Mayan Languages

Mayan language had many dialects - Qhuche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, and Mam - is still spoken by about 300,000 persons, of whom two-thirds are pure Maya, the remainder being whites and of mixed blood are still spoken today, although the majority of Indians also speak Spanish.

The Mayan linguistic stock includes some twenty tribes, speaking closely related dialects, and (excepting the Huastec of northern Vera Cruz and south-east San Luis Potosi, Mexico) occupying contiguous territory in Tabasco, Chiapas, and the Yucatan peninsula, a large part of Guatemala, and smaller portion of Honduras and Salvador. The ancient builders of the ruined cities of Palenque and Copan were of the same stock.

Mayan languages (alternatively: Maya languages) constitute a language family spoken in Mesoamerica from southeastern Mexico to northern Central America and as far south as Honduras. Their hypotheticized common ancestor, known as Proto-Mayan, existed at least 5000 years ago and has been partially reconstructed. Although Spanish is the official language across most present-day countries of the region, Mayan languages are still spoken as a primary or secondary language by more than 6 million indigenous Maya (over 4 million in Guatemala, approximately 2 million in Mexico, tens of thousands in Belize, and small numbers elsewhere). In 1996, Guatemala formally recognized twenty-one Mayan languages by name, and Mexico recognizes another eight not spoken in Guatemala.

During the pre-Columbian era of Mesoamerican history, at least two regional variants of Mayan languages were reflected in the Maya hieroglyphic script. With inscriptions in the Maya script dating from the latter part of the 1st millennium BCE, this logosyllabic writing system remained in use as late as the 16th-century Spanish conquest. Its use was particularly widespread use in during the Classic period of Maya civilization (c. 250-900 CE). With a surviving corpus of over 10,000 known individual Maya inscriptions on buildings, monuments, pottery and bark-paper codices, the Mayan languages recorded in the hieroglyphic script provide a basis for the modern understanding of pre-Columbian history that is unparalleled in the Americas.


Mayan languages are descendants of a single proto-language, called Proto-Mayan or in Maya Nab'ee Maya' Tzij ("the old Maya Language"). This Proto-Mayan language is thought to have been spoken in the Guatemalan Cuchumatanes highlands where the first expansion occurred around 2200 BCE resulting in the first splitting of the Huastecan branch from Mayan proper which then split into Proto-Yucatecan and Proto-Cholan.

The Cholan speakers then moved into the Chiapas highlands and came into contact with speakers of Mixe-Zoquean languages. In the Archaic period particularly loanwords from Mixe-Zoquean seem to have entered the Mayan language at an early state. This has led scholars to hypothesize that the early Mayas were dominated by speakers of Mixe-Zoquean languages, possibly the Olmec culture.

Early contact is also documented between Mayan and the Xinca and Lenca languages, but in this case the transfer is from Mayan to Xinca and Lenca, while few or no early loanwords from these languages have entered Mayan: this in turn suggest a period of Mayan dominance over Lencan and Xincan speakers, possibly during the Classic period.

By the Classic period, which is the first period in which the Mayan language is documented in writing, Proto-Mayan had split into at least two dialects. Both of these are attested in hieroglyphic inscriptions and both are commonly referred to as Classic Maya. One dialect was spoken in the Yucat‡n peninsula and became the ancestor of the Yucatecan languages Yukatek, Itza', Mopan and Lakantun. The other dialect was spoken in Chiapas and the entire highland region and became the ancestor of the Ch'olan languages Chontal, Ch'ol, and Ch'orti' and its now extinct sister language Ch'olti'. That the split between these two groups had already happened in Classical times can be seen through the Classic hieroglyphic inscriptions which in general use the Ch'olan variant in the southern area and Yucatecan in the northern area. The Huastecan and Western branch were probably also differentiated at this time but no hieroglyphic inscriptions are known in these dialects.

The wide influence of the Mayan culture and languages during this period is demonstrated by the etymology of the English word "hurricane". At the root of "hurricane" is the name of a Classic Mayan deity associated with tempests called Jun Raqan "one leg"; but the word came into English indirectly, probably through Carib and Spanish. This suggests that Classic Maya traders had spread their influence beyond Mesoamerica to the Caribbean region.

During the Spanish colonization of Central America, Maya as well as most other indigenous languages were subjugated to the Spanish language. However since the Maya area was more resistant to outside influence than others, the influences of Spanish in Mayan have not been as substantial as it was, for example, in Nahuatl. There remains a high percentage of monolinguals in many Mayan language communities to this day. Nonetheless, the Maya area is now dominated by the Spanish language and some Mayan languages are endangered although many others remain very viable.

During the 20th century, as Mayan archaeology advanced and various nationalist and ethnic-pride-based ideologies crossed the world stage, the various Mayan language groups began to have a shared ethnic identity as Mayans, the inheritors of the great Mayan Civilization. (The word "Maya" itself, probably based on the post-classic Yukatec city Mayapan, was associated only with parts of the Yucatan in pre-colonial and colonial times, and its current meaning is mainly based on linguistic criteria.) This identity supplements, but does not generally replace, the primary ethnic identities based on specific languages.

Thus the idea of a language being "Mayan" is more salient than the idea of English being "Indo-European". Paradoxically, this pride in unity has led to a move away from the word "dialect" for describing Mayan languages, as this word was sometimes historically used to make a racist distinction between Amerindian and European languages (see Identification of the varieties of Chinese for this issue in other contexts).

For the modern languages, the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages (Spanish acronym ALMG), with representation from the 21 language groups in Guatemala, is gaining a growing recognition as the authority in such matters as standardized orthography. This autonomous institution was established and funded as part of Guatemala's 1996 peace accords. Read more ...