Inevitably, the subject of Mel Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, will arise at the dinner table. Here's a short primer on how to be Mesoamerican chic with your adjectives and nouns.
I haven't seen the movie yet, but will when opportunity arises. I have nothing to say about the plot, except that a group of hunter-gatherers who speak Yucateca is highly improbable. Yucateca is a Mayan language, and any group speaking it would be farmers, cultivating maize. No matter, it's Hollywood.
The annoyances thus far stem from the seemingly random decisions by reviewers about when to use the words "Maya" and "Mayan."
This morning's Washington Post provides an example:
Our hero is no city Maya, however. He is one Jaguar Paw (brilliant, supple, expressive Rudy Youngblood), of an indigenous forest people.
So far, so good. The protagonist is a Maya.
But, the reviewer inexplicably changes the plural to Mayans:
One morning -- the portents have been over-dramatic -- the Mayans arrive in force.
One is a Maya, two or more are Mayans?
Well, no. Here's the convention used by Mesoamerican archaeologists. Always choose "Maya" unless referring to a language, in which case the word is "Mayan" (there are at least two dozen living Mayan languages.)
The people are Maya, not Mayans. Our reviewer writes of "a Mayan urban center." Those in the know would say "a Maya urban center." He speaks of "Mayan culture." Nope. Say "Maya culture."
You'll find that academics who've written popular works on the Maya adhere to this convention (Michael Coe who wrote Breaking the Maya Code, Linda Schele who authored Maya Cosmos, etc.) The word "Mayan," improperly used, will grate on the ears of anyone who's read much at all about this civilization. You can't go wrong with "Maya."