Approximate migration routes and dates for various Mayan language families. The region shown as Proto-Mayan is now occupied by speakers of the Q'anjobalan branch (light blue in other figures).[notes 3]
Mayan languages are the descendants of a proto-language called Proto-Mayan or, in K'iche' Maya, Nab'ee Maya' Tzij ("the old Maya Language"). The Proto-Mayan language is believed to have been spoken in the Cuchumatanes highlands of central Guatemala in an area corresponding roughly to where Q'anjobalan is spoken today. The earliest proposal was that of Sapper (1912) which identified the Chiapas-Guatemalan highlands as the likely "cradle" of Mayan languages was published by the German antiquarian and scholar Karl Sapper.[notes 4] Terrence Kaufman and John Justeson have reconstructed more than 3000 lexical items for the proto-Mayan language.
According to the prevailing classification scheme by Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman, the first division occurred around 2200 BCE, when Huastecan split away from Mayan proper after its speakers moved northwest along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Proto-Yucatecan and Proto-Ch'olan speakers subsequently split off from the main group and moved north into the Yucatán Peninsula. Speakers of the western branch moved south into the areas now inhabited by Mamean and Quichean people. When speakers of proto-Tzeltalan later separated from the Ch'olan group and moved south into the Chiapas highlands, they came into contact with speakers of Mixe–Zoque languages. According to an alternative theory by Robertson and Houston, Huastecan stayed in the Guatemalan highlands with speakers of Ch'olan-Tzeltalan, separating from that branch at a much later date than proposed by Kaufman.
In the Archaic period (before 2000 BCE), a number of loanwords from Mixe–Zoquean languages seem to have entered the proto-Mayan language. This has led to hypotheses that the early Maya were dominated by speakers of Mixe–Zoquean languages, possibly the Olmec.[notes 5] In the case of the Xincan and Lencan languages, on the other hand, Mayan languages are more often the source than the receiver of loanwords. Mayan language specialists such as Campbell believe this suggests a period of intense contact between Maya and the Lencan and Xinca people, possibly during the Classic period (250–900).
Classic period Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio
During the Classic period the major branches began diversifying into separate languages. The split between Proto-Yucatecan (in the north, that is, the Yucatán Peninsula) and Proto-Ch'olan (in the south, that is, the Chiapas highlands and Petén Basin) had already occurred by the Classic period, when most extant Maya inscriptions were written. Both variants are attested in hieroglyphic inscriptions at the Maya sites of the time, and both are commonly referred to as "Classic Maya language". Although a single prestige language was by far the most frequently recorded on extant hieroglyphic texts, evidence for at least five different varieties of Mayan have been discovered within the hieroglyphic corpus—an Eastern Ch'olan variety found in texts written in the southern Maya area and the highlands, a Western Ch'olan variety diffused from the Usumacinta region from the mid-7th century on, a Yukatekan variety found in the texts from the Yucatán Peninsula, a Tzeltalan variety found in the Western Lowlands (i.e. Toniná, Pomona), and possibly a highland Maya language belonging to K'ichean major within texts painted on Nebaj ceramics. The reason why only few linguistic varieties are found in the glyphic texts is probably that these served as prestige dialects throughout the Maya region; hieroglyphic texts would have been composed in the language of the elite.
Stephen Houston, John Robertson and David Stuart have suggested that the specific variety of Ch'olan found in the majority of Southern Lowland glyphic texts was a language they dub "Classic Ch'olti'an", the ancestor language of the modern Ch'orti' and Ch’olti’ languages. They propose that it originated in western and south-central Petén Basin, and that it was used in the inscriptions and perhaps also spoken by elites and priests. However, Mora-Marín has argued that traits shared by Classic Lowland Maya and the Ch'olti'an languages are retentions rather than innovations, and that the diversification of Ch'olan in fact post-dates the classic period. The language of the classical lowland inscriptions then would have been proto-Ch'olan.
During the Spanish colonization of Central America, all indigenous languages were eclipsed by Spanish, which became the new prestige language. The use of Mayan languages in many important domains of society, including administration, religion and literature, came to an end. Yet the Maya area was more resistant to outside influence than others,[notes 6] and perhaps for this reason, many Maya communities still retain a high proportion of monolingual speakers. The Maya area is now dominated by the Spanish language. While a number of Mayan languages are moribund or are considered endangered, others remain quite viable, with speakers across all age groups and native language use in all domains of society.[notes 7]
Drawing with text written in the Chuj language from Ixcán, Guatemala.
As Maya archaeology advanced during the 20th century and nationalist and ethnic-pride-based ideologies spread, the Mayan-speaking peoples began to develop a shared ethnic identity as Maya, the heirs of the Maya civilization.[notes 8]
The word "Maya" was likely derived from the postclassical Yucatán city of Mayapan; its more restricted meaning in pre-colonial and colonial times points to an origin in a particular region of the Yucatán Peninsula. The broader meaning of "Maya" now current, while defined by linguistic relationships, is also used to refer to ethnic or cultural traits. Most Mayans identify first and foremost with a particular ethnic group, e.g. as "Yucatec" or "K'iche'"; but they also recognize a shared Maya kinship. Language has been fundamental in defining the boundaries of that kinship. Fabri writes: "The term Maya is problematic because Maya peoples do not constitute a homogenous identity. Maya, rather, has become a strategy of self-representation for the Maya movements and its followers. The Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG) finds twenty-one distinct Mayan languages." This pride in unity has led to an insistence on the distinctions of different Mayan languages, some of which are so closely related that they could easily be referred to as dialects of a single language. But, given that the term "dialect" has been used by some with racialist overtones in the past, as scholars made a spurious distinction between Amerindian "dialects" and European "languages", the preferred usage in Mesoamerica in recent years has been to designate the linguistic varieties spoken by different ethnic group as separate languages.[notes 9]
In Guatemala, matters such as developing standardized orthographies for the Mayan languages are governed by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG; Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages), which was founded by Maya organisations in 1986. Following the 1996 peace accords, it has been gaining a growing recognition as the regulatory authority on Mayan languages both among Mayan scholars and the Maya peoples.