Revisiting nak ‘to fight’: Additional Mayan Evidence Could Suggest Cognacy with Mije-Sokean *naks ‘to beat, to whip’


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


In Note 13 I proposed that Greater Lowland Mayan speakers had borrowed the Proto-Mije-Sokean term *naks ‘to whip, to beat’, and that such term was represented in Epigraphic Mayan, attested at the site of Dos Pilas, in a verbal expression first recognized by Grube and Schele (1993). To review, the expression shows the spelling ʔu-na-ka-wa, analyzable as u-nak-aw-Ø ‘s/he fought/beat him/her’, as seen in Figure 1. I argued in my previous Note that the Tzotzil, Ch’ol, and Yucatec entries supported the proposition that the term was likely diffused within the Greater Lowland Mayan region, as it appeared to lack attestations in other Mayan languages, and furthermore, that its phonological and semantic similarity to the Mije-Sokean term *naks, which is found in both branches of Mije-Sokean, were indicative of a loan from Mije-Sokean.


Figure 1


Within a day of posting my Note 13, linguist Evgeniya Korovina at the Institute of Linguistics at the Russian Academy of Sciences reached out by email to note that there were in fact entries of relevance in Kaufman with Justeson (2003:63): Colonial Yucatec #no7col ‘enemy’ and Tzeltal nak-umal ‘enemy’. Indeed, Kaufman with Justeson suggested a reconstruction *naq, with *q to explain why such a term would not have experienced the *k > ch shift of Greater Tzeltalan. I had completely missed this entry because of the simple fact that I had searched for entries resembling *nak, when I should have considered both *naq and *nak. A rookie mistake!


More interestingly, Korovina noted in her email that there exist Greater K’ichee’an items with likely related forms and meanings based on a root naq in Poqom, Poqomchi’, Tz’utujiil, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi’, and Sakapulteko. For instance, Poqomchi’ offers both naq-aj ‘regañar (to scold, intransitive)’ and naq-ooj ‘regañar (to scold, transitive)’, among other inflections and derivations based on such root and stems (Dobbels 2003:439). More importantly, this root naq confirms the presence of *q hypothesized by Kaufman with Justeson (2003:63) in their Greater Lowland Mayan form *naq ‘enemy’.


This last point now raises an interesting question. It seems less likely that Mayan speakers would have borrowed a Mije-Sokean root with a final k as q, i.e. Mije-Sokean *naks as Mayan *naq. Perhaps this etymon could provide evidence for cognacy, rather than diffusion, as Terry Kaufman indeed suggested to me on 8/25/20 when I mentioned this comparison. At the time I didn’t feel comfortable with the notion of cognacy, since up until then only languages from the Greater Lowland Mayan diffusion area attested to this etymon. However, Korovina’s email pointing to its wide attestation within Greater K’ichee’an with the expected form to support the possibility of an older etymology certainly makes it plausible. Mora-Marín (2016:143, Table 8) presented 9 possible cognates attesting to the correspondence of Mayan *q to Mije-Sokean *k, such as Proto-Mayan *qay ‘to eat eagerly’ and Proto-Mije-Sokean *kay ‘to eat (tortillas, bread)’, PM *b’aaq ‘bone’ and PMS *pak ‘bone’.


To sum up, Epigraphic Mayan nak ‘to fight/battle with’ can be more securely traced back to *naq. This root is more widely attested in the Greater Tzeltalan and Yucatecan languages, but now appears to be present also in Greater K’ichee’an, as Korovina has pointed out. Potentially, then, it could be a Central Mayan or Southern Mayan (Late Proto-Mayan) etymon. And potentially, as such, it could be a candidate for cognacy with Mije-Sokean *naks ‘to beat, to whip’. But given the prevalence of diffusion within the Greater Lowland Mayan region (Justeson et al. 1985), the term could be much more recent within Mayan, and may have been diffused between Greater K’ichee’an and a language from the Greater Lowland Mayan region prior to the *q > k shift of Greater Tzeltalan. A more systematic search for cognates in other Mayan subgroups (e.g. Huastecan, Greater Q’anjob’alan, Greater Mamean) should help clarify the issue.


Acknowledgments. My sincere thanks to Evgeniya Korovina for noting that I missed the *naq ‘enemy’ entry in Kaufman with Justeson (2003), and especially for steering me toward the Greater K’ichee’an cognates of relevance.


Dobbels, Marcel. 2003. Tusq’orik Maya Poqomchi’–Kaxlan Q’orik. Diccionario Poqomchi’–Castellano. Primera edición. Guatemala: PROASE.

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

Kaufman, Terrence, with John Justeson. 2003. Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. 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.

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