In search of the real Kaqchikel

In contrast to most students who attended Guatemala Field Station this year, my background is in nutrition rather than linguistics. I am a registered dietitian/nutritionist. I arrived in Tecpán, Guatemala three months ago to begin a year-long fellowship with the Maya Health Alliance/Wuqu Kawoq, a non-government organization that provides mostly home-based health care in Mayan languages. The fellowship is sponspored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation. To me, learning to speak local languages is important in order to break through cultural barriers, build trust with patients/clients and to see the world in new ways. You can read more about my interest in languages on my blog

Guatemala Field Station Teachers Lajuj Batz (left) and Ixkamel (middle)
Pictured Above: Guatemala Field Station Teachers Lajuj Batz (Left) and Ixkamel (Center)

This year, I set a target for myself to speak the Mayan language of Kaqchikel at 80% fluency by the end of my fellowship. There is only one small problem with this goal -- There isn't one single version of Kaqchikel to learn. From pueblo to pueblo, Kaqchikel varies considerably in pronunciation, vocabulary and colloquialisms. In the Department of Sololá, for example, the Kaqchikel has more in common with the Mayan language of Tz’utujil than does the Kaqchikel spoken in Tecpán. Also, in certain aldeas (villages outside of town), it can blend together with other Mayan languages like K'iche'. To further complicate matters, the Kaqchikel spoken in public life varies tremendously from the "standardized" Kaqchikel taught in the classroom. For these reasons, though I'm determined to become fluent in Kaqchikel, I face the dilemma of not knowing which version of the language I should strive to speak.

During this year's intensive Kaqchikel language course, I was impressed by how well the immersion methodology seemed to work, but I was disappointed when I discovered that the language we were learning in class was not really the same language that is spoken by the Kaqchikel speakers of Patzún in their day to day lives. A large percentage of the vocabulary that we learned is not used or understood by Kaqchikel speakers in Patzún, or elsewhere. This is frustrating, because it feels as though we aren't learning the “real Kaqchikel.”

In one class, for example, we learned different words to talk about the house: roof, floor, wall, window, etc. For the majority of words in that lesson, the house is described metaphorically in terms of the human body. For example, we learned that the word for doorway is ruchi' jay (the mouth of the house) and that the word for bathroom is ruxikin jay (the ear of the house). Though I am fascinated by the use of these metaphors, I was skeptical as to whether these words were actually used or known outside of the classroom setting. During the break, I decided to go outside and ask a Kaqchikel speaker, in Kaqchikel, how to say all of the words we had learned during the lesson in Kaqchikel. Of the 7 or so words that we had learned, there were only 2 that he used to name the things that I pointed to: ruwi' jay for ceiling and ruwa' jay for patio. He used the Spanish word for door, window, corner and walkway, and for floor, he used ulew (earth) rather than ruxe’ jay. He is only one person, but this interaction is a good example of my typical experience with learning Kaqchikel in a classroom setting. When I go out and use the vocabulary that I learn in class, many people have no idea what I’m talking about.

The lack of standardization of Kaqchikel and its tremendous variability from speaker to speaker is one of the things that makes the language interesting. Everyone seems to speak their own version of Kaqchikel, depending on where they live, how prevalent Spanish is in their town, how much their parents spoke to them in Spanish as a child, who they come into contact with on a daily basis, which neologisms (newly created words) they've encountered from the Academy of Mayan Languages, which aldea they regularly commute to for work, etc. There is no common Kaqchikel that everyone speaks as a kind of lingua franca, as much as some may wish there to be. Nevertheless, Mayan language speakers are versatile and are used to coming into contact with people who speak differently from themselves. I've even seen Kaqchikel speakers converse with K'iche’ speakers, each speaking in his or her own language, but understanding the other without much difficulty. The neologisms and classroom words tend to be less well understood, in my experience, but even some of them have caught on. Therefore, as I strive for fluency in Kaqchikel, the key for me will be to remain flexible, to expect a lot of variation in the way that people speak and to adapt to each situation, which might mean asking for the baño rather than the ruxikin jay.

Author: Stephen Alajajian, Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist & Language Activist

Myself and Kaqchikel Field School Teacher Ixkamel
 Pictured Above: Myself with Guatemala Field Station Teacher Ixkamel (AKA Magda Sotz')

Pictured Above: Streets of Patzún during the Corpus Christi Celebration


  1. But a language is so much more than just its vocabulary... a large part of what the immersion method teaches is the language's grammar, with the vocabulary (including Academy-approved neologism) serving mainly as a vehicle through which to impart this knowledge. So, for example, even if your friend says baño rather than ruxikin jay, you now know that to say "in your bathroom" you would say pa abaño (or even pa rupam abaño!).

    1. That's a good point! Just to be clear, this Kaqchikel immersion class was incredibly valuable to me. I left it with a lot more confidence making sentences and speaking.

  2. I am Guatemalan, nearly 60, I studied kekchi because my grand grand father was born in kekchi region. Now I have to "teach" kakchikel as local variation of Mayan linguistics; I found kekchi is more easy to promote vocabulary since it is spoken in less commercial sections of Guatemala. In order to cope with lack of standard vocabulary to share with my ladino students I will do something I learned when studying quechua at Peru: I will use Latin verb roots while explaining the wonders of ergative and absolute cases and wait until I find some standard list of verbs available in kaqchikel. I am afraid that, at the end, we all end up with a new language, like sort of a Kaxlanchikel. Lol lol and lol.


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