Ri k’ak’a tzij: Kaqchikel Maya Neologisms in Response to COVID-19

Tiffany D. Creegan Miller, PhD //

Photo Credit: Tiffany D. Creegan Miller; Image Description: Three masks displayed on a wooden background: two made with traditional Guatemalan textiles (traje) and a blue, pleated, 3-ply medical mask

Though Guatemala is a relatively small country in northern Central America, it boasts of a robust multilingual and multicultural diversity. In addition to Spanish (the official language), Guatemala is also the home to 22 Maya languages, and two other Indigenous languages: Garífuna and Xinca. Within this ethnolinguistic landscape, Kaqchikel Maya is a language spoken in the Guatemalan Highlands by nearly 500,000 speakers. In the context of Covid-19, Kaqchikel Mayas have responded to the linguistic demands of the global pandemic in creative ways: they have reintroduced terms (lexical items) when possible, yet they also have developed a variety of neologisms, or new terminology, in order to cover missing concepts.

Historically, legacies of racism dating to the Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century and the more recent genocidal civil war (1960-1996) have threatened the sustained existence of many Maya languages and cultures in Guatemala (Garrard-Burnett 70-71). In response to this cultural and physical violence, Maya leaders are fighting to preserve their Indigenous cultures and languages (Bastos and Camus 1995, 1996; Cojtí Cuxil 1997; Fischer and Brown 1996; Warren 1998; Brown 1998; England 1996, 1998, 2003; Maxwell 1996; Rodríguez Guaján 1996). Linguists and other intellectuals have created dictionaries and grammars to document the language. As they look to the past in order to recover vocabulary from documents from the colonial period, such as Kiwujil Xajila’: Anales de los Kaqchikeles (also known as the Memorial de los Señores de Atitlán), contemporary Maya intellectuals working with key linguistic groups such as Guatemala’s Academy of Maya Languages and Kaqchikel Cholchi’ also have created neologisms to adapt the language to the changing realities of the twenty-first century. To provide an example, the term “kematz’ib” borrows the term of weaving (“kem”) and the term for recorded knowledge (“tz’ib’”). Together, these words combine to denote a “computer,” but the term literally translates as the “weaving of words.”

In this context of linguistic preservation and innovation, Maya intellectuals have not excluded medical terminology from their areas of inquiry. Despite the promises of the Peace Accords in 1996 to elevate the status of Indigenous languages in Guatemala (Helmberger 2006), official discourses of the State—legal, juridical, medical, business, etc.—are in Spanish (Lewis 1994). Consequently, medical discourse and vocabulary in Kaqchikel Maya are significantly more prone to loss, or attrition. When linguists Robert Henderson and Emily Tummons collaborated with physician Peter Rohloff, they interviewed Maya patients, asking them, “Achike roma nawajo’ aqomanela’ yecho’n pa qachab’äl?” (“Why do you want doctors who speak Kaqchikel?”). Perhaps tellingly, many patients responded that a sick person should be able to communicate well with their medical provider, before quickly moving on to address issues of language maintenance and vitality: “ri jun chik chi ma nqamestaj ta ri qatzij,” which translates as “another reason is so that we do not lose words” (Tummons et al. 127).

Navigating the language politics of linguistic preservation and the creation of new terms, or lexicon, poses challenges. This is so in the best of times, and these difficulties are perhaps more pronounced with the difficulties of the ongoing global pandemic from the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19. In this context, Kaqchikel speakers have recycled some medical vocabulary such as “aq’omanel” (doctor) and “k’atän” (fever). However, the new demands of the global pandemic have seen the development of “k’ak’a tzij”, or neologisms. Perhaps one of the most used words since the onset of the pandemic is “tz’apichi’.” A combination of the verb “tz’apinïk” (to close) and the word “chi’aj” (mouth), this neologism literally means “the closing of one’s mouth,” and colloquially refers to a “mask.” To refer to the virus itself, Kaqchikel speakers use the word for illness or sickness, “yab’il” and add adjectives such as “itzel” (bad, ugly) or “nïm” (big) to denote COVID-19 as an “itzelyab’il” (bad or ugly virus) or a “nimayab’il” (big virus). Fortunately, in recent months many Kaqchikel communities in Guatemala have gained access to the vaccine. Speakers commonly describe the vaccine as the “new medicine,” or “k’ak’a aq’om.” As these examples demonstrate, Kaqchikel Mayas have responded to the linguistic demands of the global pandemic in creative ways, developing new terms such as “tz’apichi’,” “nimayab’il,” and “k’ak’a aq’om.”

As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, case numbers are on the rise and vaccine inequities remain an issue around the globe. As we move forward, it remains to be seen how Kaqchikel speakers will continue to innovate their language.

Works Cited:

Bastos, Santiago, and Manuela Camus. Abriendo caminos: Las organizaciones Mayas desde el Nobel hasta el Acuerdo de Derechos Indígenas. FLASCO, 1995.

—. Quebrando el silencio: Organizaciones del pueblo Maya y sus demandas (1986-1992). FLASCO, 1996.

Brown, R. McKenna. “Mayan Language Revitalization in Guatemala.” The Life of Our Language: Kaqchikel Maya Maintenance, Shift, and Revitalization, edited by Susan Garzon et al., U of Texas P, 1998, pp. 155-170.

Cojtí Cuxil, Waqi’ Q’anil Demetrio. El movimiento Maya (en Guatemala): Ri Maya’ Moloj Pa Iximulew. Editorial Cholsamaj, 1997.

England, Nora C. “Mayan Efforts toward Language Preservation.” Endangered Languages, edited by Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay Whaley, Cambridge UP, 1998, pp. 99-116.

—. “Mayan Language Revival and Revitalization Politics: Linguists and Linguistic Ideologies.” American Anthropologist, vol. 105, no. 4, Dec. 2003, pp. 733-43.

—. “The Role of Language Standardization in Revitalization.” Fischer and Brown, pp. 178-94.

Fischer, Edward F. and R. McKenna Brown, editors. Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala City. U of Texas P, 1996.

Garrard-Burnett, Virginia. Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Rios Montt, 1982-1983. Oxford UP, 2010.

Helmberger, Janet L. “Language and Ethnicity: Multiple Literacies in Context, Language Education in Guatemala.” Bilingual Research Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, pp. 65-86.

Lewis, Melvyn Paul. Social Change, Identity Shift and Language Shift in K’iche’ of Guatemala. Diss. Georgetown University, 1994. Washington D.C.: UMI, 1994.

Maxwell, Judith. “Prescriptive Grammar and Kaqchikel Revitalization.” Fischer and Brown, pp. 195-207.

Rodríguez Guaján, Demetrio (Raxche’). “Maya Culture and the Politics of Development.” Fischer and Brown, pp. 74-88.

Tummons, Emily, Robert Henderson, and Peter Rohloff. “‘So that We Don’t Lose Words’: Reconstructing a Kaqchikel Medical Lexicon.” Proceedings of the First Biennial Symposium on Teaching Indigenous Languages in Latin America, August 14-16, 2008, edited by Serafín M. Coronel-Molina and John H. McDowell, Indiana U, 2010, pp. 127-35.

Warren, Kay B. Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala. Princeton UP, 1998.

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