A Mayan language of Mexico, spoken by about 100 000 people in the Chiapas region.


It has five vowels a e i o u and twenty-one consonants b ch ch' j k k' l m n p p' r s t t' tz tz' v x y and the glottal stop, here symbolized ?. The consonants ch' k' p' t' tz' are ejective, and the B is pre-glottalized. The exact sound of these varies with the position in the word: at the end of a word B is a pre-glottalized M sound. J is a velar fricative as in Spanish (ch in loch, chutzpah); TZ is like TS; and X is like English SH.


The basic form of a Tzotzil word is generally a consonant each side of a vowel, and affixes may be added to that.
nat = long, deep
vaj = tortilla
?ich = chilli
k'ok' = fire

Some particles have no final consonant:
xa = already
mi = if

A few other words with no final consonant formerly ended in an H, as may be seen by comparing them with other Mayan languages:
?u = moon (cf. Tzeltal ?uh)
na = house (cf. Tzeltal nah)

There are some disyllabic roots, and if adjectives they have the same vowel in each syllable:
?ajnil = wife
bik'it = small
chopol = bad

Words are stressed on the first syllable of the root but there is also a strong phrase-final stress.

Simple sentences

The particle ?oy means 'there is, are', it's negative is mu?yuk or ch'abal, and yes/no questions are formed with mi.

?oy vaj = there are tortillas
?oy vo? = there is water
mi ?oy vaj = are there tortillas?
mu?yuk vaj = there are no tortillas

Two sentences can be combined directly:
?oy vaj ?oy chenek' = there are tortillas and there are beans

Two copies of mi make an XOR question:
mi ?oy vaj mi ?oy chenek' = are there tortillas or are there beans?
mi ?oy vaj mi ch'abal = are there tortillas or not?

The only preposition is ta, which indicates any kind of location:
?oy vaj ta ch'ivit = there are tortillas at the market
?oy ch'ivit ta lunex = there is a market on Monday
?oy ch'ivit ta Jobel = there is a market in San Cristóbal

More precise locations are formed with body parts such as jol 'head' and pat 'back', e.g. jol vitz 'on top of the mountain', pat mok 'behind the fence'.

Plurality is optional: tzeb means 'girl (or daughter)' or 'girls', but also has a plural tzebetik.

Definite articles, demonstratives

A location specified with ta is already definite. Otherwise a definite noun takes a circumfix. Tzotzil appears to contrast both physical and mental proximity, if I'm reading my source right. The circumfix li ... e means 'the' (near), and ti ... e means 'the' (distant, or dead, or in a story).

li vaj e = the tortillas (here or somewhere round here)
ti vaj e = the tortillas (perhaps ones I had yesterday)

The demonstratives have three degrees of distance:

li vaj li? e = these tortillas
li vaj le? e = those tortillas (just there)
li vaj taj e = these tortillas (over there)

The demonstratives also function as the adverbs of place for indefinite things:

?oy vaj li? to e = there are tortillas here
?oy vaj le? to e = there are tortillas just there
?oy vaj taj to e = there are tortillas over there

Personal names are also marked as definite, as in li Xun e 'John', ti Xun e 'John (dead, far away, or in a story)'.


Possession is indicated by a prefix:
na = house
jna = my house
ana = your house
sna = his/her house
sna li Xun e = John's house

Normally they must be definite, so either use the preposition ta or put the article around them:

ta jna = in my house
li jna e = my house

But indefinite possession with 'there is' is how you express 'to have':

tzeb = daughter
li jtzeb e = my daughter
?oy jtzeb = I have a daughter
ch'abal jtzeb = I haven't a daughter

To be

There is no verb 'to be'. We have already covered the use of ?oy 'there is'. To equate one thing with another or classify it the construction is predicate + subject:

bik'it li tzeb e = the girl is small
muk' li jna e = my house is big

The negative of this uses the circumfix mu ... uk to negate the predicate, or ma?uk to negate the subject:

mu bik'it uk li tzeb e = the girl isn't small (she's big)
ma?uk bik'it li tzeb e = the girl isn't small (the boy is)

Where the subject is a pronoun it is simply omitted in the third person, and suffixes are used in the first and second:

tzeb = she is a girl
tzebon = I am a girl
tzebot = you are a girl
muk'ot = you are big

We have already seen the third person negation mu ... uk; the other persons use mu with their suffix:

mu muk' uk = s/he is not big
mu muk'on = I am not big
mu muk'ot = you are not big


The suffix -em on an intransitive verb is perfect or rather stative, that is it indicates the result of an action that has happened.

batem = s/he has (or is) gone
batem li Xun e = John has (or is) gone
batemon = I have (or am) gone
batemot = you have (or are) gone
batem xa li Xun e = John has (or is) already gone
batem ta Jobel li Xun e = John has (or is) gone to San Cristóbal
mi batem li Xun e = has (or is) John gone?

The prefix ch- makes the imperfective, indicating a continuing action. With this the pronoun prefixes are different from those so far used.

chbat = s/he is going (or will go)
chibat = I am going (or will go)
chabat = you are going (or will go)

The negatives of these two aspects are formed thus:

muk' batem li Xun e = John has not gone
mu xbat li Xun e = John is not going

The perfect, usually with past meaning, is formed with different prefixes:

bat or ibat = s/he went
libat = I went
labat = you went

Tzotzil is ergative, that is the subject of an intransitive sentence is marked the same way as the object of a transitive sentence.

smajoj = s/he has hit her/him
smajojon = s/he has hit me
smajojot = s/he has hit you

The -oj marks the stative, the equivalent of intransitive -em. And the s- has already been met with as the possessive prefix on nouns.

stzeb = her/his daughter
jtzeb = my daughter
atzeb = your daughter
smajojot = s/he has hit you
jmajojot = I have hit you
amajojon = you have hit me

Beyond that point we start getting complicated.

Further reading
My knowledge of the Tzotzil language was gained entirely from the Sk'op Sotz'leb site at www.zapata.org/tzotzil by John Beard Haviland, which contains an extensive exposition in nine large and detailed chapters. It is however a lot more complicated than my overview.

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