Tzeltal is a Mayan language, spoken mainly by inhabitants of the state of Chiapas in Mexico. It is closely related to Tzotzil and divided into several dialects which are generally mutually intelligible. There are about 200,000 speakers of Tzeltal, most of whom also have some command of Spanish. Most of the Tzeltal live in the highlands of the state, blessed with land not particularly coveted by the immigrants. They sustain themselves on growing crops like corn, beans and chillies. Concentrated Tzeltal communities can be found in Tenejapa, Oxchuc and Amatenango del Valle.

Despite the Maya being conquered and colonised, converted and mixed with Spanish-speakers, the Tzeltal have kept a lot of their culture intact. Not only the language but a lot of old stories and beliefs are preserved. Catholicism is mixed with ancient sun worship, and modern carnivals with old festivals.

The Tzeltal people is a rebellious one. Many of them support the current Zapatista movement in Mexico, claiming land and freedom for the native Indians. They were also the core of a religious rebellion, which began in 1712 with a vision of the Virgin Mary by a young woman. A growing cult of pilgrims flocking to the forest where the Lady appeared alarmed the Spanish authorities, but when they tried to stop it an army formed of five thousand fighters. The soldiers of the Virgin fought with the conviction that "Now there is no God or King." The Spanish proved that there was still a force to be reckoned with by beating them down once more.

The following short folk story should give a taste of what the language is like. The story was told to Michelle Day by Victoria Juarez Aguilar in 1994.¹. Words are translated literally, their grammatical function given in pipe links. At the end comes a smoothened English version of the story.

Tah ti' ha'
The eat flesh water

Ha' te ta naméh 7ay kayih te kuenta. Es ta... 7ay lah tul 7antz,
Thus long ago there I heard the story. It is...there was one woman,

ya la xcham ta ch'in yal. Despwes, 7och la yak ta tamel ta ch'in
was sick the small her child. Then, came she gave the curing ceremony the little

yak ta 7àntzeh. Despwes, ha tz'in ta 7uleh, ta medikoeh. 
she gave the woman. Then this soon the curer there, the doctor there.

Esteh... "b'a' nuses 7atin ta ti' ha'," xchi lah ta 7ul winik.
It is... going to bathe to wash in the flesh eat water," said then the curing man.

I dehspwes, ha' tz'in ta 7antzéh b'a snusis ta ch'in yal ta ti' ha'. 
And afterwards, thus soon the woman went to wash him, the little child in the eat water

Despwes, es te...pi tzul ta skab' ta ch'in yak ta 7antzéh, 7och kal ta rio.
Then, it is.. slipped? the hand the little it gave the woman, entered? the river.

7Olil ha' 7ay tz'inaten ta 7alaleh, lok la hol hun rósah,
Middle water there was soon the child there, rose up to his head one rose,

ta yolil ta ha'eh. Ya la xok'il ta 7antz ta ti' ha'.
at its middle the water there. She cried the women at the eating water.

Despwes, hila tz'in ta 7antzeh. Ya xok' ta sme' ta 7alal.
Then, stayed shortly the woman. She cried the mother of the baby.

Ta lok... 7och ta lokil kol ta yolil ta ha'eh, wotz lah rohsos.
It entered coming ? to the middle of the water there, ? the rose.

Ha' kuentah ta nameh b'ih. Ha' kwenta ta nameh b'ih...
This story is very old already This story the very old already

a lah mak litik ta k'op b'ih, kwenta nameh.
not here we the talk already story very old

English translation of The Devouring Lagoon

I heard this story a long time ago. There was this woman whose child was sick, so she gave the baby a curing ceremony. When the curer, the doctor, arrived he said, "You should go wash the baby in the lagoon." So, soon afterwards the woman went to wash the baby. But the baby slipped out of her hand and fell into the river. The baby disappeared into the middle of the lagoon, and then a rose floated up to the surface where the baby disappeared. The woman cried, there at the edge of the lagoon. She cried afterwards, the mother of the child. There it came up, in the middle of the water, a rose. This is a story from a long time ago. It's an old story. We don't tell it anymore here, it's an old story.

There are two unfamiliar character in the text, both standing for ejective sound. The 7 stands for the glottal stop of Tzeltal. The ' symbol is used as in Joshua Hinmán Smith's Manual of Spoken Tzeltal. It "does not indicate a separate sound when following a (non-fricative) consonant. While the mouth is closed, the closed glottis is raised in such a way that when pronouncing the consonant, there is a small explosion of pressurized air." Try it. Now.

¹ Source:

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