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About Tzeltal
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
  4. Publications
  5. Photos


Tzeltal is a Mayan language spoken in southeastern Mexico, mostly in the state of Chiapas. It is closely related both culturally and linguistically to the neighboring language Tzotzil.

There are 280,000 or more Tzeltal speakers spread across the state, from the high mountain plateau of San Cristóbal de las Casas and environs to the lowland jungle of southeastern Chiapas. Tzeltal is a living language, still being transmitted to children as their first language, and with many monolingual speakers among the elderly. In the municipio of Tenejapa, it is the language of the home and the community; Spanish is taught in school and is used in some public settings.

Tzeltal has the following features:

  • verb initial, head marking, mildly polysynthetic, free argument ellipsis
  • ergative/absolutive cross-referencing on verbs; no ergative split
  • a relatively small number (~3000) of canonically CVC verb roots; very productive derivational morphology
  • spatially rich semantics in a number of word classes: positional verbs, numeral classifiers
  • an absolute spatial frame of reference system based on the overall uphill/downhill slope of the land

There are Ethnologue language codes for two Tzeltal dialects: tzb (Bachajón) and tzh (Oxchuc), but none for Tenejapa Tzeltal.

There has been a great deal of linguistic and ethnolinguistic work on Tzeltal, though not as much as on the intensively studied neighboring language Tzotzil. Tenejapan Tzeltal was the locus of some of the foundational work in ethnobiology and ethnographic semantics (e.g. Berlin and Kay 1969, Berlin, Berlin Breedlove and Raven 1971, Berlin and Berlin 1996). Tenejapa has been the fieldwork locus of research for several anthropological and linguistic PhDs (e.g., Stross 1969, Branstetter 1974, Hunn 1977, Haehl 1980, Maffi 1994, Brett 1994, Rostas 1986). The phonology and morphology of Agucatenango Tzeltal are described in Kaufman 1971, and there is now a very good grammar of the Oxchuc dialect of Tzeltal written by Gilles Polian, published in French based on his PhD thesis and with a revised version published in Spanish in 2009. (See general references)



Tenejapa is a municipio – a corporate community with its own identity, clothing, and local government – of about 100 square kilometers, situated in a rugged, mountainous area of highland Chiapas. It lies at the western edge of Tzeltal-speaking territory, bordered by municipios of Tzotzil speakers from the northwest to the southeast. Elevations range between 900 metres (2925 feet) in the northeast ('hot country') to 2800 metres (9100 feet) in the south ('cold country'). Tenejapans are slash and burn agriculturalists leading a largely subsistence existence based on corn and beans cultivation, supplemented where ecology permits with a cash crop of coffee. The fragmented land tenure system allows many families to exploit the different ecologies, with distinct crops in lowland fields and upland fields. Most travel was until very recently by foot, over an extensive set of trails, most of which run south/north following the prevailing ridges and valleys. Roadbuilding has been intensive in the last decade, with even the most remote communities now having a rough dirt road into them, and travel by foot is correspondingly diminished.

The population of Tenejapa is about 37,000, and the land is densely used. Settlement is in dispersed hamlets (known as parajes), with household compounds spread out and surrounded with cultivated fields, fallow land, banana and other fruit trees, and, in hot country, coffee plantations. The ceremonial centre of Tenejapa (locally referred to as Lum 'town') c. 6700 feet, 2000 metres) is a small town with some Spanish-speaking inhabitants (Ladinos, in local parlance) as well as Tzeltal ones, primarily political and religious leaders housed in town during their tenure of office. 30 km to the southwest and still in cold high country lies the market town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.


People and Culture

Tenejapans have their own local government, based in the cabildo in Tenejapa center (lum) and headed by an elected Presidente (kunerol). They have a civil religious hierarchy, as in other municipios, responsible for the well-being of the community, care of the saints and conducting fiestas. Tenejapans have their own characteristic dress: a black wool tzotz for men with handwoven and embroidered pants and sash, a blue cotton skirt for women with predominantly red embroidered top and two belts. This traditional clothing is still worn by religious and government officials and at fiestas, but for everyday clothes - with the exception of women’s skirts - most people have adopted western dress.

Children go to school locally through the sixth grade, and many now go on to secondario, so bilingualism and other associated culture change is rapidly increasing in the community.



