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Parallel Worlds: Genre, Discourse, and Poetics in Contemporary, Colonial, and Classic Maya Literature

Parallel Worlds: Genre, Discourse, and Poetics in Contemporary, Colonial, and Classic Maya Literature

by Kerry M. Hull (Editor)

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Despite recent developments in epigraphy, ethnopoetics, and the literary investigation of colonial and modern materials, few studies have compared glyphic texts and historic Maya literatures. Parallel Worlds examines Maya writing and literary traditions from the Classic period until today, revealing remarkable continuities across time.

In this volume,


Despite recent developments in epigraphy, ethnopoetics, and the literary investigation of colonial and modern materials, few studies have compared glyphic texts and historic Maya literatures. Parallel Worlds examines Maya writing and literary traditions from the Classic period until today, revealing remarkable continuities across time.

In this volume, contributions from leading scholars in Maya literary studies examine Maya discourse from Classic period hieroglyphic inscriptions to contemporary spoken narratives, focusing on parallelism to unite the literature historically. Contributors take an ethnopoetic approach, examining literary and verbal arts from a historical perspective, acknowledging that poetic form is as important as narrative content in deciphering what these writings reveal about ancient and contemporary worldviews.

Encompassing a variety of literary motifs, including humor, folklore, incantation, mythology, and more specific forms of parallelism such as couplets, chiasms, kennings, and hyperbatons, Parallel Worlds is a rich journey through Maya culture and pre-Columbian literature that will be of interest to students and scholars of anthropology, ethnography, Latin American history, epigraphy, comparative literature, language studies, indigenous studies, and mythology.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"...It is an ambitious book, and it achieves its main ambitions: to illustrate the continuities between ancient and contemporary Mayan narrative and to prove that classical Mayan writing, which often looks to the uninitiated like pictures and numbers, was a rich and nuanced poetic system, sharing some features with all world literature but developing traditions and styles unique—and uniquely suited—to its historical and cultural context."
—David Eller, Anthropology Review Database

"This excellent work is recommended for classroom use as well as for the general reader interested in Mayan culture."
Colonial Latin American Historical Review

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Parallel Worlds

Genre, Discourse, and Poetics in Contemporary, Colonial, and Classic Period Maya Literature

By Kerry M. Hull, Michael D. Carrasco

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-180-4



[One Thousand Years of Literary Tradition


After listening to Chol storytellers for nearly thirty years, we came to understand that there is a narrative style, a canon that is followed by the best narrators and only marginally controlled by those who are not. Over and over again we noted the same features in stories told by different narrators. For that matter, we noted many of the same features in stories told by speakers of other Mayan languages (England 2009; Josser and and Hopkins 2000), as well as in Classic period Maya hieroglyphic texts (Hopkins and Josserand 1990: 307–310, 1991). That is, there is an established tradition of storytelling that not only appears in the royal texts of the Classic Maya more than 1,000 years ago but which survives today in the telling of sacred and traditional lore.

A good storyteller creates a dramatic narrative by anticipating the reactions of the audience, introducing new information in the right way at the right time, and suppressing some details as background and emphasizing others as focused events. If the story is not being told in a satisfactory way, the audience may break in and begin to tell it right. In several of the stories we have recorded over the years, the principal narrator loses the floor momentarily while someone else takes a turn as narrator. There is a common sense of how stories should be told and an appreciation for narrators who can tell them well.


The telling of a Chol story typically begins with an evidentiality statement, a statement of where and from whom the narrator first heard the story. There is, of course, a lot of variation in how this statement is made, since not all stories are from the same genre of text (Altman 1996). A personal narrative might have no such statement because the storyteller is a witness to the events. But even such stories may begin with an orienting statement about where and when the events took place and how the narrator was involved in them.

The text "A Visit to Don Juan," which relates the personal experiences of the teller (Hopkins and Josserand 1994; CTI 001 R005), begins with the recorder (Ausencio Cruz Guzmán) saying: "This story we're going to tell, now, it took place about fifteen years ago. Mariano was a young boy still." Mariano, the storyteller, continues, "A long time ago, when I was still ... when I was still where my brothers are, in Paso Naranjo." A secondhand story may begin with a statement of how the teller knows it. The text of "The Messengers" (Hopkins and Josserand 1994: 98–131) begins with Cruz saying: "This story I'm going to tell you all, a man told it to me when we went to carve out a canoe there at Arroyo Palenque."

