Two Additional Etyma That Experienced the Greater Tzeltalan *k > ch Shift: ‘Expensive’ and ‘Person; Who, Who?’


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

6/7/2021 (with revisions through 6/12/2021)


This note introduces two possible novel cases of the Greater Tzeltalan *k(‘) > ch(‘) shift described by Kaufman & Norman (1984:83–85). They characterized it as unconditioned, but defined a set of inhibiting environments that prevented the shift in 30 of the 89 etyma in their dataset. Their characterization of the inhibiting environments is cited verbatim and in full next (Kaufman & Norman 1984:84):


  1. in initial position before a vowel that is in turn followed by an apical consonant or /p/, unless the vowel is /i/;
  2. in final position following a vowel, if the consonant preceding the vowel is an apical or /p/ (even if the vowel is /i/);
  3. in final position following /h/ (but not following /j/);
  4. in intervocalic position within a single root unless the vowel that precedes the velar stop is /i/.


Campbell (2000) and Kaufman and Justeson (2007) have presented arguments that favor a timing of this shift prior to the Classic period (CE 200-900), and certainly prior to the initial attestations of proto-Ch’olan *käkäw ‘cacao’, by the fifth century CE as ka-ka-w(a). This etymon is a Mixe-Zoquean loan, and does not display inhibiting conditions: if the shift had occurred subsequently to its attestation, it would have experienced the shift, resulting in a form chächäw* that is not attested in any Ch’olan or Tzeltalan language.


A few years ago, Law et al. (2014) put forth a proposal for a late spread of the shift in question, arguing that it is first attested in Epigraphic Mayan by the late Early Classic (CE 200-600) and especially the Late Classic (CE 600-900) periods. More recently, I (Mora-Marín n.d.) have presented arguments, based on new and old linguistic and epigraphic evidence, against this late spread, recalling the evidence previously adduced by Campbell (2000) and Kaufman and Justeson (2007).


The goal of this note is simply to bring to light two etyma that appear to have experienced this shift but have not been previously remarked upon. A few additional cases had already been introduced in Kaufman with Justeson (2003) and a few other sources, including Mora-Marín (n.d.). In total, prior to this note, there were 118 etyma with *k and *k’, of which 70 experienced a shift.


The first is the adjectival root ‘expensive’, with comparative data seen in Table 1. In the set it is clear that Yucatecan /k/ corresponds to Yokot’an (Chontal) /ch/, and that there is a basic shared shape /Co(7)X/, with /C/ corresponding to Yucatecan /k/ and Yokot’an /ch/, /7/ representing [ʔ] (glottal stop; saltillo), and /X/ representing /h/ from either *h or *j (see discussion below). The Yokot’an form choj ‘expensive, costly’, pointed out to me by Nick Hopkins (personal communication, 2021), is an adjective. Whether /j/ in contemporary Yokot’an descends from proto-Ch’olan *h or *j cannot be determined. The Yucatecan form can be reconstructed as proto-Yucatecan *ko7h or *ko7j: there is no way to know, with cognates only in Yucatecan and Ch’olan, both of which have merged pM *h and *j, whether the final consonant can be traced to *h or *j specifically. Although the Motul dictionary represents it as <coh> ~ <cooh>, it is clear that word-finally <h> was not classified as ‘simple’ or ‘loud/strong’, like the initial cases of <h> were. Nick Hopkins also explained that the Yokot’an cases of cho7an and cho7esan exhibit a cluster reduction rule, whereby /Vh-7V/ > [V7V], and notes that this rule occurs in Ch’ol as well. The first of these Yokot’an forms may be analyzed as follows: cho7an as choj-7an, with choj ‘expensive’ and -7an ‘inchoative’, resulting in ‘to become expensive’. The second verbal derivation, cho7esan, may require invoking analogy: if analyzed as choj-es-an, with -es as ‘causativizer’ and -an as ‘incompletive status of derived transitives’, resulting in ‘to cause to be expensive’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984; Knowles 1984), one is left without being able to account for the glottal stop. It seems that speakers have reanalyzed the sequence [cho7] in cho7an (i.e. /choj-7an/) as the basic form to be used in verbal derivations. Nevertheless, the adjectival form choj is on its own comparable to the proposed Yucatecan form *ko7h (or *ko7j), given that Greater Tzeltalan experienced a *V7C, *VVC > VVC merger, and that the resulting *VVC changed to *VC by proto-Ch’olan times. Thus, it is possible to propose a (Greater) Lowland Mayan form *kyo7h or *kyo7j ‘expensive’ that experienced the *k > ky > ch shift, and was retained in Yucatecan and Yokot’an (Ch’olan).


