Friday, January 21, 2011

The Quiché Language

My recent post regarding the Mayan tuj (sweathouse) has invited other memories from my experience in Guatemala. In particular, I had great hopes of learning to speak one of the Mayan dialects.

My first opportunity to learn a Mayan language came after my transfer to San Bartolo Aguascalientes, in the Department of Totonicapán (Guatemala is divided into several “departments,” which are much like provinces or states). The people of that region speak Quiché, the largest of more than 20 Mayan dialects spoken throughout Guatemala and southern Mexico. In fact, it is estimated that more than 1,000,000 people speak Quiché – one million. This figure does not include the several million people who speak the other indigenous languages of Central America. It is amazing to consider the strength of their language, especially when the Spokane language is threatened with extinction.

The people of San Bartolo patiently entertained my every question regarding the language, but for practical purposes, they mostly spoke to me in Spanish. In hindsight, it was easier for both of us to use a common tongue, but I now recognize this as a critical error. I did not avail myself of the opportunity to immerse myself in the Quiché language; rather I limited myself to learning word lists and memorized phrases.

After two months in San Bartolo, I received a transfer to the tiny village of Choquí, deep in the pine-covered mountains beyond Momostenango. The people in that area also spoke Quiché, but they did not always agree with the phrases I had already learned up to that point. They were adamant that their version of the language was correct, so much that I even witnessed them arguing with people from neighboring villages regarding the proper way to say certain words. And these were not polite disagreements; they were truly angry about the other party using the “wrong” words. Looking back, I laugh to myself as I think that they must have shared enough of the same words to sustain an argument.

Just as they differed in their speech, the people sang different versions of the same hymns. Our area covered three branches of the church, so we often attended religious meetings in each one. They all used the standard LDS hymn book (in Spanish), but they sang without accompaniment, meaning that each congregation developed its own unique melody and tempo. The Spirit of God did not sound the same in Choquí as it did in Patulup. When I was a young missionary, the lack of uniformity made me uncomfortable, but now I appreciate the distinct beauty of each community.

Sadly, I received yet another transfer after only two months. I served the rest of my mission far removed from the Quiché speaking people of Momostenango.

Despite living only four months among the Quiché people, I cherish the words and phrases I did learn. I always smile to remember the traditional Indian women who greeted me as they passed on the streets or the rugged mountain trails. In a characteristic sing-song manner, they stretched the final vowel of each phrase to emphasize their sincerity. “Sacaric taaaaaaaaat. A utz a waaaaaaach?” This translates to English as, “Good morning, sir. How are you?” But a literal translation does not convey the whole meaning. It was their manner of speech that gave a sense of warmth and respect.

Actually, the Spokane and Quiché languages are almost entirely different, and yet both languages use a similar form of vowel extension to communicate sincerity or emotion.

In conclusion, I always remember a little prayer that my friend Jerónimo translated for me:

Nimalaj ka Tat chila’ chicaj, quin maltioxij nu c’aslemal.

It means: “Our most great Father in heaven, I give thanks for my life.”

I did not learn the Quiché language to the degree that I hoped, but these words remain strong within my heart.


Note: The photograph shows the cover of a Quiché lesson book that I bought during my mission. The title of the book is “Idioma Quiché,” by Felipe Rosalío Saquic Calel.

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