Nak ‘to fight’: Another Mije-Sokean Loan in Epigraphic Mayan?


David F. Mora-Marín
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill


In this note I propose that Greater Lowland Mayan speakers borrowed the Proto-Mike-Sokean term *naks ‘to whip, to beat’, and that this term is the ultimate source of a Classic Mayan verb that appears in a spelling at the site of Dos Pilas.


The story begins in 1993, when Grube and Schele (1993) published a brief note on a spelling that appears on Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 from Dos Pilas, dedicated ca. (or 662 CE), seen in Figure 1a. The spelling in question, seen more clearly in Figure 1b, shows the syllabographic sequence ʔu-na-ka-wa. Grube and Schele (1993:1) observed that the expression is a transitive verb, and they related it to the Colonial Tzotzil entry nak, a transitive root glossed as ‘battle, compete against, conquer, contend, fight in a contest, make an enemy of, oppose, repel, resist, wage war against’ (Laughlin with Haviland 1988:268). The term is used inflected and derived in a number of different ways, among them nak-av, an antipassive inflection, nak-av-el ‘opposition, persecution, pursuit’, a verbal noun derivation, and nak-m-al ‘conqueror, enemy, opponent, pursuer, warrior’, an agentive nominalization. Polian (2014:464) documents this term in Tzeltal as nak-om-al ‘enemigo; mal perjudicial (enemy; harmful affliction)’. Although it does not appear in Aulie and Aulie’s (2009) contemporary Ch’ol dictionary, it does show up in Becerra’s (1935:260) Ch’ol vocabulary from 1935 as nak-om-al ‘enemy’. And finally, it is attested in Colonial Yucatec as nak ‘enfadar, empalagar, dar y causar fastidio o hastío y dar en rostro (to annoy, to pall, to give and cause annoyance or weariness and to hit on the face)’, among other inflections and derivations based on the same root, including the agentive derivation nak-om, which includes, among several meanings, ‘military chief’ and ‘sacrificer’ (Barrera Vásquez  1980:553). The term does not appear in Mayan languages from outside the Greater Tzeltalan (Ch’olan, Tzeltalan) and Yucatecan subgroups—there is no entry for this etymon in Kaufman with Justeson (2003) for example. The glyphic spelling ʔu-na-ka-wa can be analyzed as u-nak-aw-Ø ‘s/he fought him/her’ (third person singular ergative-fight-plain/completive of root transitive-third person singular absolutive).


Several months ago, as I was reading Kaufman’s monograph on language contact involving Mesoamerican languages, I came across his comparison between Mije-Sokean *naks ‘to beat, to whip’ and Tonika náka ‘war, battle’ and Shitimasha <nakc> #nakš ‘war, warfare, fight, battle’ (Kaufman 2020:248). It immediately rang a bell, leading me to recall Grube and Schele’s (1993) note. Though not as far-flung as the Tonika and Shitimasha languages, the Greater Tzeltalan, Yucatecan, and Epigraphic Mayan attestations of the root nak are quite straightforward. Since the Mije-Sokean root *naks is widely distributed within that family, appearing in both the Mijean and Sokean branches (Wichmann 1995:397), whereas the Mayan root #nak is restricted to the languages of the Greater Lowland Mayan interaction sphere, a well known diffusion zone involving Ch’olan, Tzeltalan, and Yucatecan (Justeson et al. 1985), it is likely that the term diffused from Mije-Sokean into Greater Lowland Mayan, and can therefore be added to the almost one hundred loans documented so far between Mije-Sokean and Mayan languages (Campbell and Kaufman 1976; Wichmann 1999; Mora-Marín 2016).


I therefore propose that the root nak attested by ca. 662 CE at the site of Dos Pilas was diffused into the Greater Lowland Mayan languages from Mije-Sokean.



Aulie, Wilbur H., and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 2009. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico City: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano. Third edition.

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex: Maya-Español, Español-Maya.  Mérida, Yucatán: Ediciones Cordemex.

Becerra, Marcos E. 1935. Vocabulario de la lengua chol. Anales del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, 2 (quinta época):249-278, 1935.

Campbell, Lyle, and Terrence Kaufman. 1976. A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs.  American Antiquity 41:80-89.

Grube, Nikolai, and Linda Schele. 1993. Un verbo nakwa para “batallar o conquistar.” Texas Notes on Pre-Columbian Art, Writing, and Culture 55. URL:

Hopkins, Nicholas A., Ausencio Cruz Guzmán, and J. Kathryn Josserand. 2008. A Chol (Mayan) vocabulary from 1789. International Journal of American Linguistics 74:83-114.

Hopkins, Nicholas A., J. Kathryn Josserand, and Ausencio Cruz Guzmán. 2011. A Historical Dictionary of Chol (Mayan): The Lexical Sources from 1789 to 1935. Tallahassee, Florida: Jaguar Tours 2011. URL:

Justeson, John S., William M. Norman, Lyle Campbell, and Terrence Kaufman. 1985. The Foreign Impact on Lowland Mayan Language and Script. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 53. New Orleans: Tulane University.

Kaufman, Terrence. 2020. Olmecs, Teotihuacaners, and Toltecs: Language History and Language Contact in Meso-America. URL: 

Laughlin, Robert M., with John B. Haviland.  1988.  The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán.  Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 31.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Mora-Marín, David. 2016. Testing the Proto-Mayan-Mije-Sokean Hypothesis. International Journal of American Linguistics 82:125-180.

Polian, Gilles. 2015. Diccionario Multidialectal del tseltal. URL:

Wichmann, Søren. 1995. The Relationship Among the Mixe-Zoquean Languages of Mexico. Provo: University of Utah Press.

Wichmann, Søren. 1999. A conservative look at diffusion involving mixe-zoquean languages. Archaeology
And Language II: Archaeological Data and Linguistic Hypotheses, ed. Roger blench and
Matthew Spriggs, pp. 297–323. London: Toutledge.