The Ancient Dialects of Shadow of the Tomb Raider

One of the fun things about Shadow of the Tomb Raider is its language proficiency gameplay mechanic. Lara Croft can boost her proficiency in ancient dialects by examining documents, relics, and murals in those languages. Then once she’s attained a certain level of fluency, she can decipher the inscriptions found on monoliths hidden in and around Paititi and uncover long-lost treasures or survival caches.

In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara gained a better understanding of Greek, Mongolian, and Russian. In Shadow, Lara grapples with three “ancient dialects”: Mam, Quechua, and Yucatec.

One of the many ancient murals that Lara comes across on her adventure.
One of the many ancient murals that Lara comes across on her adventure.

Although these languages are referred to as ancient dialects in the game itself, they aren’t dialects of the same language and they aren’t dead languages as some may assume. In fact, all three languages are still spoken today in parts of Mexico, Central America, and South America.

That said, it’s likely that Lara was dealing with older variants of these languages, especially if she was studying inscriptions carved by the Maya migrants when they first arrived in the Peruvian Amazon centuries earlier. The Mam and Yucatec dialects used throughout Paititi would have evolved differently and diverged from their parent dialects back home in Mexico over time.

I’m not going to delve into historical linguistics here or theorise about the extent of language convergence within the Hidden City. Instead, let’s take a look at these so-called ancient dialects as they are used today.

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Mam

The first of the three “ancient dialects” that Lara comes across in Shadow is Mam, which she first encounters on a mural inside a cave on Cozumel. Mam is a Mayan language and is still spoken by around half a million people across western Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Like many other languages in the region, modern Mam is written using the Latin alphabet.

Mam wasn’t actually spoken on Cozumel or anywhere along Mexico’s eastern coast but perhaps the Maya exodus mentioned in the game involved a pit stop on the island. Which begs the question: Did these Maya travel south to the Amazon and Peru overland or did they have ships of some sort? But I digress.

Modern-day Mam communities have faced an uphill struggle to reverse years of linguistic discrimination but their efforts are paying off. Mam was made an officially recognised language in Guatemala in 1996 and there’s been an increasing demand for Mam language classes in recent years.

One of the Mam artefacts that Lara encounters on her adventure.
One of the Mam artefacts that Lara encounters on her adventure.

Some may think that learning an indigenous language would be a waste of their valuable time, but they would be mistaken. Learning an indigenous language is a worthy endeavour in its own right and a great opportunity to expand your cultural horizons. What’s more, you never know when your new-found linguistic skills may come in handy. For instance, there’s a huge demand for Mam interpreters and teachers in Oakland, California due to an increase in Mam-speaking refugees from Guatemala. Some of these refugees cannot speak Spanish, let alone English, but still need access to legal aid and essential health services.

Want to learn some Mam words and phrases for a trip to Guatemala or just for the sheer fun of it? Here are some sites and resources to get you started!

  • Mam in Oakland If you’re looking for English-language resources for learning Mam, look no further. Here you will find a selection of grammar guides, vocabulary study cards, and videos to help you on your way. Please note that most of the materials are stored in Google Drive folders, so feel free to explore the site and see what’s available.
  • Mam Talking Dictionary This isn’t the most comprehensive dictionary out there and not every entry is translated into English, but the images and audio files will make up for any shortcomings.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many English-language resources for learning Mam but if you know Spanish or are willing to try your luck with Google Translate, you can find a range of educational resources over on the Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala website. And if you just want to familiarise yourself with the sound of spoken Mam, you’ll find some great videos over on the TV Maya Mam YouTube channel.

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Quechua

The second of these ancient dialects is Quechua, which belongs to a completely different language family to Mam and Yucatec. In fact, there isn’t really one Quechua language. It’s actually a group of related – but not necessarily mutually intelligible – languages spoken across the Andes and it’s thought that somewhere between 8 and 10 million people speak a Quechuan language today.

Judging from this map, it’s possible that the variety spoken in and around Paititi and Kuwaq Yaku may have been a form of Lowland Peruvian Quechua. Granted, the exact locations of Paititi and Kuwaq Yaku are never mentioned in the game and the search area shown in this screenshot encompasses several Peruvian provinces. These include Amazonas – a potential home to Paititi due to its geography and presence of Chachapoyan sarcophagi in the game – and San Martín, which is home to districts and provinces called El Porvenir, El Dorado, and Yuraq Yaku.

One of the Quechua murals found in and around Paititi.
One of the Quechua murals found in and around Paititi.

The classification, distribution, and history of Quechuan languages is well beyond the scope of this article but the main things you need to know are that Quechua was once the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, that the most spoken variety in Peru today is Cuzco Quechua, and that the Inca never developed a writing system of their own. The oldest written records in Quechua were written by Spanish missionaries using the Latin script. So I’m not entirely sure what text Lara may have been reading on those Quechua murals in the game. Perhaps she was just interpreting the art and iconography on said murals.

Anyway, if a visit to Machu Picchu is on your bucket list, you should consider learning at least some basic Quechua to help break the ice with the local guides and people you may meet during your Andean adventure. Here are a few online resources to kick off your Quechua studies!