Since these statements are made prior to the actual telling of the tale, they are often edited out in published versions. A reader of much of the published literature would have no idea such things were common, even required, in a proper telling (see Alejos García 1988; Whittaker and Warkentin 1965). Before coming to appreciate these statements as part of the narrative tradition, we occasionally committed the same offense ourselves.

The evidentiality statement may be brief and without detail. The text "The Celestial Bird" (Hopkins and Josserand 1994: 92–93) begins with the simple statement "Like this, they told me that it's like this. When the roosters crow." We don't know who told the narrator the story or where and when it was learned. But it is clearly stated not to be something that comes from the narrator's personal knowledge.

A more formal tale that comes out of the ancient tradition of mythological and sacred stories should have a much more elaborate evidentiality statement, one that attributes the story to the ancestors, near or remote. "Our Holy Mother," one of the most sacred of stories (CTI 001 R002), begins:

Wajali 'ab'i,
A long time ago, it is said,

mi yälob' laj our ancestors used to
tyatyña'älob' —
say —

mi yälob', mi kub'iñ — they speak, I listen —

jtyaty, jña', tzi sub'eñoñ, my father, my mother, told me,

wajali. long ago.

This opening contains several of the diagnostic elements that indicate a story is part of the ancient tradition. It starts with the word wajali, 'a long time ago'. This temporal adverb indicates that the events to be related happened well before the life of any contemporary person. The second word, 'ab'i, glossed 'it is said', is the reportative marker that accompanies the telling of events known as traditional knowledge, stories passed down from generation to generation. It appears to be a reduced form of the past participle of the verb 'al, 'to say', that is, 'al-b'il, '(it is) said', frequently glossed 'they say'. In a typical story, this marker will be used heavily at the beginning to establish its time frame and genre, and it will then reappear in the text only at peak events.

The next phrase, mi yälob' laj tyatyña'älob', 'say our ancestors [father-mother-s]', has two parts. The subject of the clause is a compound noun composed of tyaty 'father' and ña' 'mother', the generalizing suffix äl, and the plural suffix ob'. The compound is possessed by laj 'our'. A compound of this sort in a Mayan language represents a metonym; if the terms for two members of a class are juxtaposed in this fashion, the intent is to index the class that includes them, not them themselves. Thus "father-mother-plural" indexes 'ancestors', just as 'al-p'eñel-ob' (child of woman–child of man–plural) indexes 'descendants'. The verb in this expression, mi yälob', is in incompletive aspect (with preclitic mi), indicating that this is (or was) an ongoing behavior, not a single incident in time. We gloss this 'they used to say'.

In the next-to-last line, another kind of metonymic expression is seen: jtyaty, jña' 'my father, my mother'. Again, what is indexed is the class that includes them both, that is, 'my parents'. Note that the verb in this clause is in completive aspect (with preclitic tzi). It refers to a specific act, not an ongoing behavior: tzi sub'eñoñ, 'they told me'. So the ancestors used to tell this story, and his parents told it to the narrator.

The phrase mi yälob', 'they say', may be used alone without identifying the sayers. Here the tellers are identified as 'ancestors', but the phrase can occur by itself. In Chol Texts of the Supernatural, the story of the Moon and her sons begins abruptly: Jiñäch ñaxañ jiñi i yäskuñ tza' tyili tyi pañimil, 'He it was, first his older brother came to earth' (Whittaker and Warkentin 1965: 13; original orthography replaced; the opening evidentiality statements were edited out of this story). Later segments of traditional lore are introduced by phrases such as 'añ yamb'ä mi yälob', 'there is another one they tell' (ibid.: 49), 'añ mi yälob' ja'el, 'there is something they say also' (ibid.: 51), or just mi yälob', 'they say', as in 'añ yamb'ä mi ña'tyañob' cha'añ mi' käñätyañ jiñi dios, mi yälob', 'there is another thing they believe in order to care for the god, they say' (ibid.: 74). All such attributions to anonymous tellers are veiled references to the ancestors and the oral tradition. These stories are common knowledge, passed down from generation to generation.

