Lesson 3: Grammar

Numerators and Classifiers

Observe the following forms which have occurred in the Basic Sentences:

  Column 1 Column 2
"one" un túul un p'éel
"two" ka'a túul ka'a p'éel
"three" óox túul óox p'éel
"how many?" jay túul jay p'éel
Note that each of these forms consists of two parts. By observing the forms in Columns 1 and 2, it can be seen that the first part is one of the particles hun (or its variant un) "one," ka'a "two," óox "three," or jay "how many?" These forms we will call numerators.
The forms in Column 1 differ from the forms in Column 2 in that the former have túul, where the latter have p'éel. The forms with túul are used when these forms numerate some animate item (such as a person or an animal), but the forms with p'éel are used when these forms numerate some inanimate item (such as a house or a stone). These particles (and others like them which you will meet later) we shall call nominal classifiers.

Transitive ojel and k'ajóol

Observe the use of the Maya verbs ojel and k'ajóol which we display in the items below:

1.   máax le máako' a k'ajóol wáaj
      "who [is] that man?  do you know [him]?"
2.   to'one' k kajóol leti'
      "we know him"
3.   bix u k'aaba' le máak'o'bo' a wojel wáaj
      "what are those men's names? do you know?"
4.   jay p'éel t'aan a wojel
      "how many Ianguages do you know?"

Observe that the verbs k'ajóol and ojel are not exactly synonyms, although both can usually be translated by the English verb "know." English "know" may be used in a considerable variety of contexts:

      1. I know his name
      2. I know Spanish.
      3. I know the truth.
      4. I know John.

One may know facts or skills; one may also know (or have come to know) persons. In some languages, including Maya, these two meanings of English "know" are rendered by different verb roots. In Maya, ojel is equivalent to the first of these ("know facts"), whereas k'ajóol is equivalent to the second ("know a person"). Observe, further, that ojel and k'ajóol are different from most verbs in certain other respects. Compare:

      1. kin kanik  "I learn it"
      2. kin na'atik  "I understand (it)"
      3. in wojel  "I know (it)"
      4. in k'ajóol  "I know (him)"

Note that neither the non-completive k nor the suffix -ik occur with these verbs. Observe, also, a difference in the negative:

      1. ma' tin kanik  "I don't learn (it)"
      2. ma' tin na'atik  "I don't understand (it)"

      3. ma' in wojeli'  "I don't know (it)"
      4. ma' in k'ajóoli'  "I don't know (him)"

The first two verbs (kan and na'at) in -ik have corresponding negatives with the particle t, whereas the last two verbs (ojel and k'ajóol) lack both the k and the -ik. As with the negative of the verbs in the completive aspect, however, these latter verbs have the terminal -i'. We shall observe similar differences between other special verbs of this type as they appear in the Basic Sentences of later lessons.


In the Basic Sentences we met the expressions:

chaambéelil  "slow" mas chaambéelil  "slower"
On this model one may form:

Column 1 Column 2
uts  "good" mas uts  "better"
jats'uts  "nice" mas jats'uts  "nicer"
jela'an  "strange" mas jela'an  "stranger"
ma'alob  "well" mas ma'alob  "better"
ya'ab  "much" mas ya'ab  "more"
ki'ichpam  "pretty" mas ki'ichpam  "prettier"

We see that the particle mas placed before the forms in Column 1 endows their quality, quantity, or manner with a comparative function.

There are (so many) of us

In the Basic Sentences of this lesson we saw:

cinco  "five" cinco'on  "there are five of us"
óox túul  "three (persons)" óox túulo'on  "there are three of us"
On this model one may form:

ka'a túul  "two persons" ka'a túulo'on  "there are two of us"
cuatro  "four" cuatro'on  "there are four of us"

Gender in Pronouns

In English, we have a gender distinction in the third person singular. We are careful to distinguish between "he" (masculine), "she" (feminine), and "it" (neuter). In the third person plural, however, there is no such distinction. The pronoun "they" can refer to multiple entities, animate or inanimate, of either sex. Observe, now, the following instances of the use of the third person pronoun (u) in Maya:

      1.  ba'an ku beetik Julio
           "what does Julio do?"
      2.  bey xan kiik tu kanaj
           "my older sister, too, learns it"

Note that the pronoun u refers to a person of either sex (i.e., it does not distinguish gender). It is, in this, like English "they." Note, therefore, that the expressions below have two possible English equivalents:

      leti' xane' ku bin k'íiwik
      "he goes to the square, too" OR "she goes to the square, too"
      ma' tu na'atik
      "he doesn't understand it" OR "she doesn't understand it"


Note the following items used in the dialogue of the Basic Sentences:

un túul "one (person)"
ka'a túul "two (persons)"
óox túul "three (persons)"
cuatro "four"
cinco "five"
The first three three of these you may recognize as having the two-part structure numerator plus classifier. The last two you may recognize as Maya adaptations of the Spanish numerals 'cuatro' and 'cinco' . These two sets of numerals, the native Maya (un ka'a óox) and those adapted from the Spanish (cuatro cinco), are both in common use among Maya speakers. In counting from 'four' on up, the numerals adapted from Spanish are used, although uno and dos are also used in certain expressions and in "doing arithmetic." Note that the numerals adapted from Spanish do not combine with a post-posed classifier.

