In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mayan Languages

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Archives
  • Text Collections
  • Dictionaries
  • Phonetics and Phonology
  • Lexical Categories
  • Semantics and Pragmatics
  • Discourse
  • Acquisition

Linguistics Mayan Languages
Nora C. England, Roberto Zavala Maldonado
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0147


The Mayan family of languages consists of about thirty extant languages plus at least two (Chicomuceltec and Ch’olti’) that have died since European contact. They are spoken in a relatively compact area in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras and have been the most studied of all Mesoamerican language families. Mayan languages are quite extensively documented in the pre-Columbian period through the hieroglyphic texts that have been preserved, mostly those carved in stone. In addition, several important documents were written by Mayas in the 16th century in a Latin alphabet introduced by the Spanish. Beginning in the same time period, many dictionaries, a few grammars, and several other documents were written by Spanish priests. Several German scholars, including Karl Scherzer and Karl Sapper, began to study Mayan languages in the late 19th century, and this tradition was continued into the 20th century. The Summer Institute of Linguistics / Wycliffe Bible Translators began working in the Mayan area in 1942, when its founder, William Cameron Townsend, first went to Guatemala. It has published a number of dictionaries and grammatical descriptions as well as Bible translations. Modern description, documentation, and analysis of Mayan languages began in the 1940s, especially with the work of Norman McQuown, and gathered momentum in the 1960s with the work of Terrence Kaufman. Formal theoretical studies of Mayan languages have been undertaken since the late 1970s, and, more recently, speakers of a number of different Mayan languages have contributed to the literature with grammars and with grammatical studies of specific aspects of structure. Grammatical work on Mayan languages has been strongest in morphosyntax, but studies are beginning to contribute to phonetics/phonology and semantics as well. Characteristics of Mayan languages that are noteworthy and have received considerable attention in the literature include ergative alignment, verb-initial word orders, the morphology and syntax of focus and topicalization, voice systems, language contact, ancient Maya writing, the cognitive and grammatical organization of space, language vitality, and language use. Coverage of different languages is somewhat uneven, reflecting language accessibility, size, and the interests of specific researchers. The languages that have received the most attention so far are K’iche’, Yucatec, Tsotsil, Mam, Tseltal, Chol, Itzaj, and Q’anjob’al, but gaps in the materials on the others are being filled in. The languages of the family, with some variant spellings indicated, are Achi (Achí), Akatek (Acatec), Awakatek (Aguacatec), Chol (Ch’ol), Chontal, Chuj, Ch’orti’ (Chortí), Huastec, Itzaj (Itzá), Ixil, Kaqchikel (Cakchiquel), K’iche’ (K’ichee’, Quiché), Lakantun (Lacandón), Mam, Mocho’ (Mochó, Motozintlec), Mopan (Mopán), Popti’ (Jacaltec), Poqomam (Pocomam), Poqomchi’ (Pocomchí), Q’anjob’al (Kanjobal), Q’eqchi’ (Kekchí), Sakapulteko (Sakapulteco), Sipakapense (Sipacapense, Sipacapeño), Teko (Tektiteko, Teco), Tojol-ab’al (Tojolabal), Tseltal (Tzeltal), Tsotsil (Tzotzil), Tz’utujil (Tzutujil, Tzutuhil), Uspantek (Uspantec), and Yucatec (Maya).

Reference Works

Richards 2003 is a linguistic atlas of Guatemala, with the best speaker estimates for that time.

  • Richards, Michael. 2003. Atlas lingüístico de Guatemala. Guatemala City, Guatemala: Serviprensa.

    The most comprehensive estimates, at the time, of language populations and also of degrees of language endangerment. Based on government census statistics supplemented by a variety of sampling and mapping techniques.

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