Politeness, conversation, and social interaction:

  • Brown, P. 1979. Language, interaction, and sex roles in a Mayan community: a study of politeness and the position of women. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. (Available through University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.)
  • Brown, P. 1980. How and why are women more polite: Some evidence from a Mayan community. In S. McConnell-Ginet, R. Borker, & N. Furman, eds., Women and language in literature and society, pp. 111-36. Praeger Publishers. Reprinted in J. Coates (ed) 1996, Language and gender. Oxford: Blackwell. German translation 1991: Sind Frauen höflicher? Befunde aus einer Maya-Gemeinde. Von fremden Stimmen: Weibliches und männliches Sprechen im Kulturvergleich, S. Günther and H. Kotthoff (eds.). Suhrkamp.
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. 1987 [1978]. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 4. Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. 1990. Gender, politeness and confrontation in Tenejapa. Discourse Processes 13 (special issue edited by D. Tannen), pp. 123-41. Reprinted in D. Tannen, ed., Gender and conversational interaction. Oxford University Press. 1993.
  • Brown, P. 1995. Politeness strategies and the attribution of intentions: The case of Tzeltal irony. In E. Goody, ed., Social intelligence and interaction, pp.153-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. 2007. Principles of person reference in Tzeltal conversation. In Enfield, N. J. & T. Stivers, eds., Person reference in interaction: Linguistic, cultural, and social perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rossano, F., P. Brown, S.C. Levinson 2009. Gaze, questioning and culture. In J. Sidnell, ed., Comparative studies in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. 2011. Questions and their responses in Tzeltal. In T. Stivers, N. Enfield & S.C. Levinson, eds., Questions and Responses in 10 languages [special issue] Journal of Pragmatics, 42: 2627-2648.
  • Enfield, N. J., P. Brown, and J. De Ruiter 2012. Epistemic dimensions of polar questions: Sentence-final particles in comparative perspective. In J. P. De Ruiter, ed., Questions: Formal, functional and interactional perspectives, pp. 193-221. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Spatial frames of reference and cognition:

  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. 1992. 'Left' and 'right' in Tenejapa: Investigating a linguistic and conceptual gap. In L. de León & S.C. Levinson, eds., Spatial description in Mesoamerican languages. Special volume of the Zeitschrift fur Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 45(6), 590-611. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. 1993. 'Uphill' and 'downhill' in Tzeltal. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 3(1), 46-74.
  • Levinson, S.C. and Brown, P. 1994. Immanual Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as empirical philosophy. Ethos 22(1):3-41.
  • Gumperz, J.J. and Levinson, S.C. (eds.) 1996. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Levinson, S.C. 1997. From outer to inner space: Linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking. In E. Pederson & J. Nuyts, eds., With Language in Mind: the Relationship Between Linguistic and Conceptual Representation, 13-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pederson, E., Danziger, E., Wilkins, D., Levinson, S.C., Kita, S. & Senft, G. 1998. Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization. Language, 74(3): 557-589.
  • Levinson, S.C. 2001. Covariation between spatial language and cognition. In M. Bowerman & S.C. Levinson, eds., Language acquisition and conceptual development, 566-588. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Levinson, S.C. 2003. Space in language and cognition: Explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Levinson, S.C. 2003. Language and mind: Let's get the issues straight! In D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Meadow, eds., Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Cognition, 25-46. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Majid, A., M. Bowerman, S. Kita, D B.N. M. Haun, and S.C. Levinson 2004. Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(3):108-114.
  • Brown, P. 2006. A sketch of the grammar of space in Tzeltal. In S. C. Levinson & D. Wilkins, eds., Grammars of space, pp. 230-272. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. 2006. Language, culture and cognition: The view from space. In S. Günthner & A. Linke, eds., Linguistics and cultural analysis [special isse] Zeitschrift für Germanistische Linguistik, 34: 64-86. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Brown, P. 2008. Up, down, and across the land: Landscape terms and place names in Tzeltal. In N. Burenhult, ed., special edition of Language Sciences, 30(2/3): 151-181.
  • Polian, G., and J. Bohnemeyer 2011. Uniformity and variation in Tseltal reference frame use. Language Sciences, 33(6): 868-891.

  • Brown, P. 2012. Time and space in Tzeltal: Is the future uphill? Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 212.


Tzeltal grammar and semantics:

  • Brown, P. 1994. The INs and ONs of Tzeltal locative expressions: The semantics of static descriptions of location. In J. B. Haviland and S.C. Levinson, eds., Spatial conceptualization in Mayan languages [special issue]. Linguistics 32, 743-790.
  • Levinson, S.C. 1994. Vision, shape and linguistic description: Tzeltal body-part terminology and object description. In J.B. Haviland & S.C. Levinson, eds. Spatial Conceptualization in Mayan Language [Special issue] Linguistics, 32(4/5): 791-855.
  • Robinson, S. 2002. Constituent order in Tenejapan Tzeltal. International Journal of American Linguistics 68:51-81.
  • Brown, P. 2007. “She had just cut/broken off her head”: Cutting and breaking verbs in Tzeltal. In A. Magid & M. Bowerman, eds., Cutting and breaking’ events: A crosslinguistic perspective. [Special issue] Cognitive Linguistics 18(2):319-330.
  • Bohnemeyer, J. and Brown, P. 2007. Standing divided: Dispositional verbs and locative predications in two Mayan languages. In F. Ameka & S.C. Levinson, eds. [Special edition] Linguistics, Vol. 45 (5/6): 1105-1151.
  • Brown, P. 2011. Color me bitter: Crossmodal compounding in Tzeltal perception words. The Senses & Society, 6(1): 106-116.

