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Mayan Family
blouse in traditional Tzeltal style

The Mayan language family comprises five sub-families and includes many languages that are spoken in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. In Mexico, Mayan languages are spoken in seven states: Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, San Luis Potosí and Veracruz. In Chiapas, all the languages are Mayan (except Zoque), as are virtually all the indigenous languages of Guatemala. (The maps below show approximate distribution of these languages, including some recent migrations.) The total number of Mayan speakers is over 1.5 million, making this family one of the two largest in Mexico (the other being the Nahuatl family).


huasteca Map: where the Mayan languages are spoken huasteca chujeana-kanjobal yucateca ch'ol-tzotzil quicheana-mameana Map: where the Mayan languages are spoken

The five subfamilies of Mayan languages are:


There are numerous ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization in the states of Chiapas and Yucatan, as well as in Guatemala. These archeological sites and the artifacts discovered in them display a highly developed aesthetic sense—in stone sculpture, ceramic work, the casting of precious metals, mosaics, and the carving of crystal and jade—all of these produced without metal tools. The Mayas had invented the abstract symbol of zero to simplify mathematics long before it was in use in Europe, and the Mayan calendar was older and more efficient than the Julian calendar that was in use by the Spaniards who conquered Mexico.


In the 1950s one could distinguish what area people came from by the distinctive clothing of both men and women. Now many are buying clothing in stores, especially the men. The women who live in high altitudes prefer traditional dress with its long skirts woven with wool from their own sheep. Some of their shawls were of wool also, which gave them and their babies much more protection on frosty winter days.


Typical Mayan diet consists of corn (maize), beans and squash. Some make small gardens near their homes where they plant cabbage or other greens, long radish, or other vegetables. Many Mayans do not have enough land to grow all the corn they need for their families, nor do they have enough wooded area on their land to provide them with firewood, so they seek land wherever they can find it. The Tzeltales, especially, expanded greatly from their original territory during the second half of the twentieth century, migrating into the Lacandón jungle in eastern Chiapas.


Many of the languages in this family tend to have long, complex words containing many prefixes and suffixes. For example, ‘the teacher’ in Tzotzil is WAV li jchanubtasvaneje; this expression consists of the following pieces: li ‘the’, j ‘human agent’, chan ‘learn’, ub ‘become’, tas ‘causative’, van ‘habitually’, ej ‘nominalizer’ and e ‘end of phrase’. So, the meaning of this word is literally ‘one who habitually causes (someone) to learn something’.


One distinctive characteristic of Mayan languages is their use of glottalized consonants. These are formed by closing off the vocal folds (vocal cords) behind a consonant like p, t, or k, and raising the larynx to build up extra pressure that results in a “pop” after the consonant as the pressure is released by the tongue or lips. (See the diagram of the principal organs of articulation.) Usually, glottalization is written with an apostrophe following the consonant. For example, there are three glottalized consonants in the Tzeltal phrase WAV c'ux c'ajc'al, which means ‘it’s hot out’, or literally, ‘the sun/day hurts’.

For more information
 
Ch'ol-Tzotzil subfamily
Ch'ol, Chortí, Tabasco Chontal, Tzeltal, Tzotzil

The languages that make up the Ch'ol-Tzotzil subfamily are mostly spoken in Chiapas, except for Chortí in eastern Guatemala and Chontal in Tabasco; see the maps above. (This Chontal should not be confused with Oaxaca Chontal, which has no relation to the Mayan languages.) Some linguists consider this subfamily to be two subfamilies: the first includes Ch'ol, Chontal and Chortí; the second includes Tzeltal and Tzotzil.


Like many of the language families of Mexico, the languages of this subfamily contain some dialectal variation, especially Ch'ol and Tzotzil. The Tzotzil people recognize five major dialects of the Tzotzil language: San Miguel Huixtán, San Pedro Chenalhó, San Juan Chamula, San Andrés Larráinzar, and Zinacantán. In each dialect, others who speak the same dialect are refered to as jchi'iltic ‘our companions’ when talking to each other and as jchi'iltac when talking to people from other dialects. Tzotziles refer to their language generally as Bats'ic'op ‘real language’.


The languages in this subfamily tend to have a normal word order that is rare in the world’s languages: verb - object - subject. (An alternate order, subject - verb - object, is also used.) It would appear that many ancient Mayan inscriptions are written in some language from this subfamily, and the modern Ch'ol dictionary is considered crucial for deciphering them.


The research work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in this subfamily has been finished.

