Blinking snake

Maya vs. Mayan

John Justeson posted the following article on the AZTLAN mailing list on 22 June, 1998.  His reasons for ceasing to use “The Maya” in favor of “The Mayans” seemed both logical and persuasive to me, so I thought it would be proper to provide his explanation in lieu of any I could offer for why I’m changing the usage on my website.

—Ivan Van Laningham, 1 July 1998

Update, 2009:
I’ve gotten a few queries over the years about my comments on Maya vs. Mayan that you posted.  I didn’t have resources to check at the time I wrote it, and there are a couple of errors or infelicities in it that I think should be corrected. ... I’m attaching a slightly amended version of what you posted ... Look it over, and see what you think about it as a replacement.

—John Justeson, 22 May 2009

Maya vs. Mayan

A recent Aztlan posting raised the question of how the words “Maya” and “Mayan” should properly be used, while supplying one proposed answer.s  While I agree with John Wasson that argument over the selection of such norms of terminological behavior is often pedantic and not substantive, in this particular case there may be more to the issue.

I begin this note by discussing the original usage of the terms, and offer a speculation about how the present, confused usage arose.  The more important issue I’ll get to at the end, in the course of explaining my own current use of names for ethnic groups, including how to choose between “Maya” and “Mayans.”  I adopted this usage from Terry Kaufman, after he explained the basis for it.  I don’t suggest that anyone else ought to adopt our practice, but the rationale for it was so compelling to me that it completely governs my current practice, and I expect that some others on the list will react similarly.

I believe that the original usage of “Maya” was only to refer to the Yucatec language — that it applied to no other language, and to no people or culture at all except as a modifier, e.g., <maya uinicob>.  “Mayan” was a scholarly invention, like “Indo-European.”  It was used originally to refer to the family of languages including Yucatec, and so was applicable to any language in the family and by extension, when pluralized (“Mayans”), to the speakers of any member of that family of languages.

If there is a correct usage, then the original usage is probably the best candidate for it.  Scholarship being what it is, though, anthropologists managed to confuse the original meaning of “Maya” with that of “Mayan.”  With two similar-sounding terms to chose from, people using them have since either vacillated, chosen one or the other, or formulated rules for their own use.  I used to use the very rule recommended in the post, applying “Maya” to people and cultures, “Mayan” to languages.  By the historical standard, that was just a bit less than 50% right.  If “Yucatec” rather than “Maya” is consistently used to refer to the language, there would be no historically motivated use for the term “Maya” at all.  Of course, like “irrespectively”, “Maya” is entrenched in the literature.  Many people seem to think “Mayan” sounds more high-falutin’ (academic-like) than “Maya”; some therefore prefer it, others therefore prefer “Maya.”

An explanation occurs to me on how the historically incorrect use of the word “Maya” came about, which for me leads to a more forceful reason why I now almost totally avoid using the word “Maya” except in the phrase “Yucatec Maya” (meaning the language).  Decades ago, a fashion developed in anthropology to use the grammatically singular form of names for ethnic groups in plural as well as singular meanings, and to avoid explicit plurals altogether — thus “the Tiv,” “the Nuer,” and “the Zapotec.”  Perhaps this came about by mistaken generalization from names for groups whose languages lacked explicit plurals.  Names with the -an suffix, like “Mayan”, are really adjectives used as nouns, but when used as plural nouns they require a final -s.  So I suspect that the word “Maya” came into use for the people and culture based on its ability to serve as an ethnic plural in a grammatically singular form, according to the fashion i.e., you can say “many of the Maya” but not “many of the Mayan.”

The real solution to the question of usage, for me, comes from the associations of this grammatical pattern.  In English nouns, the pattern of using singular forms for the plurals of countable (as opposed to mass) nouns is otherwise systematic almost exclusively in words for animals, especially as game or food (“I’m hunting/eating deer/turkey”).  Furthermore, the use of singulars as plurals of ethnic group names is pretty much restricted to non-European groups.  European groups, present-day or historical (except those named by adjective forms, like “the French” or “the English”) get explicit plural markers — so, e.g., one can speak of three Picts or Saxons or Swedes or Poles, but not of three Pict or Saxon or Swede or Pole.

Since Kaufman pointed out to me the origins and associations of this pattern of using ethnic singulars for plurals, I’ve come to find this affectation utterly repugnant.  I personally have tried to expunge all these demeaning ethnic singulars, like “the Aztec,” “the Olmec,” and “the Zapotec,” from my speaking and writing, replacing them with “the Aztecs,” “the Olmecs,” “the Zapotecs,” etc.  “The Maya” is one of these ethnic singulars; for me, that is reason enough to avoid it.

Not being English speakers, this is probably not an issue that has any emotional force for modern-day Mayans, Zapotecs, and Zoques, so they are probably not sensitive about it.  Nor are anthropologists and others who have been academically socialized to practice this norm of terminological behavior being racist(s) by perpetuating it.  I just can’t abide the ethnic singulars in my own speech or writing any more.  The -s plurals used to sound downright vulgar to me; now it is the singulars that sound quaint.

—John Justeson
Copyright © 1998, 2009 John Justeson
Used with permission.

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