  • Brown, P. 2012. To put or to take? Verb semantics in Tzeltal placement and removal expressions. In A. Kopecka & B. Narasimhan, eds., Events of “putting” and “taking”: A crosslinguistic perspective. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Tzeltal child language:

  • Brown, P. 1998a. Children's first verbs in Tzeltal: Evidence for an early verb category. In E. Lieven, ed., Special edition of Linguistics 36(4):713-53.
  • Brown, P. 1998b. Conversational structure and language acquisition: The role of repetition in Tzeltal adult and child speech. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 8(2):197-221.
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. 2000. Frames of spatial reference and their acquisition in Tenejapan Tzeltal. In L. Nucci , G. Saxe, & E. Turiel, eds., Culture, thought, and development, pp. 167-197. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Brown, P. 2001. Learning to talk about motion UP and DOWN in Tzeltal: Is there a language-specific bias for verb learning? In M. Bowerman & S.C. Levinson, eds., Language acquisition and conceptual development, pp. 512-543. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. 2002. Everyone has to lie in Tzeltal. In S. Blum-Kulka & C. Snow, eds., Talking to adults, pp. 241-275. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Brown, P. 2004. Position and motion in Tzeltal frog stories: The acquisition of narrative style. In S. Strömqvist & L. Verhoeven, eds., Relating events in narrative: Typological and contextual perspectives, pp. 37-57. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Brown, P. 2007. Culture-specific influences on semantic development: Acquiring the Tzeltal ‘benefactive’ construction. In Barbara Blaha Pfeiler, ed., Learning indigenous languages: Child language acquisition in Mesoamerica, pp. 119-154. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Pye, C., B. Pfeiler, L. de León, P. Brown, and P. Mateo, 2007. Roots or Edges? Explaining variation in children’s early verb forms across five Mayan languages. In B. B. Pfeiler, ed., Learning indigenous languages: Child language acquisition in Mesoamerica, pp. 15-46. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Brown, P. 2008. Verb specificity and argument realization in Tzeltal child language. In M. Bowerman & P. Brown, eds., Crosslinguistic perspectives on argument structure: Implications for language acquisition, pp. 167-189. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Narasimhan, B. and Brown, P. 2009. Getting the Inside Story: Learning to talk about containment in Tzeltal and Hindi. In V.C. Mueller Gathercole, ed., Routes to language: Studies in honor of Melissa Bowerman, pp. 97-132. Mahweh NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. 2009. Language as mind tools: Learning how to think through speaking. In J. Guo, E. Lieven, N. Budwig, S. Ervin-Tripp, K. Nakamura, & S. Ozcaliskan, eds., Crosslinguistic Approaches to the Psychology of Language: Research in the Traditions of Dan Slobin, pp. 451-464. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Brown, P. 2010. Todo el mundo tiene que mentir: Amenazas y mentiras in la socialización de los niños tzeltales. In L. De Leon, ed., Lenguajes y culturas infantiles: Estudios transculturales sobre socialización y aprendizaje. CIESAS: Mexico City.
  • Brown, P. 2011. The cultural organization of attention. In A. Duranti, E. Ochs, & B. B. Schieffelin, eds., Handbook of language socialization, pp. 29-55. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Brown, P. 2013. La estructura conversacional y la adquisición del lenguaje: El papel de la repetición en el habla de los adultos y niños tzeltales. In L. de León Pasquel, & C. Rojas Nieto, eds., Adquisición de la lengua materna. Mexico: CIESAS-UNAM.
  • Slobin, D., M. Bowerman, P. Brown, S. Eisenbeiss, B. Narasimhan, in press. Putting things in places: Developmental consequences of linguistic typology. In J. Bohnemeyer & E. Pederson, eds., Event representations in language: Encoding Events at the Language-Cognition Interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P., B. Pfeiler, L. de León, and C. Pye, in press. The acquisition of agreement in four Mayan languages. In E. Bavin, & S. Stoll, eds., The acquisition of ergativity. Amsterdam: Benjamins.


Books in preparation:

  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. Tilted worlds: The language and cognition of space in a Mayan community [provisional title]. Book in prep. for Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. Learning to talk about where things are: Acquisition of spatial language in Tzeltal.
  • Brown, P. Conversation and social interaction in Tzeltal.



Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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Penelope Brown

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
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