Tongue Twisters

The cats like it when I speak Tsotsil.

Okay maybe ‘speak’ is a strong word. My vocabulary in Tsotsil is very limited. Tortilla, bread (literally translates to &foreigners’ tortilla&), frog. I can conjugate 6 verbs, 4 of which mean ‘to eat.’

“I eat, you eat, they eat, we eat,” I rehearse, and the cats come running from all corners of the house.

It has to do with the saltillo (‘), the aspirated consanant. In certain words, the saltillo sounds like a click of the throat. At other times it marks the stopping of a sound, like punctuation indicating a pause in a word instead of a sentence. The saltillo differentiates between words like vo’ and vo, between “I want water” and “I want fly.” It’s a delicate staccato, almost imperceptible to American ears, and the clicking sound attracts the cats.

Tsotsil is a Mayan language. It’s one of the 68 indigenous languages currently spoken in Mexico. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI), Tsotsil is the sixth most commonly spoken languages in Mexico, with over 300,000 native speakers. And that’s likely an underestimate, given that the surveys used to collect the data were not multilingual; they were all in Spanish, making it difficult for non-spanish speakers to respond.

Tsotsil is the native language of the teenage beekeepers with whom I will be working for the next six months. So recently I started to study.

I hadn’t seriously started a new language since highschool. Unless you count Chinese, which I don’t because after two months in China the most I can say is “A bee stung me” and count to ten… so I guess in total could talk about up to 10 bee stings. Not exactly functional.

I don’t have any pretenses of achieving fluency in Tsotsil. Even proficiency is probably a stretch. But I would like to understand better the people that I’m working with. While a majority of them speak a good amount of Spanish, I figure if they’re making the effort then so should I. Besides, it’s so interesting, it’s kind of like a window into a whole ‘nother world. Like absence of possessive pronouns, and what that might mean for a culture’s sense of ownership. The Tsotsil numerical system, which is base 20, where the word for twenty also means ‘man,’ according to the quantity of our fingers and toes. Things like that.

For now, small advances. “I eat tortilla. You eat bread. We eat frog.” The cats love that stuff.

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