  • Quechua Language Online This site offers some information about the Quechua language family as well as a number of lessons on Quechua grammar, a Quechua-English dictionary, and themed vocabulary lists.
  • Quechua Básico If you understand Spanish, you can find a pretty extensive beginner’s course on the Metropolitan Municipality of Lima’s YouTube channel. This 18-lesson course is taught by Yaritza Lagos León and is accompanied by supplementary texts and Powerpoint presentations that are free to download. And if you would like to continue your studies, there is a 14-lesson intermediate course that will take your Quechua skills to the next level.

Once banned from public life, Quechua has seen a revival in recent decades. Many schools and universities across South America and the world now offer Quechua classes. Thanks to the efforts of language activists and Peruvian writers such as Pablo Landeo Muñoz, Elva Ambía, and Hugo Coya, Quechua literature is beginning to gain traction and Quechua-language newscasts are a reality. Who knows what’s next for the language of the Inca.

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Yucatec

The third and final ancient dialect is Yucatec, also referred to as Yucatec Maya or simply “Maya”. Like Mam and Quechua, Yucatec Maya is still very much alive and spoken by some 775,000 people across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and northern Belize. Although Yucatec Maya is another of the 30 or so Mayan languages still spoken today, it is only very distantly related to Mam.

I must point out that a lot of the “Yucatec” relics Lara comes across in the game are actually of Aztec (or Mexica) origin. The Maya and Aztec/Mexica were two separate civilisations and the latter actually spoke Nahuatl and other Nahuan languages, not Yucatec Maya.

The older Yucatec dialect that Lara was dealing with was most likely written using the Maya script but modern-day Yucatec uses the Latin script. The Latin script was introduced by Spanish missionaries in an effort to convert and control the native population and disconnect them from their own religious and cultural practices. Countless Maya texts were destroyed by the colonisers and the glyph-based writing system ceased to be used by the end of the 16th century.

A document written in another of the game's ancient dialects, Yucatec.
A document written in another of the game’s ancient dialects, Yucatec.

But every cloud has a silver lining. Romanisation eventually allowed the local Maya to regain access to their own language and heritage. The use of maya reducido – a simplified form of Maya created and used by the Spanish to convert and govern the local populace – led to improved literacy rates and it eventually became the language of resistance against Spanish oppression. It also aided the decipherment of the Maya script, allowing these disenfranchised peoples to reconnect with their forebears.

Gamers will hear the occasional word of ancient Yucatec or Classic Maya during their time in Paititi. Examples include Ixik-ki, “woman” or “lady”, and Ahau, “lord”. However, if you’d like to learn some Maya for a holiday in the Yucantán Peninsula, you’re better off learning modern-day Yucatec.

Here are a few online resources to get you started:

  • Do You Speak Yucatec Maya? Jorge’s YouTube videos are a great introduction to conversational Maya. The first few videos in his playlist will teach you basic greetings, phrases, and sentence structures while later episodes tackle grammar and specialist vocabulary, like toponyms.
  • Spoken Yucatec Maya This online textbook created by the University of Chicago is perfect for anyone who wants to learn conversational Maya and go beyond the basics. It includes audio recordings, grammar points, drills to help you memorise phrases and sentence structures, and detailed vocabulary lists.
  • Santos Tuz Spanish speakers may want to check out Santos Tuz’s YouTube channel for bite-sized lessons. This aspiring teacher started posting videos on Yucatec Maya shortly after the pandemic began and has amassed a sizeable following across his social media channels.

Yucatec Maya and other indigenous languages of Mexico and Central America have benefited from language revitalisation efforts in recent decades. These grassroots efforts seek to undo some of the damage caused by centuries of cultural oppression and destigmatise the use of indigenous languages, which are incorrectly seen as “inferior” to Spanish. Most language communities in the region continue to use the Latin script to write and teach their languages but there have been some attempts to revive the use of the traditional Maya script and adapt it for the 21st century, albeit with limited success.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Mexican linguist César Can Canul of the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, who translated dialogue into Yucatec Maya for some of the game’s NPCs. Can Canul has translated a number of books into Maya and edited anthologies of Maya literature, including the 2016 anthology Maayáaj tsikbalilo’ob Kaampech: Narraciones mayas de Campeche.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any detailed information about his work for Shadow of the Tomb Raider but it’s comforting to know that the developers were committed to making the game’s Maya dialogue as immersive and accurate as possible.

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I hope this article has inspired you to learn more about the three languages used throughout Paititi. If you decide to study Mam, Yucatec Maya, or Quechua, be sure to share your language learning experiences in the comments section below!

Update: People have asked me if I knew what language was being spoken by the Paititians. I originally thought that maybe they spoke a creole of sorts or were bilingual or were prone to code-switching. All of these seemed logical for a multicultural society that had evolved in near-total isolation. But in his interview with GameStop, Crystal Dynamics’ Rich Briggs explained that “‘Lara is an accomplished scholar…. She can get into a culture and figure out what’s going on enough to understand. All the side conversations will still be in Yucatec Maya or Spanish but the main stuff will be in English.'”

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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