In the introductory statement quoted earlier, the same phrase appears again in a structural opposition, another kind of metonymic phrase. Mi yälob', mi kub'iñ, 'they say, I listen', refers to the transmission of tales from one generation to the next, in the oral tradition. The opening paragraph of "Our Holy Mother," then, contains at least six markers that indicate that this is a traditional tale passed down through the generations, and it carries the authority of the ancestors, delegated to the storyteller.


Following the statement of evidentiality, or, indeed, incorporated into it, we should find background information that is necessary to situate the story in time and place and to give us necessary context. We use the term background in two senses. At the beginning of a story, "background" statements introduce such elements as the time, place, and protagonists of the story. These might more properly be called "scene-setting." This new information is stated in sentences that have non-punctual aspect, that is, they are not expressed in the completive aspect but instead in incompletive aspect — or they may use timeless existential verbs or nonverbal predicates. Completive aspect is reserved for the event line, and the first use of the completive marks the transition from scene-setting background information to the action of the story.

The second sense of "background" involves back references made in the text to incidents reported earlier or information the hearer is assumed to know, what is called "old information" in the linguistic literature. These are statements such as "He went to the cave ... When he had arrived at the cave, he entered it." Such back references are usually distinguished by their grammar; they may be marked with perfective aspect or some other morphology that distinguishes them from the event-line events. In oral performance the distinction is sometimes one of inflection (non-falling intonation on the final syllables), which is difficult to convey in a written text.

Evidentiality statements may be incorporated into the scene-setting background statements, where a text can be marked as traditional lore by using the reportative clitic 'ab'i, 'it is said'. Thus in the Tila Chol story "The Blackman" (CTI 001 R019), where the clitic has been reduced to b'i, the text begins 'Añ b'i wajali juñ tyikil lak pi'äl, 'there was, it is said, a long time ago, a man'. The use of b'i and wajali clearly marks this as a story from the traditional repertory.

Another text that mixes evidentiality with the background statements is "Our Grandfather," told by Ausencio Cruz Guzmán (CTI 001 R003; Hopkins and Josserand 1990). It begins:

Wajali 'añ mi yälob'
A long time ago, they say
ke jiñ lak mam that Our Grandfather

mu 'ab'i 'i jub'eltyak used to come down all
'ila tyi lum. the time it is
here to earth.

'Añäch 'ab'i 'I
He had it is said a soul.

Mu 'ab'i 'i jub'eltyak
He used to come down it is
tyi mäk' b'itz'. said to eat bitz' [Inga

With the genre of the text having been established as traditional lore, the evidentiality marker 'ab'i can now disappear, although it will come back at critical points during the story. In fact, the recurrence of 'ab'i later in a story is a sign that a peak event is about to be related.

As to the necessity of using markers of evidentiality and background statements at the beginning of a text, the exception that proves the rule is the text narrated by Nicolás Arcos, "Jaguar-Man" (Hopkins and Josserand 1994: 63–87). Nicolás started this narration with an abrupt beginning: Jiñäch 'i tyejchib'ali, 'This is its beginning'. He then related a series of events with unstated background and without using a single genre or evidentiality marker. Events were simply stated as things that happened. He was promptly called down by his listeners, who intervened with questions about context and suggestions that he start over and tell it right. When he did so, he was obviously annoyed, and he laid it on unusually thick:

'Añ 'ab'i juñ tyikil wiñik There was it is said a man
wajali;a long time ago;

weñ yujil 'ab'i lemb'al. he really knew how it is
to drink liquor.

Mu 'ab'i 'i majlel tyi
He used to go out it is said to town;

mu 'ab'i cha'len lemb'a he used to drink there
ya'i.it is said.

Scene-setting background information ends when the event line begins, and this is marked by the first use of the completive aspect. After the evidentiality statements of "The Messengers," the text continues:

'Añ 'ab'i juñ tyikil korreyo
There was, it is said, a

mu 'ab'i 'i majlel tyi who was, it is said, going
'ak'juñ. to deliver a letter;

Pero komo wajali
But since long ago

maxtyo 'ab'i 'añik there still, it is said, were
xchumtyil; no settlements,

maxtyo 'añik xchumtyil. there still were no settlements.

'I tza majli;
And he left;

tzi tyaja jochob' b'ä
He came upon an
abandoned house.

