Mayan languages

Mesoamerica: Southern Mexico; Guatemala; Belize; western Honduras and El Salvador; small refugee and emigrant populations, especially in the United States and Canada
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-2 / 5myn
Location of Mayan speaking populations. See below for a detailed map of the different languages.

The Mayan languages[notes 1] form a language family spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million Maya peoples, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. In 1996, Guatemala formally recognized 21 Mayan languages by name,[2] and Mexico recognizes eight more within its territory.[notes 2]

The Mayan language family is one of the best-documented and most studied in the Americas.[3] Modern Mayan languages descend from the Proto-Mayan language, thought to have been spoken at least 5,000 years ago; it has been partially reconstructed using the comparative method. The proto-Mayan language diversified into at least six different branches: the Huastecan, Quichean, Yucatecan, Qanjobalan, Mamean and Ch'olan-Tzeltalan branches.

Mayan languages form part of the Mesoamerican language area, an area of linguistic convergence developed throughout millennia of interaction between the peoples of Mesoamerica. All Mayan languages display the basic diagnostic traits of this linguistic area. For example, all use relational nouns instead of prepositions to indicate spatial relationships. They also possess grammatical and typological features that set them apart from other languages of Mesoamerica, such as the use of ergativity in the grammatical treatment of verbs and their subjects and objects, specific inflectional categories on verbs, and a special word class of "positionals" which is typical of all Mayan languages.

During the pre-Columbian era of Mesoamerican history, some Mayan languages were written in the logo-syllabic Maya script. Its use was particularly widespread during the Classic period of Maya civilization (c. 250–900). The surviving corpus of over 10,000 known individual Maya inscriptions on buildings, monuments, pottery and bark-paper codices,[4] combined with the rich postcolonial literature in Mayan languages written in the Latin script, provides a basis for the modern understanding of pre-Columbian history unparalleled in the Americas.



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").[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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).[3]

Classic period

Classic period Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico

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,[11] a Yukatekan variety found in the texts from the Yucatán Peninsula,[12] 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.[citation needed] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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 inscriotions then would have been proto-Ch'olan.[14]

Colonial period

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]

Modern period

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.[15] 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."[16] 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.[17][18]

Other Languages
العربية: لغات المايا
تۆرکجه: مایا دیللری
беларуская: Маяскія мовы
български: Маянски езици
čeština: Mayské jazyky
dansk: Mayasprog
Deutsch: Maya-Sprachen
Ελληνικά: Γλώσσες Μάγια
Esperanto: Majaa lingvaro
français: Langues mayas
한국어: 마야어족
Bahasa Indonesia: Rumpun bahasa Maya
italiano: Lingue maya
Кыргызча: Майя тилдери
latviešu: Maiju valodas
lietuvių: Majų kalbos
Limburgs: Mayaspraoke
македонски: Мајански јазици
മലയാളം: മായൻ ഭാഷകൾ
მარგალური: მაიაშ ნინეფი
Bahasa Melayu: Bahasa Maya
Nāhuatl: Mayatlahtōlli
Nederlands: Mayatalen
日本語: マヤ語族
norsk nynorsk: Mayaspråk
occitan: Lengas maias
Piemontèis: Lenghe maya
português: Línguas maias
română: Limbi mayașe
Runa Simi: Maya rimaykuna
Simple English: Maya languages
slovenčina: Mayské jazyky
suomi: Mayakielet
svenska: Mayaspråk
Türkçe: Maya dilleri
українська: Майянські мови
Tiếng Việt: Ngữ hệ Maya
中文: 馬雅語系