The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, December 12, 2016

The name of the Maya

The word "Maya" properly refers only to the Yucatec language-family; these were the people who introduced themselves to the first Europeans. As Spaniards visited the Huastec, the Mam, and the Kaqchikel; those were called Maya too, erroneously. Of these the great monumental language was something some scholars are calling Cholti (pdf). Should they (pdf)?

Charts tend to group four languages as related to the monumental language, in two pairs: Gulf Coast Chontal / inland Ch'ol west, and "Chorti’" / "Ch’olti’" east; other Maya in between, who aren't even Tzeltal (we'll get to them...). Chorti’ meant corn-farmer in its home base Copan; its modern name Ch’orti’ was done for political-correctness reasons, to pretend otherwise. I have to ask about "Ch’olti’" too because it is recorded in only one manuscript - a 1695 glossary of the Manche Ch'ol, frequently wrong. (pdf). Same must now stand for Ch'ol.

As names go, "Chontal" seems the odd one out in this group. Thompson went so far as to dismiss it from evidence as an exonym, a name delivered to them from Nahuat(l). Also the only "r" in the four is Chorti. So the linguists have gone with *Cholti as the origin for the Cholti / Chorti branch, with the people of Copan doing the usual l->r rhotacism.

But the linguistics have punted on the Chol / Chontal pair. We can't call them "Cholti". So their ancestral family is basically mumbled: "Cholan". I think we can do better.

To these four, the next most related language family is the pair Tzeltal / Tzotzil - to which we should add Tzendal. All these are on the western border of core Maya territory, south of the Chol/Chontal. Given that tz barely even differs from ch, then these can align with the (eastern!) *Cholti branch easily: just posit *Tzolt_l. At which point all of "Chontal" is explained as well: first, the base suffix; second, another example for the second consonant-cluster getting corrupted over time. One might suggest that *Chontal and *Tzontal share an areal suffix... if they were ever adjacent... but there's no evidence for that. Chol sits between them.

So we are looking at two ancestral languages in Chiapas: *Choltal and *Tzoltal; *Choltal then spread east and those emigrés became Cholti. I think it historically and semantically improbable the names came from Nahuatl chontalli. Both more probably meant "skilled farmer", because that's what milpa is. Which was a sacred profession all over Mesoamerica (as I've already noted here).

If I am reading Sven Gronemeyer, “E pluribus unum: Embracing Vernacular Influences in Classic Mayan Scribal Tradition” right, from Wichmann 2006, the monuments show northwestern and southeastern vernacular features, with only the southeast being proto-Cholti. The northwest also has some marks of *Tzoltal, which therefore had already split from *Choltal, although the scholars cannot yet ascertain its postClassic subdivisions. So the correct way to label Classic Maya hieroglyphs, where they adhere to nondialect spelling, is "Choltal".

Incidentally the *Tzoltal must have been shouldered aside already as of the late Preclassic. Here is a "great dictionary" of daughter Tzotzil. Its semantic field of farming involves phonemes chob or jobel. If this was milpa, I would expect *tzol or *tzotz; I cannot find these in the dictionary. It looks like the *Tzoltal left the farm, or at least that sort of farm, but kept their name.

Seems to me that calling the Copanese by the name Chorti’ isn't an insult at all. Seems to me it connects them with their roots in Mesoamerican agriculture and civilisation.

UPDATE 12/12/2016: this part, the main part of yesterday's post, corrected and bumped.

posted by Zimri on 18:00 | link | 0 comments

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