Table 1. Comparative data for ‘Expensive’.

Language Lexemes and examples Sources
Yucatec kó7oh (adjective) ‘expensive’, le p’óoka7 hach kó7oh‘this hat is very expensive’ Bricker et al. 1998:131
Col. Yucatec <coh> ~ <cooh> ‘cosa preciosa, y de estima rica’ and ‘cosa cara, o lo ques caro’ Arzápalo 1995:1555
Lacandon ko7h (adjective) ‘expensive’, ko7oh 7u-nook’ ‘her/his clothes are expensive’ Hofling 2014:187
Itzaj ko7oh (adjective) ‘expensive’, ma’ ko7oh (u-tool) ‘it’s not expensive (its price)’ Hofling with Tesucún 1997:361
Mopan ko7oh (adjective) ‘expensive’, ko7oh a ixi7im-i ‘The corn is expensive’ Hofling 2011:245
Yokot’an a.     choj (adjective) ‘expensive, costly’

b.     cho7an (intransitive) ‘to rise in price, to become expensive, to increase in price’, … uk’a más mu7 u cho7an ‘because of that it is increasing in price’

c.     cho7esan (transitive) ‘to make more expensive, to raise the price’, u cho7esijob we7e ni ajchonwe7e‘the butchers (meat-sellers) raised the price of the meat’

Keller and Luciano 1997:94, 95


The second etymon of interest is documented in Kaufman with Justeson (2003:1517), who reconstruct it to Lowland Mayan plus Western Mayan as *ma-k, seemingly showing a suffix *-k, although this could be in error (typo), as Kaufman (2015:974, 993) reconstructs this form as *mak ‘who?’. Table 2 provides the data that I have collected for the Greater Lowland Mayan languages (Yucatecan, Ch’olan, Tzeltalan). Based on such evidence I propose a revised reconstruction: *majk (not *mahk) as ‘person; who, who?’, the first part of the proto-gloss, ‘person’, is based on Yucatecan ‘person’ and Ch’ol ‘relative; extended family’ (see Hopkins 2019), while the second is attested in all the cognates. First, the final /k/ is not a suffix, but part of a lexical root, one attested in Yucatecan as /k/ and in Ch’olan as /ch/, supporting the possibility that this form experienced the *k > ch shift.  Recall that one of the environments inhibiting the shift was “in final position following /h/ (but not following /j/)” (Kaufman & Norman 1984:84). Consequently, I propose a form *majk to at least Lowland Mayan plus Western Mayan.[1] Another loose end is only briefly noted: the apparent /ch’/ of the Tzeltalan forms, which I suspect is the result of the following structure /mäch/ + /7äy(-uk)/, the second component consisting of the existential particle, 7äy, whose initial glottal stop likely induced glottalization of the /ch/ of mach ‘who, who?’.[2]Alternatively, Kaufman (2015:994) suggests that the Tzeltalan form *mäch’ä “is probably from *mak ‘who’ + *7a ‘at such a place/time’.” Finally, the dialectal correspondences in Tzotzil between the initial /m/ and /b’/ remain to be discussed. Thus, there remain several loose ends explore in a future note.


Table 2. Comparative data for ‘who’ and ‘person’ among Greater Lowland Mayan languages.

Language Lexemes and examples Sources
Yucatec máak (noun) ‘person, man, human being’

máax (particle) ‘who?, who’

Bricker et al. 1998:178, 181
Lacandon máak (interrogative) ‘who?’

máak (noun) ‘person; someone; who’

Hofling 2014:223
Itzaj mak ~ maak (noun) ‘person’

max ~ maax (interrogative) ‘who?’

max ~ maax (relative) ‘who, whom, whose’

Hofling with Tesucún 1997:428, 432, 437, 438
Mopan mak (interrogative) ‘who?’ Hofling 2011:296
Ch’ol majch-il ‘relative; clan, extended family’ (Tila only)

majchki (pronoun) ‘who?’ (Tila)

majki (pronoun) ‘who, who?’ (Tumbalá)

Aulie and Aulie 2009:55
Yokot’an machka (pronoun) ‘whoever’ Keller and Luciano 1997:95
machka (indefinite pronoun) ‘someone’ Montgomery-Anderson 2013:81
Ch’olti’ <machi> ‘who’ Robertson et al. 2010:343
Ch’orti’ chi’ ~ chi (pronoun) ‘who, whom’ Hull 2016:102
Proto-Ch’olan *mahch ‘who’ Kaufman and Norman 1984:139
Tzeltal mach’a (interrogative proform) ‘someone, who’ Polian 2018:415
mach’a (interrogative, relative pronoun) ‘who, someone; who?’

mach’ayuk ‘whoever, anybody’

mach’a yu7un ‘for whom?; whose?’

