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On Languages

Most travelers, when they plan a visit to another country, immediately want to determine the language spoken there. I admit that when I thought about going to Guatemala, I figured that if I could communicate more or less in Spanish, I could travel anywhere in the country and not have communication problems.

Needless to say, that’s not really the case. So far, we have been to San Lucas Tóliman, San Juan La Laguna, San Juan Cotzal, and are now staying in the beautiful and cornfield full Pachaj, a small town outside of Xela. Every single place we visited spoke a different native language (each derived from the languages of the Mayan Empire). The languages of Cacchiquél (San Lucas Tóliman), Tzutuhil (San Juan La Laguna), Ixil (San Juan Cotzal) and Quiché (here in Pachaj) are all completely distinct. Although the majority of Guatemaltecos, especially in the cities, speak Spanish as a second language, the majority in rural areas do not speak it with fluency, if at all. Most often, the kids of our host families have acted as translators to the parents.

The sheer diversity of languages is also incredible. In all of the districts of Guatemala, more than 25 native languages are spoken total. Often, at least 3 different native languages are spoken in any given region. Most people are bilingual, and not all speak Spanish. Even within the Spanish itself, Guatemala has expressions particular to the country, most of which are not found in other Spanish speaking countries. For example:

¿Qué honda? means ‘what’s up?’ and can also be found as ¿Qué tal?
Una buena honda: used as a compliment, cool person
Both ‘honda’ and ‘chilero/a’ mean cool
‘Pilas’ means smart
‘Chucho’ means dog. Be careful, becaue it means vastly different things in different countries!
¡Pura vida! enthusiastic yes, ok, great

Thanks for reading! Bye, choca’a (tzutuhil), matimba (Ixil), y adios!