Specific varieties of languages in the Ch'ol-Tzotzil Subfamily
Name Materials
Available
Ethnologue entries
Tila Ch'ol
(Tumbalá Ch'ol)
book ctu
(previously cti)
Tumbalá Ch'ol book ctu
Tabasco Chontal book chf
Bachajón Tzeltal
(Oxchuc Tzeltal)
book tzh
(previously tzb)
Oxchuc Tzeltal book tzh
Chamula Tzotzil
(Venustiano Carranza Tzotzil)
book tzo
(previously tzc)
Chenalhó Tzotzil
(Venustiano Carranza Tzotzil)
book tzo
(previously tze)
Huixtán Tzotzil
(Venustiano Carranza Tzotzil)
book tzo
(previously tzu)
San Andrés Larrainzar Tzotzil
(Venustiano Carranza Tzotzil)
book tzo
(previously tzs)
Venustiano Carranza Tzotzil book tzo
Zinacantán Tzotzil
(Venustiano Carranza Tzotzil)
book tzo
(previously tzz)
Publications by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and its members
Linguistics
Literacy and literature
Various fields
For more information
 
Huastecan subfamily
Chicomuceltec, Huastec Maya

There are two (or possibly three) very similar variants of Huastec (huasteco) which are spoken in the states of Veracruz and San Luis Potosi, far from the other Mayan languages. As a result, the culture of its speakers is not typically Mayan but resembles more the culture of neighboring groups. The work done by the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Huastec of San Luis Potosi has been finished, but its work continues in the Veracruz variant(s). The possibly extinct language Chicomuceltec (chicomucelteco) of Chiapas and Guatemala also belongs to this subfamily. (See the maps above.)

Specific varieties of languages in the Huastecan Subfamily
Name Materials
Available
Ethnologue entries
Chicomuceltec book cob
San Luís Potosí Huastec
(Huastec)
book hus
(previously hva)
Southeastern Huastec
(Huastec)
book hus
(previously hsf)
(Veracruz) Huastec book hus
Publications by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and its members (Huastec)
Linguistics
Literacy and literature
Various fields
For more information
 
Yucatecan subfamily
Itzá, Lacandón, Mopan Maya, Yucatec (Yucatec Maya)

Lacandón is spoken by a few small communities (less than 1000 people total) in the lowland jungles of eastern Chiapas, largely surrounded by Tzeltal speakers. Yucatec Maya is spoken in the states of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo; there are also speakers of this language in Belize. (There is also an indigenous sign language used in at least one Yucatec community.) Itzá (nearly extinct) and Mopán Maya are native to Guatemala and Belize. (See the maps above.)


The Summer Institute of Linguistics has completed its studies in Lacandón. SIL has not developed a program for Yucatec, although a small number of studies were published many years ago (the Yucatec community relies on its own linguistic resources).

Specific varieties of languages in the Yucatecan Subfamily
Name Materials
Available
Ethnologue entries
Lacandon book lac
Chan Santa Cruz Maya
(Yucatán Maya)
book yua
(previously yus)
Yucatán Maya book yua
Publications by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and its members
Anthropology

Literacy and literature

Various fields
 
Chujean-Kanjobal subfamily
Chuj, Jacaltec, Kanjobal, Motozintleco (Mocho, Tuzanteco), Tojolabal

The languages of this subfamily straddle the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. Tojolabal is spoken in Chiapas; Chuj, Jacaltec and Kanjobal are spoken mostly in Guatemala, although there are some speakers in Chiapas. Motozintleco (Chiapas) is nearly extinct. (See the maps above.)


The Summer Institute of Linguistics did research in Tojolabal many years ago and has now concluded its work there. The remainder of SIL work in these languages was carried out in Guatemala, and the results have not been included on this site.

Specific varieties of languages in the Chujean-Kanjobal Subfamily
Name Materials
Available
Ethnologue entries
Ixtatán Chuj
(San Sebastián Coatán Chuj)
book cac
(previously cnm)
Western Jacaltec
(Popti')
book jac
(previously jai)
Western Kanjobal book knj
Mocho book mhc
Tojolabal book toj
Publications by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and its members (Tojolabal)
Linguistics
Literacy and literature
Various fields
 
Quichean-Mamean subfamily
Aguacateco, Cakchiquel, Ixil, Kekchí, Mam, Pokomam, Pokomchí, Quiché and others

The languages of the Quichean-Mamean subfamily are spoken primarily in Guatemala, although there are also speakers of some of them in the Mexican state of Chiapas. (See the maps above.) The Quichean languages include Achí, Cakchiquel, Kekchí, Pokomam, Pokomchí, Quiché, Sacapulteco, Sipacapense, Tzutujil, and Uspanteco. The Mamean languages include Aguacateco, Ixil, Mam, Tacaneco, and Tectiteco (Teco).


Investigations by the Summer Institute of Linguistics into these languages have been done in Guatemala, and the results are not included on this site.