All In The Language Family: The Mayan Languages

Thought the Mayan civilization was long gone? Think again. The Mayan language family is alive and kicking to this day.
June 30, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Mayan Languages

Of all the indigenous languages of North America, the Mayan language family is a true fighter. Despite centuries of upheaval and colonization, many living languages in this family are still actively used today. While the vast majority were replaced under Spanish colonialism, that’s all the more reason to embrace what’s left of these beautiful and unique languages. Let’s take a closer look.

What Are The Mayan Languages?

The Mayan languages are probably the best-documented and most well-researched group of languages in Mesoamerica. The entire language family consists of 32 languages, of which at least two are now considered dead. Another 10 have fewer than 30,000 native speakers. Several though, are still very much alive and well, and are used by a significant number of the population as their mother tongue.

The Mayan family’s living languages are found largely in Guatemala and Mexico, with some speakers in Belize, Honduras and recently El Salvador (due to migration of speakers from neighboring countries). There are six branches of the Mayan language family: Huastecan, Quichean (no relation to the dish!), Yucatecan, Qanjobalan, Mamean and Chʼolan-Tzeltalan.

How Many People Speak Mayan Languages?

Globally, Mayan language use is relatively small, especially compared to its dominance prior to European colonization. After the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Mayan people and the suppression of their languages in favor of Spanish, the languages suffered a significant decline. Luckily, there are a few Central American countries, like Guatemala, where Mayan languages are still commonplace.

In total, there are around 7 million speakers of Mayan languages. Approximately 4 million of these live in Guatemala, where almost half the population (including non-native speakers) speak a Mayan language. There are an additional 2.5 million speakers in Mexico. In Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, the numbers are much smaller.

The most widely-spoken language in the family is K’iche’ (a Quichean language spoken in the central highlands of Guatemala). K’iche’ has around 2.3 million speakers. 300,000 of these speakers are monolingual, meaning they speak no other language. The next most widely spoken language is Yucatec (a Yucatecan language found mostly in the Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche, as well as small areas of northern Belize). This has around 800,000 speakers.

Next up is Q’eqchi’ (another Quichean language spoken in eastern Guatemala and southern Belize), which has approximately 700,000 speakers. Finally, we have Mam (a Mamean language found in southwestern Guatemala) with around 500,000 speakers.

Mayan speakers aren’t limited to these regions, of course. The Mayan languages are also spoken by small diasporic communities, especially throughout the United States. Mam in particular is spoken in Oakland, California and Washington, D.C.

Are They Related To Any Other Language Families?

It’s not entirely clear if the Mayan languages are part of a larger family (such as the Amerindian languages) or not. We do know that they share features with several other language families in the region. Some of these include Uto-Aztecan, Totonacan, Oto-Manguean and Mix-Zoque. While this might seem like good evidence for a connection, the truth is we can’t be sure.

It’s quite possible that these shared features are the result of close contact, and are therefore cultural rather than linguistic in origin. This phenomenon (of similar but possibly unrelated languages in close geographic proximity) even has a name. It’s commonly referred to by linguists as Sprachbund, from the German word meaning “federation of languages.”

The common features among languages in the Mesoamerican sprachbund are pretty technical. For instance, they often have vigesimal numeral systems (meaning they’re based on powers of twenty, rather than the decimal system, which uses powers of ten), and they also incorporate body parts into verbs, which is kind of cool. Both of these features are uncommon on a global scale.

How Similar Are The Mayan Languages?

One thing that Mayan languages have in common is their writing systems. They all use the Roman alphabet, although this wasn’t always the case. Romanization is a direct result of the area being colonized. Before that, the Mayan writing system was logographic (one symbol representing one idea, like Chinese). Nowadays, this logographic system is mostly of interest to archaeologists and historians. Exactly which form of romanization each language now takes depends on its unique phonology and the country it’s spoken in. However, each system is pretty straightforward, with one letter representing one unique sound.

In terms of grammar, Mayan languages are similar in that they are highly agglutinative. This means that they often use a single word (or what appears to be a single word) to convey what many other languages need a whole sentence to express. This is a feature that the Mayan languages share with Uralic, Tibetic and Dravidian languages.

The phonology of Mayan languages (i.e. how they group sounds) displays many similarities, too. For example, ejectives (glottal sounds made by creating a dramatic burst of air from inside the mouth, rather than from the lungs) are relatively common. Examples include the sounds /p’/, /t’/ and /k’/, which can be found in Yucatec and Mam. Uvular consonants are also quite frequent: the sounds /q/ and /χ/ are found in K’iche’, Q’eqchi’ and Mam. 

The vowel sounds found in Mayan languages are often very similar, too. Typically, most of the languages in the family have the very common (globally speaking) 5-vowel system of /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, /u/. This system is shared by Japanese, Spanish and Zulu. Some (but not all) Mayan languages make length distinctions in these vowels. K’iche’ additionally has /ə/, which is another very common vowel sound.

Make no mistake though: The Mayan languages vary considerably, and understanding one does not automatically mean understanding the others. But this is beautiful too — it merely adds another layer of diversity to the this enduring language family.

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Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.

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