Interrogative Intonational Terminal Contour

In Lesson 2 you observed a common way of forming a question by the use of the interrogative particle wáaj. Now observe the following items found in the Basic Sentences of Lesson 3:

Column 1 Column 2
jats'uts a wilik  "it looks good to you? jats'uts a wilik le waya'  "does it look good to you here?"
jela'an a wu'uyik "it sounds strange to you" jela'an a wu'uyik le masewal t'aana'  "does this Indian tongue sound strange to you?
ku yu'ubiko'ob  "they hear it" ma' tu yu'ubajo'obi'  "didn't they hear it?
ma' ta na'atik  "you don't understand ma' ta na'atik  "you don't understand?"
Note that the items in Column 1 are statements and end either in an even contour (→), or (optionally) in a falling terminal contour. The items in Column 2 are questions which do not containan interrogative particle, but end, rather, in an (extra-)high rising terminal intonational contour. It is apparent that the high rising terminal contour signals one kind of question. We shall call this contour the interrogative terminal contour.

Tag Questions

Yet another way of forming a question was introduced in this lesson.  Observe the following:

ki'ichpam  "[she's] pretty"
jach ki'ichpam máasima'  "she's pretty, isn't she?"

The first example above is a statement. The second item likewise includes the same statement. It does, however, replace the falling terminal contour, with a level terminal contour, and then adds máasima' "isn't it so?" turning the statement into a question which seeks a confirmatory response. We shall label this kind of question a tag question.

Incompletive and Completive Aspects

Each of the following forms appeared in the Basic Sentences of this lesson. In the columnar arrangement below, examine the forms, and compare those in Column 1 with those in Column 2 :

Column 1 Column 2
kin kanik "I learn it" tin kanaj "I learned it"
ka kanik "you learn it" ta kanaj "you learned it"
ku kanik "he learns it" tu kanaj "he learned it"
k kanik "we learn it" t kanaj "we learned it"
Note that all of the forms in Column 1 begin with the particle k and end in the suffix -ik. These forms are made up of four parts summarized in the chart below:

1 2 3 4
particle dependent pronoun root ending
k in kan ik
As we might gather from the expressed meanings of the forms in Column 1, they refer to an action which has not been completed. We will say that such forms appear in the incompletive aspect. Turning to Column 2, note that these forms begin with the particle t and end in the suffix -aj. These forms are likewise made up of four parts. The middle two parts are identical with the middle two parts of the forms in Column 2. The first and last parts, however, are different. We chart these forms of Column 2 here:

1 2 3 4
particle dependent pronoun root ending
t in kan aj
As we might gather from the expressed meanings of the forms in Column 2, they refer to a single action which is completed. We will say that such forms appear in the completive aspect.

Zero-Alternant of the Dependent Pronoun k

Compare the following forms:

kin kanik  "I learn" tin kanaj "I learned"
k kanik  "we learn" t kanaj "we learned"
Note that, the dependent pronoun for 'we' (k) is not pronounced after the particles k or t. We shall say that this pronoun has two forms: (1) a zero-a1ternant (or no manifestation) when it follows the particles k or t. and (2) k when it does not follow these particles.

Root-Alternants u'uy and u'ub

Observe the following forms:

           kin wu'uyik  "I hear it"
           ka wu'uyik  "you hear it"
           k u'uyik  "we hear it"
           ku yu'ubik  "he hears it"
           ku yu'ubiko'ob  "they hear it"

Note that the root in the first three examples has the form u'uy, but in the last two it has the form u'ub. Note that these last two examples are in the third person, whereas the other three are in the first or second persons. We may say that there are two root alternants which complete each other: u'ub which occurs with verb forms in the third person, and u'uy which occurs with verb forms in the first or second persons.

Negative of k in na'atik, etc.

Compare the forms in Column 1 with those in Column 2:

Column 1 Column 2
kin na'atik  "I understand" ma' tin na'atik  "I don't understand"
ka na'atik  "you understand" ma' ta na'atik  "you don't understand"
ku na'atik  "he understands" ma' tu na'atik  "he doesn't understand"
k na'atik  "we understand" ma' t na'atik  "we don't understand"
k ilik  "we see (it)" ma' t ilik  "we don't see (it)"
k u'uyik  "we hear (it)" ma' t u'uyik  "we don't hear (it)"
Note that the forms in Column 1 have four parts (as shown in 3.3.5. above). The forms in Column 2, however, have five parts. These are introduced by the negative particle ma' and this, in turn, is followed by a particle which replaces the k which introduces those in Column 1. It would seem, then, that, whereas those in Column 1 are non-completive and affirmative, those in Column 2 are negative and something more than the simple non-completive (since the k of the non-completive has been replaced by t. We shall return to this "something more" when more forms related to it have accumulated. This particular ma' t is an instance of only one of the forms of the negative, that which is used with the verbs na'at, u'uy(u'ub). The negative of other verbs (preceded by the k particle in the affirmative) will be presented when sufficient instances of such verbs have appeared in the Basic Sentences.

The Negative of Verbs in the Completive Aspect

Compare, now, the affirmative forms of the verbs in Column 1 below, with the corresponding negative forms which appear in Column 2 :

Column 1 Column 2
tin wu'uyaj  "I heard it" ma' tin wu'uy(aj)i'  "I didn't hear it"
tu yu'ubaj  "he heard it" ma' t(u) yu'ub(aj)i'  "he didn't hear it"
t u'uyaj  "we heard it" ma' t u'uy(aj)i'  "we didn't hear it"
Observe that these negative items differ from the affirmative items in that the negative ones

(1) begin with the negative particle ma'
(2) end in the suffix -i'
(3) optionally drop the suffix -aj before the terminal -i'.

Since all these items refer to action which is completed, those in Column 2 are instances of the negative of the completive aspect.