Out Of The Archives:
That Pesky -X

The letter -X. It’s a common enough letter, but one rarely used in English at the beginning of a word, where it is pronounced like the letter -z as in the word xylophone. In English it’s not used so much in the middle of words either, where it is pronounced like the compound -ks as in the word excited.

But in Yucatec Maya, the language that is spoken and written throughout the Yucatan peninsula, the letter -x plays a prominent role.

In simple terms, the language of the ancient Maya was pictorial and verbal. Words were not written out with an alphabet until the arrival of the Spanish. When the Spanish monks began to record this local language, there were a few sounds that stumped them. The sound -sh was one of them. This sound was not recorded in Spanish, so they used the letter X to signify this sound.

When the letter X starts a word, it is pronounced -ish or -eesh. You will hear it both ways, or sometimes pronounced somewhere between the two.

For example the name of the ecological park Xcaret is pronounced Ish-kar-ette

The English word chocolate came from the Maya word xocoatl which is pronounced isho-ko-aht-l

When the letter X is in the middle of a word it is pronounced -sh

For example the name of the Maya archaeological site Uxmal is pronounced Oosh-mall

And then there is the Mayan word for leftovers –xix pronounced Ish-ish.

Once you get the pronunciation of the letter -X in your head, it becomes natural to pronounce it correctly when reading signs and menus in The Yucatan.

Do you have a favorite word in Mayan that uses the pesky -X?

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