Slocum et al. 1999:72
Tzotzil much’u (relative pronoun; interrogative) ‘who, someone; who?’ (Zinacantán)

buch’u (San Andrés)

boch’o (Ch’enalo’/Chenalhó)

Hurley and Sánchez (1978:23, 350)
Proto-Tzeltalan *mäch’ä(y) (pronoun) ‘who, who?’ Kaufman 1972:109


A few words regarding the final consonant of this form, and also the addition of a suffix -ki, are in order. Vázquez Álvarez (2011:288) explains that the /ki/ of majchki is probably a suffix, historically, but it is only optionally used with some question words, like jalaj(ki) ‘when’ and bajche7(ki) ‘how’ or ‘how much’. Note that if one removes the -ki from majchki, one obtains majch, wherein the final /ch/ would correspond to the final /k/ in the Yucatecan form *máak. Also note that the /j/ of majch was reconstructed to proto-Ch’olan as *h, as in proto-Ch’olan *mahch ‘who’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139). Nevertheless, since pM *CVjC and *CVhC merged into Ch’olan *CVhC, it is possible that pre-Ch’olan may have exhibited *majch. As reviewed earlier, this would have removed an inhibiting factor for the analysis proposed here of a *k > ch shift. And this analysis allows for a relative chronology such as LL+WM *majk > pre-Ch’olan *majch > proto-Ch’olan *mahch, supporting the proposition that the *CVjC, *CVhC > CVhC merger postdates the *k > ch shift. In addition, the Yucatecan form *máak can be accounted for as a *majk > (*mahk >) *máak, given the regular sound change of *VhC and *VjC > *V́VC in Yucatecan (Justeson et al. 1985:15). In other words, the /ch/ of Ch’olan *mahch is cognate with the /k/ of Yucatecan *máak, and they are not related to the apparent interrogative suffix -ki, which should have shifted to -chi* if it descends from earlier pre-Greater Tzeltalan *k. Its presence as -ki in Ch’ol, despite the absence of inhibiting factors, could suggest either an earlier form *-qi, or a late innovation after the *k > ch shift had already taken place. The Ch’orti’ form chi’ ~ chi, when compared to Ch’olti’ <machi>, can be proposed to be a reduced reflex of a proto-Eastern Ch’olan *ma(h)chi(7) from an earlier proto-Ch’olan *mahch.[3]


To sum up, it would appear that two additional etyma can be proposed as having experienced the *k > ch shift of Greater Tzeltalan: (Greater) Lowland Mayan *kyo7h (or *kyo7j) ‘expensive’, and LL+WM *majk ‘person; who, who?’. This brings up the current tally to 72 etyma that experienced the shift, out of 120. Several loose ends remain, and will be pursued at a future time.



I would like to thank Nick Hopkins for his insights on Ch’ol morphophonology and his pointing me to the adjectival entry choj ‘expensive’ in Yokot’an.



[1] I will not explore at this time the possible cognates in (or loans into) Greater Q’anjob’alan included in Kaufman with Justeson’s (2003) or Kaufman’s (2015:993) datasets.

[2] Note that Hopkins (2019:1) points out that Ch’olan speakers ask ¿Majchki añ jiñi? ‘Who is he?’ to inquire about someone’s identity, or more explicitly, as he has explained to me, ‘What clan is he from?’ (Hopkins, personal communication 2021). This routine question shows majch-ki ‘who’ immediately followed by 7añ ‘existential particle’. If Tzeltalan speakers used a similar phrase in the past, without the -ki suffix, it would explain the glottalization of the final /ch/ in Proto-Tzeltalan *mäch’ä(y). Note that the Tzeltal form mach’ayuk would also agree with 7ayuk, a common inflection of 7ay with -uk‘subjunctive’. The Ch’ol question could also explain the polysemy extension of this term as follows: ‘clan’ > ‘clan; person’ > ‘clan; person; who, who?’ that  may have taken place historically. Support for the juxtaposition and amalgamation of the existential particle with this root for ‘who’ is found in Popti’, with the form aymi make ‘someone’ (Kaufman with Justeson 2003:1517).

[3] Finally, yet another loose end is worth exploring at a future date: the innovation of the Yucatecan -x ‘interrogative’ suffix, attested only in the Yucatec and Itzaj forms for ‘person; who, who?’, and remains variable in contemporary Yucatec (cf. Bricker 2018:31).


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