The Origins Of The Mayan Language And How It’s Survived To Today

If you thought Mayan was a dead language, think again.
History of the Mayan language represented by a Mayan man using an oar to sail through a river.

Mayan civilization is well-known for its culture, its architecture, its perseverance in keeping its indigenous language alive and its diverse linguistic system. The first thing to know about the Mayan language is that there is no singular version. Mayan is a family of languages, though we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at the history and origins of the Mayan language family, how it evolved and what it sounds like today.

The Origin Of The Mayan Language Family

The Mayan languages of today are all derived from a common ancestral language called Proto-Mayan, which was used by those based in the Mayan Empire over 5,000 years ago. In other words, Proto-Mayan was originally just one language. The Mayan Empire began around 1500 BC and lasted several centuries. Around 800-900 AD, the Mayan Empire collapsed. It’s believed that the first linguistic departure from Proto-Maya Occurred in 2200 BC. Around the same time, the ancient Mayans developed a hieroglyphic writing structure.

Consisting of hundreds of signs and symbols, the structure of Proto-Mayan is considered one of the most sophisticated writing systems in Mesoamerica. Most linguistic divisions occurred during the Classic Period, leading to the creation of more than 30 languages on six branches of Mayan language families: Huastecan, Quichean, Yucatecan, Qanjobalan, Mamean and Chʼolan-Tzeltalan. Yucatec Maya is the most widely spoken Mayan language today. If you want to learn a little bit of a Mayan language, here’s a list of useful Yucatan Maya words.

Yucatan Maya English
Kíimak óolal  Welcome 
Ba’ax ka wa’alik?  Hello 
Ma’lob Ja’at kab kíin  Good morning
Ma’lob chí inil kíin    Good afternoon
Ma’lob ak’abtal  Good evening or good night
Bix a k’ aaba’?    What’s your name? 
In k’ aaba’ e …   My name is…
Jach ki’imak in wóol in wilikech   Nice to meet you
Bix a bel?  How are you? 
Meent’ uts  Please
Dios bo’otik    Thank you 
Ka ka’at Goodbye

The Mayan Languages During Spanish Colonization

Fast forward to the early 16th century, and the Spanish set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula and first came into contact with the Mayan communities. The Spanish studied the Mayan language and its writing system to interact and form alliances with the Mayan city-states, but conflicts increased soon after. They fought against the Mayans, imposing their culture, their Catholic religion, and the Spanish language in order to convert them.

As a result of colonialism, the Mayan languages went into a decline, but some communities managed to preserve their writing system as a way to continue the language until the 18th century. While the Mayan writing system ended and the languages suffered from a significant decrease, the spoken languages weren’t considered dead.

Where Are Mayan Languages Spoken Today?

The history of the Mayan language still survives today knowing that it’s widely spoken in Central America, especially in Guatemala and Mexico. There are also some speakers in Belize, Honduras and El Salvador who migrated from neighboring countries.  

How Many People Speak Mayan Languages?

From a global perspective, Mayan languages aren’t spoken around the world much because of Spanish colonization. However, approximately six million people speak Mayan languages in Central America. Approximately four million of the total number of speakers are in Guatemala where nearly half the country’s population (native or non-native) speaks the Mayan language. Another 2.5 million people Mayan-speaking people live in Mexico. In Belize, it’s reported that 6 percent of the population, some 11,000 people, speaks some kind of Mayan language. Finally there are small number of Mayan speakers are found in Honduras and El Salvador today.

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