Brief Comments on taʔ=k’in ‘metal’ and Its Culture Historical Implications


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



This note deals with the spread of the term for ‘metal’ in Mayan languages, and its historical linguistic and cultural implications, including implications regarding the presence of Huastec and Kabil/Chicomuceltec in the Maya lowlands.


A while back, Lyle Campbell (1988:211) highlighted the case of Huastec and Kabil tak’in ‘silver, money, precious metal’, likely a loan from a Lowland Mayan language initially diffused as #taaʔ=q’iiŋ ‘metal (lit. shit=sun, i.e. shit-of-the-sun)’ (Kaufman with Justeson 2003:400). The reason for assuming that Huastec and Kabil borrowed this term is that a native Huastecan term would exhibit k’ih instead of k’in from pM *q’iiŋ ‘sun, day’, for Huastecan experienced a change of pM *ŋ > h/__# (the velar nasal became a glottal fricative word-finally) (Norcliffe 2003:75–76). In fact, the term for ‘sun, day’ in Huastec (San Luis Potosí, Veracruz) and Chicomuceltec is k’ih. Prior authors, Lyle Campbell among them, had observed this already a while ago (cf. Kaufman 1980, 1985; Justeson et al. 1985; Kaufman and Justeson 2008).


Campbell (1988) went on to suggest, though, that this loan is evidence of late contact, arguing that the spread of metal artifacts and metallurgy is mostly a Postclassic phenomenon, and therefore, potentially supportive of a late presence of Huastecan in the Mayan region, after which pre-Huastec speakers migrated north toward the Huasteca, leaving pre-Chicomuceltec speakers behind in the Maya region.


Nonetheless, with regard to metal objects, things are not that simple. Metal objects manufactured through complex metallurgical techniques had been arriving into the Maya region already during the Early Classic (e.g. gold-copper alloy claw from Altun Ha, Belize, early sixth century) and Late Classic (e.g. gold-copper alloy legs, Copan, Honduras, eighth century) periods (Morley 1946:431-432, Fig. 55c; Pendergast 1970), which means that Lowland Mayans may have coined the term for ‘metal’ as early as the late Early Classic period or early Late Classic period.[1]


Moreover, within Mesoamerica, simpler metallurgical techniques had been employed much earlier than that: some iron ores, such as hematite and magnetite, were polished into mirrors and likely used to reflect the sun’s light, and are known from the archaeological record going back to the Middle Preclassic period (1000-400 BCE). Mayans in both the highlands and lowlands manufactured polished iron ores, in the form of pyrite- or hematite-backed slate disks or squares, as mirrors that likely reflected sunlight, between the Middle Preclassic (ca. 600 BCE) and the Late Postclassic (ca. 1521 CE) periods (e.g. Healy and Blainey 2011). This likely sunlight-reflecting function would have become an obvious association between polished metal objects and the sun, accounting for the etymon’s composition based on reflexes of Lowland Mayan *taaʔ ‘excrement; residue; waste product’ and pM *q’iiŋ ‘sun; day’.


The fact that *taaʔ is a Lowland Mayan term is important. Kaufman with Justeson (2003:293) reconstruct two etyma as ‘shit’: pM *tzaaʔ and Lowland Mayan #ta(a)ʔ. The latter term, Lowland Mayan (LL), refers to the contact diffusion area involving the Ch’olan and Yucatecan languages as primary cultural brokers, but including also neighboring languages (Tzeltalan, some Greater Q’anjob’alan, some Greater K’ichee’an). The diffused etymon #taaʔ=q’iiiŋ, present in Huastec, Yucatecan, Greater Tzeltalan, as well as at least three of the Greater Q’anjob’alan languages (Tojolab’al, Mocho, Tuzantek), uses LL #ta(a)ʔ ‘shit’, as evidenced by the fact that the Greater Q’anjob’alan languages exhibit reflexes of pM *tzaaʔ as their native term for ‘shit’.


And crucially, also, the fact that the diffused etymon #taaʔ=q’iiiŋ is reflected in Tuzanteko (Greater Q’anjob’alan) as taaq’iiŋ, with q’, also indicates that the term must have diffused before the shift of *q’ > k’ that was likely spread areally from the LL region. This shift long predates the Postclassic period, and quite likely even the earliest legible and readable Mayan inscriptions, which contain no evidence of a distinction between reflexes of pM *q(‘) and *k(‘), much less of a real-time change of *q(‘) > k(‘) (cf. Justeson and Fox 1989; Kaufman and Norman 1984; Kaufman and Justeson 2007, 2008, 2009; Law et al. 2014; Mora-Marín 2022). Thus, there is no reason to expect that Huastecan (whether Huastec or Kabil) would have borrowed this etymon during the Postclassic.


(Paragraph added on 3/12/24) A brief comment on Pharao Hansen and Helmke (2019) is relevant here: those authors fail to consider the much earlier tradition of fashioning of metal into reflective disks, going back to the Middle Preclassic. Some such ores, like pyrite, were of a similar color as gold. They also ignore the implications of the presence of /q’/ in the Tuzanteko form for the timing of the borrowing. And last, they also choose to ignore the semantic reconstruction by Kaufman with Justeson (2003) as ‘metal’, despite Kaufman’s decades-long expertise in historical linguistic reconstruction of multiple language families from Mesoamerica and elsewhere.


The diffused etymon #taaʔ=q’iiŋ ‘metal’, consequently, could have been traveling along with iron-ore mirrors for centuries prior to the beginning of the Classic period ca. CE 200. Metal objects were long-distance trade items par excellence since the Preclassic period. Gold and gold-copper alloys began arriving in Mesoamerica from as far away as Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, and thus the wide-ranging diffusion of terms for such objects should be no surprise: Yokot’an/Chontal speakers may have been in a position to spread this term both along the coast and inland. Other loanwords between Huastecan and other Mayan languages, especially terms attested in Ch’olan and Yucatecan, both of whom had access to the coast, may be the result of coastal trade connecting the Huasteca to the Maya region, and do not require an assumption of geographic contiguity of settlements.


[1] The term, spelled ta-K’IN-ni, possibly in reference to gold or metal, is in fact attested by 870 CE on the lintel of the Akab Dzib at Chichen Itza (Pharao Hansen and Helmke 2019:118–119, Fig. 3). However, its context is not clear, and it is possible that it actually was meant to say tä k’iin ‘on/at/to/by (a/the) day’.




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