Background statements are expressed in timeless existential verbs ('añ) and nonverbal predicates or with verbal predicates in non-completive aspect (ITLμITL). The transition to the event line is signaled by the use of the completive aspect: tza majli 'he went', tzi tyaja 'he found'. These phrases report events that took place in a punctual fashion. This is no longer background; this is the event line.

Scene-setting background statements may be extensive. In "Our Holy Mother" (CTI 001 R002), the scene-setting goes on for more than fifty lines before an event is expressed with the completive aspect: Tzi choko tyilel jiñ lekoj b'u muty 'He (God) sent down that fabulous bird' (to tell the trees to stand up). But then the scene-setting continues, describing the altered situation, and the true event line begins much later.

In "The Blackman" (CTI 001 R019), the narrator, Bernardo Pérez, first introduces the protagonist and the setting ('There was, it is said, a man. He had, it is said, a maize granary'). But he then goes on for two paragraphs to describe the custom of keeping a granary in the fields to guard the corn from wild animals and to introduce the Blackman and his characteristics. Only then does the event line begin: Jiñi lak pi'äl, ta b'i majli tyi käñtyañ 'i yixim, 'That man, it is said, went to care for his corn'. (In Tila Chol, the completive preclitic has become ta, corresponding to the Tumbalá tza.)

We have examined narrative texts from more than a dozen Mayan languages, a sample representing all branches of the language family (Josserand and Hopkins 2000). In all the narratives we looked at, the same pattern emerged. Non-completive predicates are used in presenting scene-setting background information, and the completive aspect is not employed until the event line begins. A similar conclusion was reached by Robert Wald (2004) concerning a Colonial Chontal narrative. Since we can also identify this pattern as a characteristic of Classic Maya hieroglyphic narratives (Josserand 1991), it seems safe to state that this is part of the Maya canon. A contrary position was taken by Stephen Houston (1997), who concluded that Classic texts were drafted in the present tense. This conclusion follows logically from a particular set of spelling rules (Houston, Stuart, and Robinson 2004) that lead to a grammar distinct from the one we propose (Robertson, Houston, and Stuart 2004), but we believe those rules are flawed (Hopkins 2006: 408) and note that Houston himself recognizes that the narrative style he proposed is markedly aberrant (Houston 1997: 300–301).


Our treatment of the event line of narrative texts is based on the model proposed by Robert Longacre (1985, 1987; Jones 1979), which has proved to be useful not only for Chol but also for Classic Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions (Josserand 1991), as well as other narrative traditions — for example, Sidiky Diarassouba's (2007) analysis of folktales in Nafara, a Gur language of the Ivory Coast (a dissertation supervised by Josserand).

A narrative text has an "event line" or storyline that relates the series of occurrences that constitute the story. In the narration, other events are presented as background; these events are "off the event line," not part of the storyline but essential to its narration. A series of connected events that normally share topic, syntax, and chronology form an "episode" within the narration; this is the rough equivalent of a paragraph in English composition, a series of related statements that share a common theme. Texts may consist of a single episode or multiple episodes, and these may be further organized into "sections"; the sections are the rough equivalent of chapters, large divisions of long texts, each containing a number of paragraphs.

Within the set of episodes, there will be a peak episode. Peaks are marked by special devices, such as coupleting, focus markers, and marked syntax. The transition between episodes may be marked by the use of special devices (lexical items, phrases, and temporal statements).

The Marking of Event-Line and Background Verbs

Applying this model to Chol narratives, we note that events on the event line are stated in the completive aspect, with the appropriate status markers for each of the three main classes of verbs. Transitive verbs are suffixed with a vowel of the same quality as the root vowel and an epenthetic "(y)" that is present only if a vowel-initial suffix follows: V(y). Intransitive verbs take the suffix i(y), positional verbs take le(y). Background events are stated in non-completive aspects, for example, incompletive aspect, with the appropriate status markers. Transitive verbs take the inaudible [empty set] or, less frequently, the near-obsolete suffix e'. Intransitive verbs take -el, and positional verbs take tyäl.


Excerpted from Parallel Worlds by Kerry M. Hull, Michael D. Carrasco. Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kerry M. Hull is a professor in the College of Foreign Studies at Reitaku University, Japan. Michael D. Carrasco is an assistant professor of pre-Columbian art and architecture in the Department of Art History at Florida State University.

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