’d become the sentence “you takin’ his money”.

  • Mayans were to the Aztecs, what the Greeks were to the Romans.
    I hope that gives a clear picture to some people.

  • ch’uj means church, ch’ujna’ means godmother. In Polish language chuj is a vulgar for penis, “dick”, and chujnia is vulgar for something messed up, “fucked up”..

  • What kind of "Yucatec Maya" are you talking about?

    You mean the one that calls itself Màaya t'àan, or the one that calls itself Yokot'an?
    Or the one that doesn't have an Ä? What's that called?
    Or maybe you were talking about Lacandon? Is that the one that has an Ä?

  • do all languages of a single language family necessarily derive from a single proto-source? I know it is thought that there is a proto-Indo-European from which all Indo-European languages descended from, but is there thought to be a proto-austroasiatic? Or proto-afroasiatic?

  • It’s like the New World people’s cant win. The Anasazi, Mississippian and Ohioan moundbuilders, and 20 mil strong Maya disappear out of nowhere at their zenith at 900 ad, some go to the Aztecs and Inca and rebuild with them, and then the Spanish come along and destroy everything. So much so that all we learn about them was they practiced human sacrifice which the Spanish were happy to record instead of anything else.

  • You should look into P'urhépecha, the language of the people in Michoacán. I believe they were the only indigenous group to make metal weapons. They were never conquered by the Aztecs. The language is still spoken, there are radio stations broadcasting it. In villages I went through west of Pátzcuaro it is taught in schools alongside Spanish. Oddly enough it is supposedly related to Quechua. There are also courses offered in Morelia and Pátzcuaro.

  • Nahuatl extends to Nicaragua. 1) It is a part of local culture mentioned with pride amongst the people. 2) Note the number of cities with the suffix "-tepe" which is very similar to the multitude of southern Mexican cities with the suffix "-tepec". I lived in Nicaragua for several years and came across this after traveling repeatedly to southern Mexico.

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